Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

28 Tishrei 5765 - October 13, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Home and Family

A Good Read
by R. Chadshai

My generation and even the generation after me -- my adult children -- read books written by non-Jews with impunity. Not every book, to be sure, but we devoured so called `clean' books and most of the classics because there was nothing else. Parents allowed their children to borrow library books, either vetting them first or relying on the fact that these were classic children's books. Yet recently, I picked up an innocuous book and realized that neither I, nor my children, would ever let the next generation read it.

Why not? What was good enough for us should be good enough for my grandchildren. The moral climate amongst goyim, and unfortunately among Jews who do not keep mitzvos, is so different from ours that one cannot hardly ride their buses or buy a decent pair of shoes in most of their shops, let alone clothes or books. The extreme polarization among us is too vast nowadays. Who would dream of sending their children to non-Jewish schools today?!

Whatever harm these books did to us and our children is not under discussion just now. Demonstrably, with heavenly assistance, we brought up good children who are now educating their children in the Torah way. There are hundreds of Jewish books written either in Hebrew and translated into every language where Jewish children need them, or they are written in English and translated into Hebrew. The question is: Are they `Jewish' books with real content, or are they plain novels and adventure books with some Hebrew names and expressions scattered about? Who wrote these `Jewish' books?

Books play a vital role in the education of our children. Both parents and teachers know that books, or for that matter, the printed word, indoctrinate children, and even adults, more subtly than any spoken word. How often do `Yinglish' speakers quote "It was in the paper," which, by inference, says, in effect, that if it was printed, it must be true! Children do not feel threatened by the ideas being instilled in them in such a pleasant manner, nor does a child feel he is being pushed into learning. Reading enriches the vocabulary and widens the child's horizons; moreover, a book is a wonderful babysitter. When children are engrossed in their books, there is no mention of being bored, there are no fights and the house is peaceful and quiet.

Many a parent leaves a particular book lying around, knowing that the child will read it. This is in order to convey a message to the child in a more palatable way than if the parent would have a heart-to-heart talk with him. Incidentally, this works with a spouse too: if one wants to influence the other and finds a particular subject difficult to discuss, s/he can just leave a certain article lying around and the message will be absorbed.

Parents are so vigilant about the hechsher of edibles they take into the house and about the school their children and the school their children attend, yet they are frequently negligent when it comes to reading material. Banishing all books from the house besides biographies of great men is not a good idea. If parents check each book which enters the house before their child reads it, and then disapprove of the author and content, they will have to explain to what they object and why. If the children disagree or do not understand the reasoning, they have a master, not an ally, in the yetzer hora.

Forty years ago in London, people from certain sections of the community forbade their children to borrow or read books from the public library. It did not enter the young bookworms' minds that they were deceiving their parents when they went to the neighbors for the greater part of every afternoon. It was alright, they thought, as long as they never went to the library. A very wise man with headstrong teenage children was asked by one of them one day, when he himself was a father, why he had not forbidden the slightly questionable books which found their way into the house. His answer: "I didn't want you reading under the bedclothes or at a neighbors, and I know that if I firmly forbade you from reading one or two particular books, you would obey me immediately. You would not have been so obedient if I had forbidden ALL those books."

If a book is recommended by children who have read it, that is not really a yardstick as to its suitability. It may be a very gripping book, but what is its message? Many parents feel that so long as the book is not going to put any wrong ideas into the child's head, they don't mind him reading it even if it is an `empty' book. After all, it keeps them quiet and does improve their vocabulary and reading skills. It makes very little difference to the story whether the pilot has tzitzis dangling out from under his uniform or whether the heroes wear kipas at all times.

This does not make it a book especially suitable for our children. All the adventure stories rife with spies, gangsters and detectives depict the `goodies' with kipas and the `baddies' without. These books are not really educational and are no better than any non-Jewish fiction story.

In my experience, boys who become addicted to adventure stories tend to be less addicted to their gemora. A really gripping book does exactly that; it grips the mind. A boy identifies with the hero and imagines that he, too, could identify a spy/terrorist or a villain with some clever detective work, just like the boys in the story. Some tales are about boys or girls who behave very badly or get into terrible mischief and in the end, they see the error of their ways and everything ends happily. Readers might select the misdeeds thinking that they, too, could have fun like that, without absorbing the happy ending or the moral lesson.

Completely negative books are not really good books, even if they do have a happy ending. Books which contain words like `church' or `priest' do not have to be taboo. Unfortunately, those two words and other like them have played a disastrous role in the history of our people. But stories written by a bad person, even if he is an excellent raconteur, should be shunned like the plague. Many poskim say the same about wonderful music composed by degenerate people.

In spite of the above reservations, it is worth reiterating the great advantages of books. There are some excellent authors who have produced superb books which enrich our children's lives, improve their spelling and writing skills and are a boon to people starved for reading material. However, whether you do not mind your children reading empty stories with no purpose outside of entertainment, or whether you insist on each book having a real impact on their mental and spiritual well being, as part of their moral education -- check the books which your children read!


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