It’s hard to recall a time when Jew­ish chil­dren couldn’t see their expe­ri­ences reflect­ed in works of fic­tion — whether in the lov­ing por­tray­al of recent immi­grants and their chil­dren Syd­ney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly series; the con­flict and com­e­dy of E. L. Konigsburg’s About the B’nai Bagels; or in Bar­bara Cohen’s touch­ing take on Thanks­giv­ing for new Amer­i­cans in Molly’s Pil­grim. It’s easy to for­get the pio­neers in this field — authors who cre­at­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties both for Jew­ish chil­dren to see rep­re­sen­ta­tions of them­selves, and, ide­al­ly, for non-Jew­ish read­ers to become famil­iar with both the specif­i­cal­ly Jew­ish and the reas­sur­ing­ly uni­ver­sal parts of Jew­ish life.

Mar­i­lyn Sachs (19272016; née Stick­le) was one such pio­neer. Writer, librar­i­an, peace activist, wife, and moth­er, she devot­ed her long career to explor­ing the ordeals and tri­umphs of children’s lives. Some of those chil­dren were Jew­ish. They were Amer­i­can, Euro­pean, poor, mid­dle-class, some­what reli­gious, and decid­ed­ly sec­u­lar. They were vic­tims and sur­vivors, only chil­dren and sib­lings. Sachs exam­ined their lives with empa­thy, but with­out sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty. Author Zack Rogow, Sachs’s son-in-law, remem­bers Sachs’s com­mit­ment to writ­ing books that did not avoid hard and unpleas­ant truths. He com­pares Sachs’s works to the ide­al­ized Jew­ish world of Syd­ney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly series, with five sis­ters whose worst prob­lem seemed to be find­ing a mis­placed library book.” While I inter­pret Taylor’s work as a far more seri­ous and com­plex look at Jew­ish immi­grants, his per­cep­tion of Sachs as a ground­break­er is accurate.

At the time of her death, much of Sachs’s work was long out of print. Yet she wrote more than forty books on an impres­sive num­ber of themes, includ­ing bul­ly­ing, female body image, and frac­tured fam­i­lies. Not all of her books fea­ture Jews, but those that do fea­ture char­ac­ters with a vari­ety of Jew­ish iden­ti­ties, mak­ing her an endur­ing if under­stat­ed influ­ence on Jew­ish authors. In Call Me Ruth (1982), a mod­ern clas­sic for mid­dle-grade read­ers, Sachs draws on her own fam­i­ly his­to­ry to reflect on the con­flicts between Jew­ish chil­dren born in Amer­i­ca and their immi­grant par­ents, as well as on the role of Jews in the labor move­ment. Women play promi­nent roles in almost all of her work. Sachs’s books reflect the chang­ing expe­ri­ence of Amer­i­can Jews; she chron­i­cles both the abrupt impact of immi­gra­tion, and the evolv­ing response of the next gen­er­a­tion to new oppor­tu­ni­ties, as the chil­dren of immi­grants grad­u­al­ly became ful­ly invest­ed par­tic­i­pants in Amer­i­can life.

Sachs’s books reflect the chang­ing expe­ri­ence of Amer­i­can Jews; she chron­i­cles both the abrupt impact of immi­gra­tion, and the evolv­ing response of the next gen­er­a­tion to new oppor­tu­ni­ties, as the chil­dren of immi­grants grad­u­al­ly became ful­ly invest­ed par­tic­i­pants in Amer­i­can life.

Sachs’s career began with Amy Moves In, a book about ordi­nary nine-year-old Amy Stern, whose fam­i­ly was poor, Jew­ish, lived in the city, and didn’t cel­e­brate any Jew­ish hol­i­days in the course of the sto­ry.” Sachs described her sur­prise when Amy Moves In was accept­ed by Dou­ble­day and was pub­lished in 1964. She had writ­ten it ten years ear­li­er, and it takes place dur­ing her Depres­sion-era child­hood. Look­ing back lat­er in her life, Sachs not­ed, I had writ­ten it in the 1950s when children’s books were pret­ty much about white, mid­dle-class peo­ple who lived in the sub­urbs and had hap­py lives. Nobody died, nobody’s par­ents divorced, and there were no loose ends.” Amy Moves In chal­lenged these norms. Between the time when Ruth and her fam­i­ly strug­gled as new immi­grants, and the era when Amy Stern coped with still present, but less intense, gen­er­a­tional con­flicts, much had changed in Jew­ish Amer­i­can life. Sachs’ nov­els chart­ed that change, doc­u­ment­ing with sen­si­tiv­i­ty the dif­fer­ent ways in which chil­dren of her mother’s gen­er­a­tion and her own man­aged the ten­sions which inevitably chal­lenged fam­i­lies, even as they became more root­ed in this country.

I remem­ber read­ing Amy Moves In as a child pre­cise­ly because Amy’s Jew­ish­ness was so unobtrusive.The read­er was asked to take it for grant­ed, as the plot did not revolve around hol­i­day obser­vance, bar mitz­vah cel­e­bra­tions, or oth­er mark­ers of Jew­ish life that fre­quent­ly appeared in Jew­ish children’s books. (The detailed descrip­tions of joy­ous hol­i­days and rit­u­al obser­vances found in Syd­ney Taylor’s books, for exam­ple, are not part of Sachs’s nar­ra­tive.) Rogow’s dis­mis­sive com­ment that Taylor’s char­ac­ters seem to be inces­sant­ly light­ing can­dles for Hanukkah or Shab­bat” is reveal­ing. Sachs her­self empha­sized the lack of reli­gious prac­tice in some of her work. Taylor’s char­ac­ters are not gov­erned by nos­tal­gia; they are reli­gious­ly obser­vant, so, in fact, they do light can­dles inces­sant­ly,” or, at least, week­ly. Sachs chose to depict dif­fer­ent kinds of Jews.

I remem­ber read­ing Amy Moves In as a child pre­cise­ly because Amy’s Jew­ish­ness was so unobtrusive.

Amy is a work­ing-class girl grow­ing up with her sis­ter, Lau­ra, and her par­ents, Han­nah and Har­ry Stern, in a neigh­bor­hood where Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish first- and sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­cans live side by side. Neigh­bors such as Mrs. Green­berg, Her­bert Stein­man, David Ostrow, and Dorothy Kaplan have instant­ly rec­og­niz­able Jew­ish names. Oth­ers have Irish or Ital­ian names. Amy becomes espe­cial­ly close to a shy and gen­tle His­pan­ic girl, Rosa Fer­rara, who is from a fam­i­ly of more recent immi­grants. The char­ac­ters’ fam­i­ly-cen­tered lives and their com­mon eco­nom­ic strug­gles seem to unite them more than divide them.

On the rare occa­sions when Jew­ish iden­ti­ty does fea­ture explic­it­ly in the tale, it is more a vehi­cle to empha­size dif­fer­ences between old-world and Amer­i­can cul­ture. The first instance of this sec­u­lar Jew­ish­ness cen­ters on mat­zoh brie, which her moth­er and grand­moth­er pre­pare dif­fer­ent­ly. Sachs has described Amy as a liar … and cry­ba­by,” and final­ly her affec­tion­ate but deter­mined moth­er tries to teach her that lies, no mat­ter the motive, are bad. Dur­ing a vis­it to her grand­par­ents, Amy warm­ly says, Grand­ma, you make the best mat­zoh-brei [sic] in the whole world.” She is reward­ed with a smile and a caress. But lat­er, when she com­pli­ments her mother’s ver­sion of the dish with the same superla­tives, she receives a seri­ous lec­ture: Amy, you told Grand­ma just a few days ago that you like hers the best. It doesn’t mat­ter whose you like, but I don’t want you to tell lies.”

There is no expla­na­tion of mat­zo­has the bread of afflic­tion, no Passover seder, no descrip­tion of beloved old-world cus­toms con­tin­ued in Amer­i­ca. In fact, Amy admits to her­self that she didn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly care for mat­zoh brei any­way.” (I remem­ber grow­ing up in a sim­i­lar kind of fam­i­ly a gen­er­a­tion lat­er and think­ing that hal­vah can­dy — which my immi­grant grand­fa­ther con­sid­ered a spe­cial treat — tast­ed like a bar of over­ly sweet­ened grease. (Of course, that is the entire point of hal­vah.) Like Amy, I lied” by pre­tend­ing that I liked it.)

Accord­ing to the Amer­i­can women’s mag­a­zines and advice books which Amy’s moth­er reads as guides to mod­ern chil­drea­r­ing, chil­dren must learn to be truth­ful. Amy, how­ev­er, likes to make peo­ple hap­py, even if it means stretch­ing the truth. The tra­di­tion­al expec­ta­tion of rev­er­ence for par­ents and grand­par­ents clash­es with con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can val­ues, with mat­zoh brei the casu­al link between past and future. Sachs could have cho­sen to frame the dis­pute over ham­burg­ers or apple pie, but she kept the cul­tur­al mark­er of Jew­ish­ness which is only notable for its lack of con­text. How would a non-Jew­ish child have respond­ed to the same pas­sage, one which I found reas­sur­ing­ly famil­iar? Either Sachs assumed that her read­ers would be Jew­ish, or she was mak­ing a state­ment about the com­plete nor­mal­i­ty of Jew­ish cus­toms. (A lat­er Scholas­tic paper­back edi­tion of the book includ­ed a foot­note explain­ing mat­zoh brei to the uninitiated.)

The tra­di­tion­al expec­ta­tion of rev­er­ence for par­ents and grand­par­ents clash­es with con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can val­ues, with mat­zoh brei the casu­al link between past and future.

Call Me Ruth, set around thir­ty years ear­li­er, is part­ly the sto­ry of Sachs’s own moth­er and grand­moth­er, and the con­flicts that defined their rela­tion­ship. Indeed, the book is ded­i­cat­ed to Sachs’s moth­er, Nel­lie Stick­le, who bridged two worlds, two cen­turies, (I think), and got sick on the Third Avenue El.” In Amy Moves In, Amy’s moth­er has the ener­gy and leisure time to encour­age her daughter’s progress and suc­cess as an Amer­i­can by read­ing par­ent­ing rec­om­men­da­tions in mod­ern mag­a­zines. In Call Me Ruth, how­ev­er, Ruth’s moth­er feels so over­whelmed by her new life in Amer­i­ca that she strug­gles to sim­ply keep her fam­i­ly afloat.

Ruth’s fam­i­ly, unlike Taylor’s girls’, is not intact. The hand­some young man whom her moth­er, Fan­ny, (then Faigel) had mar­ried in Rus­sia becomes des­per­ate­ly ills with tuber­cu­lo­sis, the tailor’s dis­ease,” and soon dies. Fan­ny is forced to work in a sweat­shop, her once famous sewing skills reduced to pro­duc­ing as much piece­work as she can to help her fam­i­ly sur­vive. Sachs does not roman­ti­cize the frac­tured rela­tion­ship between Ruth, who wants more than any­thing to embrace Amer­i­can val­ues, and her moth­er, who is so ter­ri­fied by mod­ern trans­porta­tion that she becomes vio­lent­ly ill on the ele­vat­ed train. (I remem­ber a child­hood expe­ri­ence in a big depart­ment store, where my father had unthink­ing­ly stepped on an esca­la­tor, before real­iz­ing that my grand­moth­er would def­i­nite­ly not join him on this crazy con­trap­tion. I was amazed that he was able to quick­ly walk down the ascend­ing esca­la­tor.) Ruth’s par­ents work on the Sab­bath, and have no expec­ta­tion of being exempt­ed on that day. But Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is more than reli­gion for Ruth’s fam­i­ly — their Yid­dish accents, their pover­ty, their lack of famil­iar­i­ty with social norms, mark them as outsiders.

Pub­lic school played a large role in mak­ing immi­grants and their chil­dren into Amer­i­cans. In Amy Moves In, and in its sequel, Amy and Lau­ra, many of Amy’s teach­ers have names like Miss Park­er and Miss Ben­net, mark­ing them as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Eng­lish lan­guage and Amer­i­can accul­tur­a­tion expect­ed of all stu­dents in that era. These teach­ers play a large­ly pos­i­tive role: Mrs. Maluc­ci rec­og­nizes and prais­es Amy’s cre­ativ­i­ty and intel­li­gence, and even her high-spir­it­ed nature. A gen­er­a­tion ear­li­er, how­ev­er, Ruth is sub­ject­ed to sub­tle but big­ot­ed cru­el­ty by Miss Bax­ter, the teacher whom she adores. Sachs expos­es the insid­i­ous nature of prej­u­dice, root­ed in igno­rance but empow­ered by author­i­ty, in a way that still rings true today. It is not Jew­ish reli­gious prac­tice but cul­tur­al norms which dis­gust her: effu­sive­ness, emo­tion, resis­tance to immoral eco­nom­ic and social con­di­tions. In mod­ern terms, she is tone polic­ing her: It’s self-con­trol, Ruth … I know that in some coun­tries peo­ple are encour­aged to speak up bold­ly and to show all their feel­ings. But believe me, dear, and this is for your own good, in this coun­try, peo­ple respect good man­ners, and good man­ners means self-control.”

There is no easy res­o­lu­tion to the con­flict between gen­er­a­tions — or between tra­di­tion­al and mod­ern val­ues — in Call Me Ruth. Zack Rogow has not­ed the strength and pow­er of Sachs’s female char­ac­ters, but also the real­is­tic nature of their imper­fec­tions. Fan­ny is a true cru­sad­er for jus­tice, but a neglect­ful mom.” While Ruth comes to admire her mother’s activism, she is still frus­trat­ed, even bit­ter, at the embar­rass­ing con­tra­dic­tions of her mother’s new persona.

Fan­ny is a true cru­sad­er for jus­tice, but a neglect­ful mom.’ While Ruth comes to admire her mother’s activism, she is still frus­trat­ed, even bit­ter, at the embar­rass­ing con­tra­dic­tions of her mother’s new persona.

The woman who was ded­i­cat­ed to her hus­band and daugh­ter is now an assertive orga­niz­er, in demand at meet­ings and ral­lies to pro­mote the cause. Ruth resents her mother’s new indif­fer­ence to her appear­ance, her lack of inter­est in find­ing a new hus­band, and her errat­ic avail­abil­i­ty to her daugh­ter cause Ruth to resent her, even though Ruth is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly proud of her mother’s promi­nent role in the com­mu­ni­ty. Ruth admires her mother’s prin­ci­pled activism, but remains embar­rassed and unable to rec­on­cile the assertive orga­niz­er with the pas­sive mater­nal fig­ure she had once known.

Through­out her long life, Sachs iden­ti­fied with pro­gres­sive caus­es: peace activism, deseg­re­ga­tion, lit­er­a­cy. Many of the Jew­ish char­ac­ters in her books, whether by their class sta­tus, their activism, or their indif­fer­ence to reli­gious tra­di­tion, embody that long and per­sis­tent lega­cy of being Jew­ish Amer­i­can. Mar­i­lyn Sachs chal­lenged young read­ers to see her Jew­ish char­ac­ters for what they were: indi­vid­u­als with imper­fect fam­i­lies and uneven rela­tion­ships, as well as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the cul­ture which informed their lives, whether in small or all-con­sum­ing ways. The nuance that she brought to her rich inter­pre­ta­tion of the immi­grant expe­ri­ence, and of the lives of Jew­ish Amer­i­cans already estab­lished here, makes her books well worth read­ing today.

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.