Interview with Jodi Eichler-Levine, Author of Suffer the Little Children
Samira K. Mehta
Tomorrow, NYU Press will re-release Jodi Eichler-Levine's Suffer the Little Children, a fabulous 2013 book that will nowbe available in paperback!
SKM: As I read Suffer the Little Children, I was really struck by your use of language, in two senses. First, your word choice was elegant and even playful. I love how you referred to chosenness as as a “‘wild thing’ in its own right.” Given that you were writing about literature, did you feel a particular imperative to polish your own prose?
JEL: Yes. Writing about literature did make me want to bring forth my best prose, which emerged dialogically with the authors I was studying. There’s a quote from Mikhail Bakhtin about how we always come upon language as “already inhabited”-- I actually use it in my acknowledgements. It has stuck with me because I feel it deeply when I write. So, Sendak’s Wild Things and abundant language; Julius Lester’s poetic magical realism; Virginia Hamilton’s idiomatic use of African American folklore… all of these were planted in my head and sprouted out into the book. Finally, while playfulness is not unique to children’s literature, I think engaging with that genre brought a bit more jouissance to my work.
SKM: Also, on the subject of wording, you have a note about the challenges of using language of race and ethnicity throughout your text, particularly given internally diverse and historically shifting naming practices. Could you say a bit about the challenges of choosing terms as you talk about both African American and Jewish American experience?
JEL: It’s probably evident in that note that I am deeply ambivalent about this challenge. It’s one that I am still figuring out. One of my solutions is to try to borrow tricks from German: throw as many words together as you can at once, but with spaces in between them to be grammatically correct; hence: “Jewish and African Americans.” I tried to give those two adjectives the freedom to modify “Americans” on their own or together. I also use also “ethno-religious” at some points because those concepts are so very entangled. I’m deeply aware of the power of naming and not so comfortable with that power. I also am an “insider” to Jewish Americans, but not anyone in the African diaspora … but worry that the term “Jewish American,” too, gets coded as “Ashkenazi”.
SKM: You talk, in your introduction, I believe, about how you selected the books that you included. Can you say more about that process here?
JEL: Some selections were organic: I grabbed popular books those that spoke to these themes. Some were systematic: reviewing lists of award winners (in particularly, the Sydney Taylor and Coretta Scott King book awards), as well as top-selling lists. I avoided many explicitly denominational books because I was concerned with finding religious themes and biblical afterlives in supposedly "secular" spaces. Finally, at times-- to be a bit mystical about it-- I felt seized by a given work or author: you can’t get it out of your head, and it lingers until you pay attention to it. That’s how Sendak entered the book.
SKM: If “Jewish American” gets coded as Ashkenazi, did you look for non-Ashkenazi texts as well? If so, how successful were you?
JEL: Finding non-Ashkenazi texts was difficult when this project first germinated in 2005. There were one or two middle reader stories about Ethiopian Jews-- but not in an American context. One non-Ashkenazi text that I love is Sandy Eisenberg Sasso's Abuelita's Secret Matzahs, which is about the American descendents of conversos, but I couldn't quite figure out where it would fit in the conversation. Now the field is opening up a bit, with texts like as Donna Jo Napoli's The King of Mulberry St., which describes the experiences of an Italian Jewish immigrant to the Lower East Side; so, it presents a stereotypical journey from the standpoint of a different Jewish community. Ashkenazi stories still dominate representations of Jews for young people.
SKM: Part of what you are doing in this book is teasing out how these ethnic, American outsiders are taught to be or made into American citizens. What does it mean to be American? Is that meaning stable throughout the literature you treat? Is it the same for African American and Jewish American people?
JEL: Being American is anything but stable: American identity is a moving target, and the terms of inclusion shift across time and space. It is different for every person within their myriad communities, but the trend I noticed is how sacrifice and suffering are central to how Jewish and African Americans find acceptance in American narratives of belonging.
Look at Anne Frank, who often signifies child Holocaust victims and even Jews more generally: she is so well known that we don't just have millions of children reading her diary in school: we also have film and stage adaptations, Latter-day Saint children's books that reference her, vivid addresses to her in the documentary Paper Clips, and a scene in the Anne Frank house in the blockbuster book and film The Fault in Our Stars. Over the decades that she became canonical in Americans' encounter with Jews, American Jews have (generally) achieved greater levels of tolerance.
This is similar in African American contexts: there are parallels here with both Emmett Till (another child victim) and certainly Martin Luther King, Jr. For both groups, being American is about suffering, achieving acceptance through bloodshed in the same kind of sacrificial move that Edward Linenthal (and other scholars) see in Americans' attitudes towards battlefields.
I've taught in Wisconsin for eight years, with almost no Jews in my classrooms. Whenever I ask my students if they have read The Diary of Anne Frank, or if they have heard of her, tons of hands go up. Other Jews or Jewish books? Not so much. Suffering, sacrifice, and also domestic ritual are all major tropes in the books I've studied, and I think she's a strong emblem for the resonance of those motifs.
SKM: Because of my own work on interracial, interfaith families, I was particularly interested in the case of Julius Lester. Is he always both African American and Jewish or does one identity sometimes (or always) trump the other?
JEL: I see Lester as a figure who really embodies intersectionality: being everything at once, with slightly different enunciations in each context. When he writes about bondage and liberation, he is bringing together both African tropes and Jewish inflections, producing a beautiful, hybrid text in The Old African. As an African American Jew who served as a lay leader in his synagogue for many years, he brought together different modes of music in his lived experience, singing in deep tones that meld African American spirituals and sonorous Jewish chants. As an author, his texts employ both hallmarks of African folktales (the Old African transforms himself into a bird) and Hebrew Bible references to exodus and slavery. In Guardian, his young adult book on lynching, we see the horror endured by one particular African American family. Yet the father of the family, who is the lynching victim, is also a shell-shocked World War II veteran who could not get the images of piles of dead, skeletal bodies out of his mind after liberating the camps. So those terrors are joined. This is not unique to Lester's position-- W.E.B. DuBois spoke before the Warsaw Ghetto in the war's aftermath, which Michael Rothberg discusses eloquently in Multidirectional Memory. But it is especially haunting and resonant in Lester's case.
SKM: You use Moses and Miriam as models for these children’s books presenting a quest for the promised land, but neither Moses nor Miriam either actually reaches the promised land. In the books, is there an American promised land available for American Jews? For African Americans?
JEL: Yes, there is a promised land, for some, but it has conditions attached. That condition might be recognizable suffering, or patriotic forms of assimilation, but something is always left behind in order to enter. There is a generational similarity to the exodus stories: children are a telos, the future group who might get in. Many children's books explicitly reference Moses as a figure of crossing. Sometimes the Moses figure goes against the grain of the biblical text and DOES make it to the Promised Land: that’s the case in Carole Boston Weatherford's book on Harriet Tubman. Sometimes he follows the story precisely: I’ve Seen the Promised Land is Walter Dean Myers and Leonard Jenkins’ vividly illustrated account of Martin Luther King's journey and death, with references to his famous last speech, in which those words are uttered.
Right now, with how I'm emotionally reeling soon after the Department of Justice report on Ferguson, I feel-- personally-- that Ashkenazi Jews, those whose parents got here in the great immigration wave, have more easily accessed a kind of promised land here. The books promise it for BOTH groups. But it is much harder, at this moment, for me to see it in the African American case. Their crossing was forced. The Jews' crossing, while not always voluntary--I mean, we can talk about pogroms and the czar here, it was not a fully free “choice”-- was simply not in chains.
SKM: Can you say a bit here about your decision to contrast the Holocaust with lynching rather than with slavery/the middle passage?
JEL: That was a tough call. In part, it was temporal: though lynching obviously has a very long (and earlier) history in the United States, the case I want to look at--Emmett Till--- coincided with American Jews’ early attempts to grapple with the Holocaust. It’s also a comparison that has been discussed less frequently than the Holocaust/Middle Passage pairing, which meant several things: open space for new readings, and less baggage in terms of the already fraught discourse around comparing those two traumas-- or even questioning the possibility of comparison. Following the work of Michael Rothberg and Laura Levitt, I want to move beyond a competitive suffering paradigm, and the Middle Passage/Holocaust is so very weighed down by competitive and uniqueness models that it might have taken an entire monograph to write my way out beyond that discursive history.
SKM: On what might be a lighter note, let’s talk about Maurice Sendak and those monstrous Jewish relatives.
JEL: I can't stop talking about Maurice Sendak's Jewish relatives. In doing so, I can't escape either his dark death-drive or his joy in art, music, and food. He explains the genesis of the “Wild Things as Jewish relatives” in several different contexts and interviews. In one version, he places the encounter with those relatives in the context of sitting shiva, a Jewish mourning ritual. "Someone had died," he says, not remembering who, and explained what a shiva gathering entails. There, in the context of mourning, he and his brother and sister laugh at the uncomely relatives who swarm around them, speaking in heavily accented English and declaring they could eat them up. "Kids are cruel," Sendak remembers. He recognizes the irony of the situation and owns up to the internalized pain of his monster-making.
SKM: What was it like finishing? What do you wish you could have said or included that you did not get to? As someone currently working on my very first book, I am starting to realize that the book may never feel done, even though at some point it will go to press and become a set text. Do you find yourself wishing that you could go back and change things? Were you able to do so for the paperback edition?
JEL: No, books are never done and their making has no end, which is why so many authors quote that sentiment from Ecclesiastes in their preface. In particular, because I write on contemporary topics, newly published books and new moments in American life and discourse constantly cause me to rethink my work and to make it feel unfinished. Right now, I am wondering how we might portray the past few years of high profile killings of African Americans, particularly the younger ones like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, in books for young people--or if there will ever be such books.
There is also some stunning work by Jacqueline Woodson that I did not include, and her most recent book, Brown Girl Dreaming, would have been incredibly exciting to analyze. I was not able to make major changes for the paperback edition of the book.
The most striking thing about “finishing” it was the juxtaposition with the Maurice Sendak’s death. I hit “send” on my final manuscript in March of 2012; the book then entered copy-editing and the rest of the production process. Sendak died on May 8, 2012. I was really shaken by that, even though his age and frail health in some final appearances did not make it a shocking moment. Even more uncannily, I had just taught Where the Wild Things Are--both the book and film-- in class the week before. I came in, broke the news to my students, and almost cried. The moments of loss in both book and film had been reduplicated in the literal death of the author.
I received the copy-edited version of the book not long after that. I was able to at least place the passages about Sendak in the past tense and acknowledge his passing, but I was not able make sense of it, or to think of his work as a now relatively closed canon. The outpouring of public mourning over his death also raised many potent, unanswered questions for me and has planted a need to write about Sendak, Jewishness, and the bounds of what is and is not “religion” even more firmly in my head. I have more projects on his work in progress. Those thoughts are sailing off into the sky like Mickey of In the Night Kitchen in his bread dough airplane, and I’m trying to capture them and mold them into a voluminous, fluffy load: the sort of Sendak might have liked.
SKM: I look forward to reading what you write, both about Sendak and Jewishness and, if I may, about Brown Girl Dreaming. Thank you, Professor Eichler-Levine for taking the time to talk with me about your work.
Jodi Eichler-Levine is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Beginning next fall, she will be the Philip and Muriel Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization at Lehigh University. In addition to Suffer the Little Children, her work has appeared in American Quarterly, Shofar, and other scholarly journals; she is also a contributor to Religion Dispatches, Tikkun, the Christian Century's "Then and Now" blog, and this fine blog itself.