You Make the Call: Well Meaning Parents Give Problematic Jewish History Book

Phil emailed us the following request for comments:

Suppose you’re a BT with FFB children. Your parents give a pretty Jewish history book to your 12-year-old for his birthday. You manage to look through it before your child sees it and you see that some ideas go against the 13 Principles, and the general tone is, well, let’s just say that you wince on every few scans of the book.

Do you explain to your child that they can’t read it? Do you let them read it, but with your ongoing commentary? Do you ask your parents to stick to an “approved list” of books? Do you try to explain the book’s faults to your parents? Can you turn this into an educational experience for both your parents and your children? If any answer is ‘yes’, then what’s the best way to go about it?

You make the call (in the comments section)

24 comments on “You Make the Call: Well Meaning Parents Give Problematic Jewish History Book

  1. So, . . I guess I should be thanking my lucky stars that my non-frum relatives send money for me to do the actual buying?

    And here I thought they were just trying to avoid paying to ship stuff. :)

  2. As far as the book in question is concerned, the book and others of a similar orientation raise questions that you should discuss with your kids out of the sight and sound of the donor.Once the donor recognizes that your family doesn’t read such materials, they just start giving your kids Barnes & Nobles gift certificates and similarly appropriate gifts. The same approach works with respect to clothes that aren’t tzniusdik or what boys in frum communities would wear.

    I see nothing positive in thanking the donor and explaining why you can’t expose your kids to its point of view. Assuming your kids are in yeshiva ,etc, they will recognize or should be able to recognize non Torah points of view and handle them accordingly and the book will eventually either be consigned to a local library.

  3. Thank you all for your comments. To address some of these comments here:

    Michoel, your second sentence is true, but if you had been acquainted with the particular family I’m referring to, then you wouldn’t have made your assertion. Your first sentence, however, was, like Gershon Seif’s words, clearly true. It matters a lot whether the child loves history, or thinks that any more than he has to learn in school is just cruelty. The particular child I’m referring to probably fits the latter category — but he loves to look at cool pictures.

    Rachel: whether the history book was 1) really a birthday gift or just a spur-of-the-moment gift*, 2) a boring text book or actually a visually fascinating marvel*, or 3) given to the grandchild or to both the grandchild /and/ the father as a gift* — it’s unrelated to the question. (The asterisks reveal the actual facts of this case.) I’d much rather hear your insightful suggestions.

    YM: I think the grandfather who bought the book knows that his son disagrees with him on Jewish historical matters. However I truly doubt he was trying to be subversive. I’m guessing that the ‘coolness’ of the book caused him to forget that the son wouldn’t want those ideas taught to the grandchild.

    Dinosaur discussants: One distinction between the history book and a dinosaur book (a dinosaur book intended for kids, that is) is that the knowledgeable parent has a ready and satisfactory (even if prosaic) answer to the basic issues that the existence of dinosaurs raises in the mind of his Torah-believing child. But for the history book, it’s just too complicated to explain to the child the plethora of misinformation and bias. (I wrote this before seeing YM’s post.)

    Avigdor, Shayna: Concerning the child’s understanding of the ideological distinctions (or nuances) between the orthodox community and those of their beloved relatives: for some issues like tznius, lashon hara, and the value of Torah, yes. For the intricacies of the different versions of Jewish history, and the different attitudes these different versions engender, no.

    Atheist: You’re a clever guy.

    To the Green Eggs and Ham discussants: I always thought the eggs simply had all-natural green food coloring. Oh gee, look what I’ve done; I’ve contributed to a silly discussion which simply detracts from the chief issue in this posting. (Been down that road before.)

    Toby: Great advice about rolemodeling. I figured that the parent would take the safe way out by simply telling the grandparents whatever he planned to tell them, out of earshot of the grandchild. Maybe even by email.

    Inspired by the commenters here, I think the simple advice /in this particular case/ is: W.r.t. the child: Together with the child, look at the great pictures and read the captions. Make sure they thank the grandparents for the book, even if they haven’t looked at it yet. W.r.t. the grandparents: craft a tactful email. Now, if only someone can give a class on tact.

  4. We also read “Green Eggs and Lamb” for a while, then decided that the characters in the story weren’t Jewish, so there was nothing wrong with them eating ham.

  5. 1. Can the book be returned for a more appropriate book at this point?
    2. An apikorses view of Jewish history is a particularly probematic topic, more so I think than a book about Dinosaurs.
    3. Your parents, who chose this book: did they choose it out of opposition to your being frum, or out of ignorance? If it is the first, I would certainly not give the book you to my child in the same circumstaces.

  6. Toby Katz:

    Well said. You are so right. Everything we do and say is being watched by the children including how we relate to our parents and family and in-laws, etc. I have seen that in real life so many times, where adults treat their parents and in-laws respectfully, even where difficult, and then their kids grow up and treat them the same loving way.

    Here’s another twist, since we’re on the topic of children watching. What about adults who read books, either bought or from the library that have secular or non-Jewish content. Mysteries, romance novels, fiction, magazines. I’ve seen it all while on line in the library. I’ve seen it in families living rooms, bookshelves, even bathrooms. Not only are the kids watching, but the baalei teshuva are watching too. These things are harmful to us adults as well, whether we will admit it or not.

  7. A 12-year-old is old enough to learn to be tactful and to show appreciation for the love and thought behind a gift. The child should be sure to thank her grandparents for the gift regardless of whether she wanted it or not — whether it’s a blouse in a color she doesn’t like, or a book her parents don’t consider appropriate. (She should not tell her grandparents that she didn’t like the color nor should she be the one to tell them that the book is inappropriate.)

    As for what to do with the book, if she’s old enough and interested, the parents should sit down with her and read a sample chapter, explaining what’s wrong with it. This is like an innoculation, and for an intelligent child is much better than avoiding exposure altogether (considering how unlikely it is that you can avoid exposure to anti-Torah ideas forever).

    For your parents you also should thank them very much for being such loving grandparents and for giving the children such thoughtful and beautiful gifts. (You should thank them even if you suspect that their real motives were to wean your child away from Orthodoxy. You should not openly confront them or accuse them of this.)

    Then as tactfully as possible you should tell your parents that the book contained some material that was not appropriate for the child’s level of understanding of Torah and that in the future you would be grateful to your parents if they would please consult you about books they want to buy for the children, as there are zillions of beautiful and informative Jewish books that you would be only too happy for the kids to recive as gifts.

    Whenever giving bitter medicine you should give sugar too (or another analogy is a “sandwich” — bitter filling sandwiched between two sweet slices) — which means starting and ending the conversation by expressing appreciation for everything your parents do for the grandchildren and complimenting their taste in choosing such a beautiful book as a gift.

    Your children may become aware at the time, or later, that you and your parents do not always see eye-to-eye, and they are watching you (whether you realize it or not) to see how you handle it.

    One day down the road your kids will be teenagers and believe it or not, no matter how carefully you have raised them, they will not always see eye-to-eye with you, either.

    At that time they will treat you as tactfully and respectfully as you treated your parents when you disagreed with them. If you were rude, hostile and angry (“How could you give this to the kids?! Why do you undermine me all the time?! Why do you keep giving them all this garbage that I don’t want in the house?!”) then your kids are going to be rude, hostile and angry to you, too.

    You are teaching your kids emunah and the intellctual principles of Torah when you monitor what they read, but you are also teaching basic menshlichkeit every day by your behavior.

  8. >I’m not sure what’s worse, kashrut wise… green egss (!) or ham.

    This was discussed on areivim a while back… Micha Berger pointed out that the green eggs are obviously worse. Saqanta chamira mei’issura.

  9. I’m surprised that no one has brought this up, but what 12 year old would want a book for his/her birthday? Grandparents traditionally spoil their kids, and from a kid’s point of view, a book of Jewish history isn’t such an exciting present. Granted, not every 12 year old is the same, and since I’m not an FFB I can’t speak for FFB children, but when I was 12 I wouldn’t have wanted a book for my birthday.

    Maybe I was just a materialistic little girl.

  10. Ilanit – I think you will find that some schools and some parents approach the topic in the manner in which it was addressed in your school growing up. Others will teach a literal interpretation that the world is not one day older than 5760 years and hence dinosaurs can’t have existed. Different strokes for different folks.

    And greetings from St. Louis ;). Drop us a line some time.

  11. In the risk of sounding ignorant, I think I am missing something. In my Orthodox day school, I learned about dinosaurs (I think in third grade). I also learned (at the same school) that the story of creation in Bereshit does not mean that dinosaurs did not exist, since Hashem has a different sense of time (if Hashem has a sense of time) than we humans do, so one day in creation in human time may not necessary mean the same thing in Hashem-time. Please let me know what I am missing, as this is all new to me.

  12. I recently read a book about teaching teenagers about financial issues, which are really larger issues about life. The book is a follow-up to a book for young children.

    One of the things the book stresses is that parents should set expectations with grandparents about what gifts are always appropriate and which gifts should be approved in advance or even never mentioned (if even accepted) to children (like a trust fund).

    While the issue of gifting can certainly have unusual ramifications between observant parents and less observant grandparents, the issue is really an issue for everyone, Jewish or non-Jewish, frum or not.

    When it comes to books, I have complete trust in my parents to either choose appropriate books or to ask before giving. My parents hardly let me read anything popular growing up! I had to sneak some of the more popular series of books from my friends house. Reading material in our home was already limited.

  13. I’m not sure what’s worse, kashrut wise…

    green egss (!) or



    (I’m partial to the Lorax, myself…no, not to eat!)

  14. My parents are aware that books must be “kosher” but my kids are younger than 12, so it’s easy to stick with good old Dr. Seuss.

  15. I don’t think my relatives were so clueless that I can absolve them of deliberately tweaking us when they gave my pre-schooler a dinosaur picture book for Chanukah. We politely thanked them and tucked it away. Later, I told my child that it wasn’t a book for a frum child and donated it to the local library. I think more than other kids, BT offspring are attuned to the nuances between secular Jewish and frum.

  16. Perhaps the most well received shiur I’ve given begins with a summary of the “Three Little Pigs” and leads in to a discussion of Sukkah based on Rav Hirsch’s interpretation of the war of Gog and Magog as an ideological battle between those who believe in the security of their own efforts (kochi v’otzum yodi) and those who recognize that our efforts only succeed with help from Heaven.

    As a former English major, I want my children to appreciate literature and know how to read between the lines. The challenge is knowing how much they are ready to handle, since even the most benign children’s books may have subtle messages contrary to Torah hashkofah. As Gershon said above, there is no single correct answer for these kinds of questions. Every situation is different and requires its own tailored response.

  17. This is a good question indeed. It is also a very individual one. Alot depends on the child involved, the age, the parents outlook and the grandparents flexibility and willingness to “play by your rules”.

    With very young children, when I read them books say from the library or the Berenstein Bears, I simply skip over or change words or meanings I don’t like. As children get older, it gets more complicated. I used to read every book first. When the books get too long that gets impractical. You have to be careful with impressionable minds. There’s a delicate balance to be walked.

    My father has always asked me, as he is an avid reader for educational purposes and always like to send special books, coffee table sized specialty history or art, as gifts. Nevertheless, simply due to a lack of understanding, sometimes things arrive which either are in part of wholly inappropriate, either due to story content or pictures. I would doctor those myself, cutting out pictures, pages or sections.

    We recently found a Guinness Book of Records large gift size and knew my 16 year old son would be fascinated with some of the things (believable or not) in there. However, there were a few pages with inappropriate pictures. So we told him about it and that it should be taken out. He agreed and asked me to do the dirty work, which I gladly did with pride.

    Sometimes children will come across things either at someone else’s house or a library or even some schools (we have been very lucky in that regard), and so things are bound to be confronted. In that case, an open and explanatory discussion is best I feel, not to hide things once they have been exposed. Better to confront it and sincerely explain to your children how and why you feel a certain way, and that we are all trying to always think about what H” would want from us in any given situation.

    My son wanted an “ipod”. Obviously this was only an option for Jewish music only. When I went to purchase it there were choices. Music only, photos, videos, etc.. Since I don’t know a thing about ipods or fancy technology in general, the storekeeper was kind enough to tell me that some Rebbeim hold the “video” features is assur. I checked it out and found that yes, some do hold that and my husband and I agreed that for our family personally, we feel that the risk outweighs the benefit, as you never know with kids whose hands their “toys” will fall into, with friends and all. Since my son was aware of the ipod with the video feature, we explained to him how we felt and why we did not wish to purchase that one and that some Rebbeim felt it was assur. He accepted it with grace as he always does, Baruch H” and we’ve all grown from the experience.

  18. I was all set to criticize the very idea of witholding the book from your children, but then I mentally switched the roles. If I had children and my (Orthodox) parents gave them, say an Aish HaTorah book for kids, I’m not sure what I would do, either. Do I let them read it if they also read a book on basic biology and cosmology? Do I let them read about the Bible Codes only if they promise to sit through a lecture on statistics?

    Obviously, we can’t just let our young children read anything. You wouldn’t want to let your kids read a blatantly racist book even if you explained to them that it was dead wrong. So where do we draw the line?

    It’s a good question.

  19. There is no one answer here. It depends on your relationship with your parents, what the problematic book was, how mature your kids are. The right answer for one can be the start of world war 3 in another family. One book can be a problem but ignored at first and then casually explained away to the kids later. Another book can be such a problem that a long and diplomatic conversation needs to be had with the parents.

  20. What about the children’s book “The Keeping Quilt” wherein Jewish continuity is reduced to an heirloom quilt as the family becomes more and more assimillated “dor l’dor.” Finally, the author uses it as a Chuppa for her intermarriage. Books that quietly dissapear preserve shalom. As for older children, I hope they already have some grasp of ideological distinctions between the orthodox community and those of their beloved relatives. Explain it to the kid.

  21. The way to address this issue is very much dependent on the nature of that specific child. As far as dealingwith the parents, if you have a 12 year old, you already waited way too long to explain to them that they cannot just give theri grand-children whatever reading material they want to.

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