The nov­els of E.L. Konigs­burg (19302013) have been crit­i­cal­ly praised for more than fifty years. Since the pub­li­ca­tion of the New­bery Award-win­ning From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweil­er in 1967, count­less young read­ers have iden­ti­fied with Clau­dia and Jamie Kin­caid — two pre­co­cious and aggriev­ed sub­ur­ban kids who escape the monot­o­ny of Green­wich, Con­necti­cut, to hide in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. Only one year lat­er, Konigs­burg deliv­ered a very dif­fer­ent group of char­ac­ters in the overt­ly Jew­ish About the B’nai Bagels, the sto­ry of a Jew­ish-spon­sored and coached sports league amidst com­pli­cat­ed fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships. Lat­er in her pro­lif­ic career, the author won her sec­ond New­bery Medal for The View from Sat­ur­day (1996), anoth­er thought­ful inves­ti­ga­tion of child­hood, this one with both Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish char­ac­ters, as well as ones whose back­grounds are of mixed eth­nic­i­ty. What inspired Konigs­burg to alter­nate­ly ignore, express, and per­haps con­ceal Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in these three works about young peo­ple deter­min­ing the truth of who they real­ly are?

In her col­lec­tions of essays and speech­es for adults, Talk­Talk, Konigs­burg admits that When I was a child, it would have been won­der­ful to read about a Jew­ish girl liv­ing in a small mill town with a father who worked long hours and a moth­er who helped out in the store.’” She qual­i­fies her state­ment with a vir­tu­al man­i­festo for a writer’s abil­i­ty to embody dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties in her cre­ations: I am a Jew­ish-Amer­i­can female…But that is not all that I am. I am also over­weight, prone to headaches, and a klutz…I am more than what I was, more than what I am, and part of the rea­son that I am is because I have learned to wear many masks.” Although the Kin­caid fam­i­ly is not Jew­ish, to some extent Mixed-Up Files reveals the author’s con­scious choice to both ignore her own back­ground when writ­ing the nov­el, and at the same time, to show some parts of it in her characters.

Most obvi­ous­ly, Clau­dia and Jamie are based part­ly on Konigsburg’s own chil­dren. She is the book’s author as well as illus­tra­tor; in an inter­view with Scholas­tic, she asserts that her chil­dren were the mod­els for the book’s pic­tures and her daugh­ter, Lau­rie Konigs­burg Todd, has con­firmed this key fact in a Smith­son­ian Mag­a­zine piece about the nov­el. Addi­tion­al­ly, Konigs­burg Todd direct­ly attrib­ut­es her­self and her broth­ers as her mother’s inspi­ra­tion for the nov­el. In 2013, Konigs­burg Todd wrote in The Horn Book, As she (her moth­er) lis­tened to Paul, Ross, and me com­plain about insects and heat dur­ing a fam­i­ly pic­nic, she con­clud­ed that her sub­ur­ban chil­dren would nev­er run away from home by opt­ing for a wilder­ness adven­ture. Instead, we would seek the com­fort and splen­dor of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um.” It seems then, that Clau­dia and Jamie Kin­caid rep­re­sent one of the masks which Konigs­burg claimed as an author’s pre­rog­a­tive in her ide­al of lit­er­ary cre­ation. Although Clau­dia and Jamie start­ed life as ver­sions of the author’s own Jew­ish chil­dren, they assumed a dif­fer­ent life in Mixed-Up Files.

In this book about the uni­ver­sal child­hood expe­ri­ence of self-dis­cov­ery, the ques­tion remains why the Konigs­burg chil­dren became Kin­caids instead of Kleins. Read­ers can­not know the answer to that ques­tion, although the mys­tery remains as intrigu­ing as the con­test­ed iden­ti­ty of a stat­ue in which Clau­dia is deter­mined to unrav­el. There are traces in the book which may seem inci­den­tal, but are nonethe­less invi­ta­tions to con­sid­er Konigsburg’s deci­sion to dis­tance this book from her own life. For exam­ple, there is a sur­pris­ing ref­er­ence to Mrs. Kincaid’s mem­ber­ship in a Mah-Jong club, since that game was hard­ly a pop­u­lar pas­time for Con­necti­cut WASPS in the nine­teen-six­ties. In fact, it was almost exclu­sive­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Chi­nese and Jew­ish women.

In this book about the uni­ver­sal child­hood expe­ri­ence of self-dis­cov­ery, the ques­tion remains why the Konigs­burg chil­dren became Kin­caids instead of Kleins.

Sur­names are anoth­er clue to the novel’s cod­ed Jew­ish con­tent. The author could eas­i­ly have cho­sen unam­bigu­ous­ly non-Jew­ish ones. Instead, both Frankweil­er” and Sax­on­berg,” res­onate with the same pos­si­bly Jew­ish ori­gins as the name Konigs­burg” itself. The fram­ing device of the nov­el is a let­ter which Mrs. Frankweil­er sends to Sax­on­berg, her attor­ney, who ulti­mate­ly is revealed as the children’s grand­fa­ther. His almost stereo­typ­i­cal indul­gence of his grand­chil­dren, and Mrs. Frankweiler’s sen­si­ble prag­ma­tism, turn them into a com­ple­men­tary pair of Jew­ish grand­par­ents, unit­ed in their con­cern for the chil­dren who need them.

The par­ents in About the B’nai Bagels also share con­cerns for their chil­dren, in this nov­el sat­u­rat­ed with Jew­ish­ness — almost like Philip Roth for mid­dle-grade read­ers. Yid­dish-inflect­ed lan­guage is woven through­out the sto­ry of a mid­dle-class fam­i­ly liv­ing in a New York sub­urb. Mark and Spencer Set­zer have mod­ern Amer­i­can first names, but their last name is so Jew­ish it is seltzer” with the let­ter l” removed. Mark is twelve and about to become an adult by Jew­ish law, while Spencer is nine years old­er and com­mutes to N.Y.U from their home. Par­ents Bessie and Sam embody more old-world val­ues, par­tic­u­lar­ly Bessie, whose effu­sive guilt-induc­ing rhetoric is just short of par­o­dy. She fre­quent­ly com­plains to God about the tribu­la­tions of being a moth­er, and her out­bursts are some­what jus­ti­fied. When her old­er son tries to psy­cho­an­a­lyze his mother’s refusal to add raisins to her stuffed cab­bage as sym­bol­ic of her resis­tance to change,” she fights back: No one tells Heinz how to make ketchup, and no one tells Bessie Set­zer how to stuff cab­bage.” This is as far cry from Green­wich, Connecticut.

While the Jew­ish mate­r­i­al seems com­i­cal­ly exag­ger­at­ed at some points, Konigs­burg actu­al­ly uses it as a back­ground for a dis­cus­sion of par­ent­ing, the dif­fi­cul­ties of young adult­hood, and the inequities of gen­der roles. Bessie takes on the job of man­ag­ing Mark’s base­ball team, spon­sored by B’nai Birth. She part­ly uses this deci­sion as a way to goad Spencer into coach­ing the play­ers, but it is also clear that she enjoys exer­cis­ing author­i­ty. Sam’s sug­ges­tions of how Bessie might alle­vi­ate her feel­ings of frus­tra­tion with Spencer sting with sex­ism: He advised her to wait a few months for this phase to pass, see a psy­chi­a­trist, or get some new inter­ests.” Yet Konigs­burg sub­verts the stereo­type of an over­ween­ing Jew­ish moth­er who self­ish­ly con­trols her children’s lives, while claim­ing to ignore her own needs. As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that her appar­ent over­in­volve­ment in her sons’ lives and the team is based on a true under­stand­ing of how chil­dren devel­op into strong and eth­i­cal adults. When her more pol­ished and assim­i­lat­ed sis­ter points out to her that the val­ue of Lit­tle League is to teach the play­ers how to accept both win­ning and los­ing grace­ful­ly,” Bessie dis­miss­es this notion with a more prac­ti­cal and insight­ful one, using Yid­dish syn­tax: Except how can a team learn to win and lose grace­ful­ly when all they do is lose?…I want they should feel rot­ten when they lose…Rotten but not hope­less.” With her expert nar­ra­tive skills, Konigs­burg also includes bib­li­cal ref­er­ences to the sto­ry of Jacob and Esau. When Bessie learns of how iden­ti­cal twin broth­ers on the team have exploit­ed their respec­tive left and right-hand­ed­ness in order to cheat, her response is root­ed in Jew­ish moral­i­ty. Win­ning is far from the most impor­tant out­come and cheat­ing will hurt the boys’ spir­its much more.

Konigs­burg includes in the plot an inci­dent of anti­semitism when Mark is called a Jew Boy” by anoth­er play­er. Mark does not respond imme­di­ate­ly, but almost ratio­nal­izes the attack: That’s the way it is with kids like Botts. The feel­ing is always there. Like bac­te­ria, just wait­ing for con­di­tions to get dark enough to grow into a dis­ease.” Both Konigs­burg and her daugh­ter had referred to anti­semitism in their com­mu­ni­ties which made them feel mar­gin­al­ized and even led to phys­i­cal attacks. Anti­semitism is, of course, entire­ly absent from Mixed-Up Files, although the Konigs­burgs’ town does have a brief cameo. When Clau­dia and Jamie check The New York Times for cov­er­age of their dis­ap­pear­ance, they miss an arti­cle about a pair of miss­ing chil­dren from Green­wich, includ­ing the small detail that the search for them has widened to the neigh­bor­ing com­mu­ni­ties of Darien and Port Chester. Konigsburg’s inclu­sion of this detail does not advance the nar­ra­tive, but it allows her to include an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal detail which becomes poignant in light of her children’s experience.

Trac­ing the dif­fer­ent pro­por­tions of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in her nov­els enrich­es our appre­ci­a­tion of this gen­er­ous and insight­ful Jew­ish Amer­i­can writer.

If Mixed-Up Files con­tains no explic­it­ly Jew­ish con­tent and B’nai Bagels is one hun­dred per­cent aligned with Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, then the The View from Sat­ur­day includes a new per­spec­tive — that of chil­dren with one Jew­ish par­ent. By the time of its pub­li­ca­tion almost thir­ty years after the ear­li­er books, a great deal about Jew­ish eth­nic­i­ty had changed. Specif­i­cal­ly, inter­mar­riage had become much more com­mon. The nov­el begins with a wed­ding in Cen­tu­ry Vil­lage— a Flori­da retire­ment com­mu­ni­ty— between two wid­owed peo­ple, one Jew­ish and one gen­tile. After the wed­ding, their grand­chil­dren, Nadia Dia­mond­stein and Ethan Pot­ter, return to upstate New York, where they attend the same school and become mem­bers of the same Aca­d­e­m­ic Bowl team. Noah Ger­shom, anoth­er team mem­ber, is also the grand­son of Cen­tu­ry Vil­lage res­i­dents. Although Noah observes that almost every­one who lives there is retired from use­ful life,” and has acquired a new iden­ti­ty. His grand­pa points out that rab­bis are the excep­tion. Their iden­ti­ty remains con­sis­tent after retire­ment, as is the case with Rab­bi Fried­man, who will per­form the wed­ding cer­e­mo­ny of Izzy Dia­mond­stein and Mar­garet Draper.

Unlike the char­ac­ters in B’nai Bagels, who are as endog­a­mous as Jew­ish tra­di­tion had required, sev­er­al char­ac­ters in Sat­ur­day are inter­mar­ried or the chil­dren of inter­mar­riage. Nadia and Noah dis­cuss Nadi­a’s Jew­ish and Protes­tant descent casu­al­ly, indi­cat­ing that this dual her­itage has become nor­mal­ized to a cer­tain degree. At the same time, how­ev­er, Noah elab­o­rates how stan­dards are dif­fer­ent for Nadia’s grand­par­ents. Rab­bi Fried­man will mar­ry them, accord­ing to Noah’s under­stand­ing, because they are too old to repro­duce, mak­ing their dif­fer­ent back­grounds irrelevant.

Most of the lan­guage in A View from Sat­ur­day is crisp and con­tem­po­rary, but Yid­dish influ­ence is present as an occa­sion­al reminder of a van­ish­ing past. Grand­pa Izzy affec­tion­ate­ly calls his new, non-Jew­ish, love zaftig, and Noah’s grand­moth­er, embar­rassed at her husband’s ref­er­ence to their love­mak­ing, admon­ish­es him that it is a shan­da far di kinder” to talk about this sub­ject in front of a child. But when the nov­el leaves Flori­da and moves to Epiphany, New York, the Jew­ish ele­ments recede. (As with Konigsburg’s choice of names for char­ac­ters, this city name is not acci­den­tal.) Away from her Jew­ish father and grand­fa­ther, Nadia needs to dis­cov­er her own iden­ti­ty. Konigs­burg com­ments with some irony on new sen­si­tiv­i­ties about diver­si­ty which were clear­ly not part of her own upbring­ing in a small Penn­syl­va­nia town with rel­a­tive­ly few Jews. Dis­cussing pos­si­ble sub­jects for their Aca­d­e­m­ic Bowl ques­tions with their teacher, Mrs. Olinksi, the team mem­bers know they should be pre­pared to answer ques­tions not only about the Old and New Tes­ta­ments, but also the Koran, and the Hin­du Upanishads.

Jew­ish iden­ti­ty shift­ed among the three nov­els, from a shad­owy sug­ges­tion in Mixed-Up Files to an intense­ly defin­ing pres­ence in B’nai Bagels, and final­ly, in The View from Sat­ur­day, as a gen­er­a­tion about to dis­ap­pear. E.L. Konigs­burg was always open about her Jew­ish back­ground, weav­ing it in and out of her fic­tion­al worlds along with the many masks she chose to wear as an author. In About the B’nai Bagels, she cre­at­ed char­ac­ters as whol­ly Jew­ish as her­self, while in The View from Sat­ur­day she reflect­ed, lat­er in life, on the chang­ing and ephemer­al nature of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. Even in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweil­er, she allud­ed to her own Jew­ish fam­i­ly in the text. We can­not deter­mine exact­ly why she decid­ed which mask to wear in every book. After all, as the nar­ra­tor of The View from Sat­ur­day reflects about Mrs. Olinski’s rea­sons for her choice of stu­dents, She didn’t know that she didn’t know until she did know. Of course, that is true of most things.” Sam Setzer’s analy­sis of his wife, Bessie’s, char­ac­ter is also true of the writer who cre­at­ed her: What­ev­er she does, she does with her whole heart and soul. And her heart is large, and I think that her soul is, too.” Trac­ing the dif­fer­ent pro­por­tions of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty in her nov­els enrich­es our appre­ci­a­tion of this gen­er­ous and insight­ful Jew­ish Amer­i­can writer.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.