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Making History Fun: Two New Children's Books

April 9, 2010

Review of Jewish Comedy Stars by Norman H. Finkelstein (Minneapolis: Kar-Ben Publishing, 2010) and Feivel's Flying Horses by Heidi Smith Hyde illustrated by Johanna van der Sterre. (Minneapolis: Kar-Ben Publishing, 2010)

There are two new children's titles from perennial InterfaithFamily.com favorite, Kar-ben Publishing. Keeping with their mission of growing a Jewish child's library, these books are typically expansive enough to incorporate the interests of all types of children from all types of families.

Adam Sandler on coverJewish Comedy Stars: Classic to Cutting Edge includes over forty-five individual entries on comedians ranging from The Marx Brothers to Joan Rivers to Adam Sandler. Written by Norman H. Finkelstein for readers ages 11 and up, Jewish Comedy Stars serves as a kind of history of the Jewish people and Jewish culture in the United States. For tweens and teens who never met their ancestors raised on Vaudeville, this is an effective introduction to a one-of-a-kind generation, to a Yiddish tradition all but lost. For these same kids, raised with a multitude of distractions, imagining the Vaudeville stage as the only outlet for entertainment might be next to impossible; imagining four out of five TVs glued to the same show on a Tuesday night (as they were to Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater in the late 40's) might prove even more so.

But Finkelstein writes well and vividly about these times and about the Borscht Belt era that came after, deftly describing the transition from European immigrants to second generation, English-speaking American Jews. Fanny Brice, we learn, grew up in a middle class home, without an accent. She had to practice the Yiddish inflection that became her trademark.

There is an abundance of interesting information in the well-researched Jewish Comedy Stars. It might surprise young readers to learn that the Yiddish acts referred to themselves as "Dutch" acts to escape anti-Semitism, or to discover for themselves how many Jewish comedians changed their names to something more American-sounding. (In more recent years, it seems, only Jon Stewart felt the need to take on a stage name; apparently Liebowitz is too difficult to pronounce).

It would have been welcome if some more current comedians had been included; stars like Andy Samberg and Seth Rogen are going to seem a lot more hip than Larry David or even Sarah Silverman to this current generation. In a book new enough to mention the results of Al Franken's senate race, a bigger effort could have been made to embrace the kind of humor that kids are likely most excited about.

Another misstep worth noting is the referencing of outdated, arguably sexist humor (The "Take My Wife, Please!" style of Henny Youngman, for example) as well as a mention of blackface without explaining or putting into historical perspective. Young readers won't understand, or certainly won't understand in a larger context, what it all means, or why, though once thought unquestionably funny, it is no longer acceptable.

What I found especially troubling in Jewish Comedy Stars is that, of all the entries, only eight here are for women comedians. An entry on Jack Benny discusses his wife and comedy partner, whose stage name was Mary Livingstone, but who was born Sadie Marks, a cousin of the Marx Brothers. (Finkelstein gives her name as Livingston but all other sources seem to have Livingstone.) Inexplicably, Marx doesn't warrant a separate entry. Madeline Kahn, Elaine May and Sandra Bernhard, among many successful others, warrant no mention at all, while less influential and/or popular men such as Ed Wynn and Jon Lovitz manage to make the cut. The message this sends to girls might be unintentional, but it not likely going without their notice.

For children in interfaith families, however, Finkelstein has included many fine examples of families like theirs, from Ben Stiller, the son of interfaith parents and himself in an interfaith marriage, to George Burns and Mel Brooks, who were famously wed to Catholics Gracie Allen and Anne Bancroft, respectively, to Sasha Baron Cohen, whose wife converted to Judaism. It would have been worthwhile to read how such partnerships influenced and strengthened the comedians both personally and creatively, but interested young readers could easily find more information on their own if they are so inspired (this is the Google generation, after all). A lot of kids will be excited by Jewish Comedy Stars, and will learn much about the history of the Jews in America, one funny person at a time.Feivel's Flying Horses

For the younger set, a new picture book, Feivel's Flying Horses, aims to bring to life the world of Jewish immigrant New York in the late nineteenth century. Written by Heidi Smith Hyde for ages 5-9 (although my 4-year-old loved it), Feivel's Flying Horses tells the story of a father who must leave his beloved wife Goldie and their four children behind in the "Old Country," with the hope of making enough money to eventually send for them all.

An experienced wood carver, Feivel eventually finds work as a carver of carousel horses at Brooklyn's famous Coney Island amusement park, using his cherished family as inspiration for each beautiful piece. With the money he makes, he is finally able to bring his family to America, and they are joyfully reunited on the book's last page. It's a simple story, but well told by Hyde, who manages to incorporate the history of New York's Jews in rich detail, while still moving the story forward and capturing the imagination of small audiences: "In New York, he found work as a furniture maker on the Lower East Side. Instead of carving lions and eagles, Feivel spent his days making tables, chairs, and dressers. In his spare time, he carved combs for fashionable ladies. It was hard work, but Feivel didn't mind. With each finished piece, he knew he was one step closer to sending for his family."

I love this book. My great-grandfather was a wood carver of carousel horses back in the Old Country (in his case, Latvia) before coming to New York. My mother and grandmother grew up riding the same Brooklyn carousels that my daughters do now. This book felt very personal to me, and it held my 4-year-old's interest and fed her imagination.

Most children will be taken in by this tale of love, family and amusement parks, and Johanna van der Sterre's charming, folksy illustrations easily bring both the Old Country and the New Country to life. It's a very warm hearted, big hearted book. While Feivel's Flying Horses holds no special appeal for interfaith families (except mine!) it does beautifully capture the immigrant experience, one that is likely mirrored not just by Jews from the Old Country, but by all who leave their old lives behind for a new beginning in the United States.

A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino.
Lynn Melnick

Lynn Melnick has reviewed books for Publishers Weekly and Boston Review, and has published poetry in Boston Review, Paris Review, Crowd, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and daughters.

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