A Purim Message for the PJ Library

March 5, 2014

By Victoria L. Steinberg

E Jewish Philanthropy Logo

As a Jewish mother, I read with interest a recent blog post explaining the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s decision to make “The Purim Superhero” – a story about a boy, Nate, who has two dads – available only to PJ Library families who request it, but not to all of its subscribers.

My husband and I have two daughters under four years old. We signed up to receive PJ Library books immediately after our first daughter was born.

In our home, PJ Library books and CDs are much more than wonderful stories and songs. They create another way that our home is a Jewish home. They reflect back to our children the holidays,words and values that define our lives as Jews. They introduce visitors to those things as well, including some without previous exposure to Judaism. As Jews we are the vast minority; but the PJ Library books on our shelves integrate the imagined lives of Jewish characters with the rest of our daughters’ children’s literature.

But not every PJ Library book we receive reflects our family’s values. Some portray strictly divided gender-based roles in religious life (e.g., only men reading Torah). Those books contradict what we teach our daughters about their Jewish obligation and right to participate as full members of their Jewish community and the rest of society. Others depict Eretz Yisrael in a way that does not match our loving but concerned perspective on Israel.

Underlying almost every story are values – PJ Library books are no exception. When we receive a PJ Library book that doesn’t match our family’s values, we sometimes choose not to read it to our children, and instead pass it along to friends, bring it to shul, or donate it.

That’s why the Foundation’s rationale for not sending “The Purim Superhero” out to all subscribers – because it allegedly would offend some families – doesn’t make sense to me. Children’s stories routinely reflect value choices about important societal issues like women’s role in society or Israel’s importance to American Jews. Although I sometimes wish that the PJ Library didn’t send out certain books, I can appreciate that those books do fit its mission: disseminating age-appropriate, Jewish-themed books.

Requiring people to opt-in to receive “The Purim Superhero” inappropriately layers onto that mission a “controversy” litmus test. (I question this “controversy” – same-sex parenting is a Jewish reality, and is not controversial simply because some disapprove.) History unfortunately proves that when this litmus test is applied to books, we exclude books we later realize we needed most. At a given time, the most controversial books concern the most marginalized, unpopular viewpoint or group. Excluding them perpetuates that marginalization.

Of course, as a private entity, the Foundation is free to choose what to distribute. But that does not mean that it should exercise that power to discriminate. If it distributes “The Purim Superhero” to all subscribers, some families would (as we sometimes do) decline to read that book to their children. Speaking from experience, this is not a burden.

The alternative – not distributing the book except to those who opt-in – has a pernicious impact:

  • It sends a message to same-sex parents raising Jewish children that their own community does not accept them; their lives are offensive; and stories about them must never enter certain homes;
  • It says something disappointing about how the Foundation’s mission is implemented because a book fitting the purported criteria is yet kept from general distribution based on the particular Jews represented; and
  • It keeps from subscribers a fun story with an important message about bravery. Indeed, it contradicts that very message.

The Foundation suggests that it is trying not to offend some people’s deeply-held religious beliefs; but by holding back this book the Foundation is choosing among deeply-held Jewish beliefs. I and my Jewish community believe that it is our job, as Jews, to educate, promote inclusion, welcome all members of our community, and engage in the work of tikkun olam. (I should note that I am not a major fan of “The Purim Superhero.” Like some other LGBT children’s books, it suggests that the protagonist’s family is “different,” and that same-sex couples’ children must struggle with and embrace “difference.” But the LGBT individuals, couples and families in my life are not “different.” They are simply a part of my Jewish community, professional life, children’s school, and family. I wish that books simply incorporated and reflected diverse families).

PJ Library certainly can’t please all readers all the time. But that cannot be its goal. Rather, its great success is that each month, it steeps our children in Jewishness, through stories celebrating our wonderful holidays, life events, and history, and songs that echo through the generations. My three-year-old can’t wait to dress up for Purim, go to shul for the megillah reading and spin a grogger– in part, because of “The Purim Superhero”. In other words, the book has done just what the Foundation hopes that its books will do.

Regardless of one’s views on same-sex parenting, it cannot be questioned that there are many Nates out there in the world. I hope that the Foundation will consider whether, if Nate were a real little boy, he would be welcome in all of their homes. He’d certainly be welcome in mine.

Please join me in urging the Foundation to be brave and bold (like Esther) and send “The Purim Superhero” to all of its readers. Chag Sameach!


Victoria L. Steinberg is an attorney practicing business litigation and employment law at Collora LLP in Boston, Massachusetts. She lives in Cambridge with her husband and two daughters, who are helping her choose a Purim costume. But like Nate, she might keep it a surprise until the chag.