Bringing Diversity to Jewish Children’s Lit
A local first-time author's book tells a Persian Jewish Passover story.
»Check out my latest episode on Callin, What is Sephardic Judaism? With Rabbi Daniel Bouskila.
»A few readers pointed out an error in last week’s newsletter. Regarding endorsements of BDS among academic associations, I said that the Middle East Studies Association joins the MLA and the American Anthropological Association. I got this from another article, whose author noted in an email to me that while those organizations did vote down their BDS resolutions, they condemned Israel at other times. The AAA released an action plan after the no vote. That article has since been clarified so as not to be misleading. I wanted to share this letter I received:
Fewer Academic Boycotts of Israel than Previously Reported
In response to the news item in last week’s Cholent about the decision of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) to boycott Israeli academic institutions, I would like to point out that in fact both the American Anthropological Association and the Modern Languages Association rejected boycott resolutions in recent years.
The Alliance for Academic Freedom, which functions under the Ameinu organizational umbrella, consists of over 200 progressive and liberal scholars who are dedicated to combating academic boycotts and blacklists, defending freedom of expression and promoting empathy and civility in the debate around Israel and Palestine. Following the MESA vote they issued this statement that says, in part “MESA’s abandonment of a principled position in favor of a politicized approach does not bode well for the organization, which in recent years has lost both institutional members and credibility in the eyes of many scholars. A professional society must be a home for scholars of all political persuasions.” In fact since 2011, the number of Institutional MESA members has dropped from 70 to 45. Brandeis University has announced that they are leaving as a result of this recent decision and it is expected others will follow suit.
Readers interested in this topic can download a free copy of the THE CASE AGAINST ACADEMIC BOYCOTTS OF ISRAEL, a book edited by Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm.
»The Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, the Stroum Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family Service, the Holocaust Center for Humanity, Hillel UW, and Kline Galland, are leading an effort to raise money for the Jews of Ukraine and the Ukrainians resettling in our region. A group of donors has already raised $1,100,000 and is matching donations dollar for dollar. Join the Seattle Jewish Community Ukraine Challenge by donating today!
»We are not going to talk about the Oscars.
“I think at some point you have to step up and you have to give it a shot.”
Seattle resident Etan Basseri wanted to supplement his children’s Jewish heritage and knowledge. So he wrote his own children’s book.
Let's talk about your new career as a children's book author. Why did you decide to write A Persian Passover?
Our family is big into books, and we love sharing Jewish history and culture through literature. We get the PJ Library books, and we've read Chelm stories and all sorts of books that supplement our kids’ day school education and synagogue. But a big part of our lives is that we belong to the Sephardic community. And we have Persian heritage as well. My dad's from Iran. You want to hit all the areas of your identity. And our Persian heritage is mostly expressed through food. We eat Persian food, especially on the holidays, when there's time to cook, but we don't really have a lot of other foundational things that are Persian, right? We don't speak Farsi at home, and I'm into Persian music, but most people in my family are not, and we didn't have any books to kind of supplement or build a foundation for Persian Jewish identity. I like to write, and I consider myself a creative guy. And so I thought, Hey, you know, this would be this be a fun project, and who knows what'll happen?
How easy was it to find a publisher for a Persian Jewish children’s story?
The norm in the United States in Jewish life is Ashkenazi. The only way that you get represented as somebody who identifies as [other] than Ashkenazi is to do the work. I can't expect Karben and Behrman House and all these other big publishing houses to do this for me. I think at some point you have to step up and you have to give it a shot. And I got really lucky with [my wife] Sonya having found Kalaniot Books, which is a relatively new publishing house that was specifically looking for sort of underrepresented or diverse stories in Jewish life. Since we've started working together, I've seen more and more books come out. I think we're seeing a nice change with Jewish literature sort of becoming more diverse.
That shift toward diversity seems pretty new, do you think?
I think there's a couple factors at play. If you sort of zoom out and look at the history of American Jewish life, the publishing houses have existed for a long time. Behrman House is a very old publishing house. There is a rich tradition of literature coming from Western Europe. And to some degree, parts of Eastern Europe. The Ashkenazi Jews from many of those countries are prolific, and they brought those traditions with them to the US. When they landed in the US, maybe a couple generations later, they started writing about it. But if you look at the Persian community, the Persian community has been in the states largely for about 40 years; 1979 was the big migration.
There are people from our generation, people who are in their 30s and 40s, who are really curious and saying, oh, this is kind of interesting. I think that there has been a change, but I also think it's got to be grassroots. In terms of working with publishers, PJ Library was interested in this from the beginning, but they recommended that I try to get in with a publisher and then come back to them. We resubmitted it last year, and it was declined, but I think it was declined for one or two reasons. One, it wasn't going ship until March, and that's a little bit close to April. But then sure enough, a month later we got The Persian Princess book in the mail. So I think maybe they didn't want two Persian books back to back. I think that some of them want to just go with something they know.
Maybe they're operating in a mode of sales, too, like, is this worth our effort? Is it a risk?
I think it's the whole startup versus entrenched incumbent sort of thing that you see in every industry, where a startup is hungry, willing to take risks, energetic, and ready to challenge status quo and do something that's compelling. That's going to surprise delight and intrigue people. With an entrenched company that's been around for a while who has their distribution channels, they have a business model set up, and they're more risk averse. Maybe they don't want to work with a subject matter that they're not familiar with.
One of the things that my editor brought up was this concept of “own voices.” There's this important thing in diversity of having the stories come from people who know the stories, who have a context, who know the language. You'll see in my book, there's a bunch of like Persian and Hebrew words woven into the story. And that's all very intentional to give it more authenticity. When you wish somebody a happy Passover, instead of saying “chag sameach,” you actually would say, “moadim shalom.”
I didn’t know about that phrase.
In Sephardic culture, we say “moadim l’simcha,” right? But moadim shalom is what's said in the Persian community. And those little details make a lot of difference. If you look at some of the books, and I won't tell you which ones, that have come out from the big publishers that assert to be diverse and assert to take place in far-flung areas of North Africa and the Middle East, they will be devoid of those nuances. One of the reasons is because you don't have an illustrator who knows the space, you don't have an author who knows the space. Our illustrator was born and raised in Iran. I gave her a few pictures about Passover, but she basically just took the ball and ran with it. She was like, “yeah, I know what mid-century Iran looked like. I grew up there.” She knows what Iran looks like, and she added all these little details that I wouldn't even have thought about it. So that's where I think the collaboration with people who know the subject matter can result in a more authentic, more compelling, more intriguing story.
The pictures are really delightful. I wanted to ask about your main characters, who have names suspiciously similar to your own children. I'm curious how you came up with the story and how you chose to create these two little characters.
Well, you know, they always say write what you know. I figured if I was going to have to come up with characters, it would be easier to base them on my own kids.
But the other inspiration for the story actually came about from a film that was made in the 1990s, a Persian film called The White Balloon. It's a story about a brother and sister around the same age in Terhan who have to go out and get some errands on the eve of the Persian new year, Nowruz. There are all these symbols similar to what we have for Passover. There’s basically a series of symbols, and they all correspond to hopes and dreams. One of them is a goldfish.
The deal is, I gotta go get a goldfish, and of course, you know, misadventure ensues. There's a montage of different Iranian archetypes. So I thought, well, that's kind of interesting. But what’s the plot? There has to be a story. And actually, one of the funny things that a lot of people told me is, “I like how your book has a story.” I was like, oh yeah, a beginning, middle, and end. Obviously it's a different holiday and there was a different set of challenges [than The White Balloon], but it’s the idea of this brother and sister teaming up to save the day to save basically rescue the holiday.
I get frustrated with children's books. There are some children's books I read, and I'm like, what am I supposed to take away from this?
I know exactly what you mean. I tried to emulate was William Steig, who wrote Doctor De Soto and The Magic Phone and Amos and Boris. Each one of those books has a plot. They kind of read like a fable.
One of the books that my littler kids love is this PJ library Sesame Street Passover book, because they love Sesame Street. Basically, Elmo loses the matza and finds it with Oscar the Grouch. Oscar's eating it in his trash can. It's kind of a similar plot: OK Oscar, you can eat the matza, but you have to come to our table. But there's something off about it. First of all, we're trying to fit a story about hospitality and customs and unique foods that no one knows about — we're trying to stick that into Sesame Street. But then they drag this trash can into the house, which is really gross. And then they tell Oscar, you're going to really like this food, because you like gross things, you know? In the end, he's like, “Passover is a grouch’s kind of holiday!”
That’s awful. I get it. And the other thing is that if you get too basic, if you just get down to the symbols, then you're only getting the superficial stuff. As a parent, we basically have a household that we're trying to run, and it doesn't leave a lot of time for reflecting on some of the other, bigger reasons why we're doing this. And the book really explores this idea of hospitality and responsibility. The book's not really about Passover, it's about all the work that it takes to get to Passover. Sort of nestled in there is the bigger thing, which is Mrs. Pirnozar, who doesn't have a place. Mrs. Pirnozar is celebrating the holiday alone. And we don't want that. We want everybody in our community to have a place to go for the holiday.
I think with a good children's book, you're trying to show somebody that life isn't perfect, and there are challenges, and you find a way to get through them. Maybe you dropped the matza and you screwed up, but you get back up and you keep going. I want people to think of hospitality when they think of Passover. Well, I want my kids to do the chores. Passover’s a team effort, right?
Totally. And now that you’re a published author, you have to write your next book. What's it going to be?
I'm working on one that actually is set in Turkey. I don't want to give away too much, but I'm looking at another holiday. We’ll explore and have an adventure around that.
This week’s parasha is Tazria.
Candlelighting in Seattle is at 7:21 p.m.
Mazel tov to my son Jacob Goren who this week announced his engagement to Arielle Berne, originally from Portland. Mazel tov also to Arielle’s parents Keith and Rosie Berne of Portland. —Barry Goren