Miri Baruch (Israel)

Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-23 11:00-12:30 Room II

Speaker: Dr. Miri Baruch(Isreal)

September 2006

Ethics in Contemporary Israeli Children's Literature

Dr. Miri Baruch

Israel is a complex society composed of various groups such as: Jews and Arabs, native born and new immigrants (mostly of Russian & Ethiopian origin), secular and orthodox. This variety is reflected in children's literature.

Generally speaking, there are 2 major types of children's literature dealing with ethics. While the secular writers aim at the general population, the orthodox, being a relatively new phenomenon, aims at it's own rather closed circle.

Secular literature puts the individual in the center and attributes to him such characteristics as doubt and curiosity, a need to explore the world and most importantly – choose one's moral way. In most cases the child represented fails in an immoral act known only to him, but nevertheless, pays dearly with regret and remorse and arises with new understanding of reality. The SELF is portrayed at the center and not at the receiving end.

Recent research done in this literary genera (as an M.A. thesis under my supervision), a genera not very popular in Hebrew secular literature, examined 18 realistic stories, all quite representative.

In all 18 stories focus around a child, whose age corresponds to the age of the readers. The protagonist does some immoral act which results in harm done to another child or adult. While the story describes the harm done to the other, the emphasis is on the feelings of the doer – remorse and regret,

The story does not include a formal punishment. The immoral child, the potential "criminal", is not caught by others. The punishment is brought by himself upon himself. In most cases, the story aims to activate the reader's moral judgement, while the final aim is – to have him revise his future behavior.

The first story was written in the 19th century by the known Jewish-Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem, who also wrote the basic story of the musical "Fiddler on the Roof". His story, "THE POCkETKNIFE", (published in 1887), describes a 10 year old boy who dreams of having a pocketknife of his own. He fails to get it until one day, he steals a small pocketknife from a resident in his parents' home.

The story describes in detail how miserable the little boy is, how he is haunted by fears of his crime being discovered, and how lost he feels while looking for a hiding place for his treasure. Finally, he decides to throw the little golden pocketknife into a deep well in the backyard. But, while he is now safe and can not be found out by his parents, the remorse, fears and nightmares continue to haunt him endlessly, until he becomes sick and hallucinates. In his hallucinations, his father and teacher hit him badly. When he recovers miraculously, he swears to never-ever steal again.

As far as the reader is concerned, the message is direct and clear, although it is directed at the protagonist: "Thou shall not steal", not because you may be found out, (the boy was never found out as the thief), but because of the moral burden.

As in many moral stories, this one deals with 2 different periods of time – while doing the wrong act and the later when one is being haunted by regret and fears. In none of the stories there is any hint of religious punishment – no reward is mentioned in the after-life for good-doers or otherwise. This story is all in all secular. Whatever happens has to do with social behavior – the child's acts are judged by himself and his immediate surrounding parents and friends. No God is involved.

About 90 years later, a well known writer, Rebeca Magen, published the story, “Ophira`s Bracelet ". In this story a naughty class mate steals a bracelet from the bag of a girl and hides it in the school-bag of another girl, one who is not popular. The bracelet is found, thus incriminating the owner of the bag. As a result, the children call the innocent girl: "thief", they ostracize her until she leaves the school for good. The young girl starts working as a house-maid along side with her poverty stricken mother, cleaning rich people's homes. The act changed the fate of the innocent girl, but the real thief did not have the courage to speak out.

20 years later, the boy, now a grown man, meets a young woman from this class and confesses. He tells her how he suffers because of that silly act and because of his inability to confess in real time. His remorse is even worse, as he lives near the victim of the story and meets her often. The story does not furnish a good or bad end. The reader is called upon to make up his or her mind as to the right behavior for the protagonist as well as for him or herself.

In contrast to this particular research of secular children's literature, we conducted a massive research in orthodox literature, which consists of an abundant number of moral stories.

Orthodox literature in Israel is a rather new phenomenon. It started about 30 years ago and has flourished ever since. The reason is, that until recently, orthodox kids were not allowed to read literature that deals with everyday life. From the age of 3, such children are extensively being told Biblical stories, while realistic stories are considered a waste of time.

Ever since the introduction of television into Israeli secular society, the orthodox circles feel threatened by the outer world. They fear that children will be tempted by the visual media and thus – prone to secular ideas and life-style. As a measure of self-protection, orthodox society is now open to children's literature, as a lesser evil. They publish many such colorful, realistic and even fun stories which give the impression of being open and liberal, while in fact they preach orthodox code of behavior and are strictly religious.

This particular research included over 200 books, all published since 1970.

As in the secular stories, the protagonist corresponds to the age of the reader. He tackles a moral problem and goes through an inner struggle as to how he should behave and solve the problem. So far, both genera develop along similar lines, but the second part of the orthodox stories is completely different in contest as well as in structure.

The orthodox story describes the inner struggle, but while his personal will attracts him to one direction, he is well aware of the religious rights and wrongs, He finally chooses to favor the religious teachings in contrast with his heart's desire. As a result, he is forgiven for his struggle and suffers no remorse or regret. He pays no price for his behavior, as he clearly prefers the code of orthodox behavior.

Speaking of style, the orthodox story always ends with a clear resolution. There is no double meaning and no place for confusion or creative solutions. No place for original thinking. All is well ordered and organized in the world of orthodox children. The commands are clear cut and the laws known to all. All one has to do – is follow the guide-lines of the written laws and the world will be good and safe.

One such example is the story written by Wiesmann Beckerman, "The Journey of Chaimke". And this how it goes:

The all boys class goes on a field trip to the holy city of Safad. In the morning, the 7 year old Chaimke says his prayers, washes his hands, says the blessings, eats breakfast, says the blessings again, and leaves his home happily in anticipation of the trip.

On his way he meets an old lady carrying heavy baskets from the market. He tries to avoid her in order not to have to follow the code by which he is expected to stop on his way and help the old lady. Yet, he can't stop thinking, that he may lose a "Mizvah"' a good deed by not stopping. On the other hand, he is afraid to miss the bus.

He struggles and struggles and finally, in contrast to his heart's desire, he offers to help the old lady. He carries the heavy baskets and tries to walk fast, but the old woman is so very slow… He knows he missed the class trip. But he walks on, helps schlep the baskets up the staircase, put them in her apartment, gets an orange in gratitude and rushes off to school.

He knows he's late. He's certain the teacher did not wait for him. He runs to school. Suddenly a car stops next to him. His friend Shlomo and his father offer him a ride to school. They arrive at the last minute, get on the bus and off they go to the holy city of Safad. He tells the teacher about the old lady and the teacher commends him for his good deed, telling him that if he did not stop to help the old lady and do a Mizvah, he would have been unable to enjoy the trip anyway, that besides being punished here and now, he could also be punished in the after-life. But, the teacher concludes: by doing the Mizvah, he gained both – a good feeling on earth and a reward in the after-life.

Children reading the story learn a very clear and specific lesson: Chaimke made the right decision, and if they tackle a similar situation, they should make the same decision too.

The idea that springs out in comparing both genera – in secular and orthodox literature is that in both, the writer is dedicated to educating the readers and teaching proper behavior and ethics. But while the secular writer aims at developing moral thought and personal deliberation and consideration, the orthodox writer expects a mere obeying of the commandments.

In both cases the writers aim at building a better, moral and considerate society, but each adopts a different route which reflects his or hers point of view and righteous ways.

Conversely, religious approach represents an orderly, defined and repressed reality, where all acts are controlled by holy laws of the Torah. The child has no option of making personal choices and must follow the rules of "do" or "do not do", obeying his elders and religious rules, called "Mitzvah".

Thus, the stories do not allow for individual thinking or compunction following a wrong act. The rules are always right and only the ones who abide by them are able to see the light and come out of a conflict righteously.

In my lecture I have presented the two major approaches to ethical behavior, emphasizing the major differences both in the basic approach, literary treatment and outcome, in the contemporary Israeli children`s literature.

As Israel is a free and democratic society, every parent is expected to choose his own way of educating his children. As I believe that ”children are the hope for the future” of the world, I believe that both – secular and orthodox parents in Israel, will educate their children through literature - to become better adults in order to make the world a better place to live – for all.

It is the bed -time story that we tell our children, that accompanies them throughout life.

It is that very story that may remind them to be honest, loving, moralistic and open minded adults.

Hopefully – we can thus contribute to make the world better, just a little better.



Wiesmann Menucha: 1994: The Real Hero- The journey of chaimke . Privet publishing house. Jerusalem

Salom Aleichem (Shalom Rabinovich) :1887 The Pocketknife. Sfarim La-Col. (books for

All) Varsha. Poland

Magen Rivka: 1981: Ophira`s Bracelet . Am Oved Publishers. Israel