All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly Uptown, by Syd­ney Taylor

The hol­i­day of Shavuot has sev­er­al faces, each rep­re­sent­ing a pro­found­ly impor­tant aspect of Jew­ish his­to­ry and reli­gious prac­tice. One of the three pil­grim­age fes­ti­vals — along with Passover and Sukkos which required obser­vance at the Tem­ple in Jerusalem in ancient times — its ori­gins were agri­cul­tur­al; sev­en weeks after Passover, Israelites brought the first fruits of their har­vest as an offer­ing to God. Shavuot is the time when Jews cel­e­brate the giv­ing of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and is also indeli­bly asso­ci­at­ed with read­ing the bib­li­cal Book of Ruth. Although all of these aspects are both his­tor­i­cal­ly and the­o­log­i­cal­ly relat­ed, authors and illus­tra­tors of children’s books have often cho­sen to high­light one of them in pre­sent­ing the com­plex rich­es of the Feast of Weeks. How­ev­er, there is anoth­er Shavuot tra­di­tion, that of dec­o­rat­ing syn­a­gogues and homes with beau­ti­ful adorn­ments, both nat­ur­al and hand­made. Syd­ney Tay­lor and Sadie Rose Weil­er­stein are two authors who respond­ed to the chal­lenge of Shavuot by inte­grat­ing this theme of artis­tic cre­ativ­i­ty into their sto­ries, focus­ing on the lives of gift­ed young women. In Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly Uptown and Weilerstein’s Ten and a Kid, female char­ac­ters par­tic­i­pate in reli­gious expe­ri­ences through aes­thet­ic projects, both per­for­ma­tive and visu­al, root­ed in the lives of their communities.

Ella, the old­est sib­ling in Taylor’s series, directs her synagogue’s Shavuot play, com­bin­ing her the­atri­cal tal­ents and enjoy­ing author­i­ty while giv­ing mean­ing to her own life at a dif­fi­cult time. In Weilerstein’s nov­el set in an East­ern Euro­pean shtetl, twelve-year-old Fayge is a preter­nat­u­ral­ly gift­ed artist who ful­fills her per­son­al vision and enjoys the acco­lades of her neigh­bors by craft­ing a stun­ning rit­u­al object. In both nov­els, obser­vance of Shavuot pro­vides women the oppor­tu­ni­ty to reach out to their com­mu­ni­ties and look with­in as suc­cess­ful artists immersed in Jew­ish life.

Syd­ney Tay­lor (19041978) was her­self an aspir­ing actress as well as a per­former with the Martha Gra­ham Dance Com­pa­ny, before ded­i­cat­ing her­self to mar­riage, fam­i­ly, and a career as an author. Her char­ac­ter, Ella, also loves to per­form. (Con­sis­tent with the val­ues of the author’s time, in the final book in the series, Ella of All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly, Ella ulti­mate­ly gives up pro­fes­sion­al act­ing for the sake of her future fam­i­ly.) In All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly Uptown, illus­trat­ed by Mary Stevens(1958), Ella’s upward­ly mobile fam­i­ly has moved from the Low­er East Side to the Bronx, and the Unit­ed States is involved in World War I. The chap­ter Play for Shavu­os” opens not with a descrip­tion of the Jew­ish hol­i­day, but with a patri­ot­ic response to the nation’s cri­sis (both books use the Ashke­nazi spelling of the hol­i­day). The synagogue’s Shavuot play, to be direct­ed by Ella, is intro­duced as a fundrais­er for the Red Cross. One of the under­ly­ing themes of this post-World War I series is Jew­ish-Amer­i­can civic pride, and full accep­tance of Jews by their gen­tile neighbors.

One of the under­ly­ing themes of this post-World War I series is Jew­ish-Amer­i­can civic pride, and full accep­tance of Jews by their gen­tile neighbors.

But the play has anoth­er pur­pose for Ella. She is anx­ious about her boyfriend Jules, a sol­dier who is off fight­ing in Europe. Direct­ing the Shavuot play will be a chance to turn her wor­ries to a pro­duc­tive pur­pose. Ella’s moth­er reminds her that “…there’s noth­ing like work to help you for­get trou­ble,” and soon Ella is ful­ly com­mit­ted to the play. Tay­lor describes Ella’s con­sum­ing involve­ment and her unmatched skills. Ella’s guid­ing hand was in every­thing.” While oth­er teach­ers sewed the cos­tumes, it was Ella who designed them. On the oth­er hand, while male stu­dents assem­ble scenery under her super­vi­sion, Ella her­self does much of the paint­ing, reluc­tant to sur­ren­der con­trol to some­one less able. The results are incred­i­bly life­like; the gold­en fields filled with cut sheaves seemed so real that one could almost smell the fall­en glean­ings.” Even when Ella’s sis­ter, Hen­ny, takes charge of chore­og­ra­phy, Ella inter­cedes with sug­ges­tions. When she real­izes that the girl play­ing the bib­li­cal Ruth can­not sing, at least accord­ing to her stan­dards, Ella devis­es a plan to avoid com­pro­mis­ing her exact­ing ideals. At this point in the nar­ra­tive, it seems that the pri­ma­ry goal of the Shavuot play is to show­case Ella’s broad range of talents.

Then the show begins, and Tay­lor inserts the bib­li­cal sto­ry into the text. A child’s nar­ra­tion tells a sim­pli­fied ver­sion of Ruth and Naomi’s sto­ry, both teach­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing the pub­lic. Ella is teach­ing Torah to her com­mu­ni­ty, as well as extend­ing a bridge to her non-Jew­ish neigh­bors in the audi­ence. When the moment comes for Ruth to sing a solo based on the bib­li­cal text, Ella’s voice emerges while the actress mere­ly mouths the words to the song. Ella’s need to exert total con­trol over her pro­duc­tion seems to con­tra­dict the sup­port­ing role to which women were lim­it­ed in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. The poor girl play­ing Ruth, who is not named in the sto­ry as if in def­er­ence to her feel­ings, is reduced to a mouth­piece for Ella’s supe­ri­or voice. In anoth­er inci­dent threat­en­ing the play’s cohe­sion, Ella’s youngest sis­ter, Ger­tie, suf­fers embar­rass­ment while per­form­ing a dance sequence. Her skirt becomes unpinned, and she is the object of mock­ing laugh­ter. Ella, in a mix of mater­nal reas­sur­ance and insis­tent per­fec­tion­ism, encour­ages her sis­ter to return to the stage and lit­er­al­ly push­es her out of the wings.

After the play, the fam­i­ly returns home to enjoy tra­di­tion­al dairy blintzes and to kvell over the one hun­dred and twen­ty-five dol­lars raised for the Red Cross. Ella’s the­atri­cal tri­umph has ben­e­fit­ed her com­mu­ni­ty and her coun­try but was also a vehi­cle for her ener­gy and tal­ent. In a some­what ambigu­ous con­clu­sion, Ella asserts that it was her father’s unin­ten­tion­al dimin­ish­ing of her project that had moti­vat­ed her. When she first not­ed that the actress play­ing Ruth could not sing, he had remarked, Ten years from now, who’ll remem­ber who sang?” giv­ing Ella the idea to sub­sti­tute her own voice for the girl’s. Was Ella will­ing to risk fail­ure if the scheme did not work because, as her father point­ed out, the whole event was tran­sient and eas­i­ly for­got­ten? This seems unlike­ly. Her nar­ra­tive per­spec­tive dom­i­nates the chap­ter, call­ing the reader’s atten­tion to her accom­plish­ments: Mur­murs of admi­ra­tion swelled…from the auditorium…The audi­ence applaud­ed loudly…Everyone agreed that it had been a huge suc­cess.” The Shavuot play was not like­ly to fade from the col­lec­tive mem­o­ry, or from Ella’s.

The Shavuot play was not like­ly to fade from the col­lec­tive mem­o­ry, or from Ella’s.

Fayge, in Sadie Rose Weilerstein’s (18941993) Ten and a Kid, illus­trat­ed by Jan­i­na Doman­s­ka (1961), is also a cre­ative spir­it, although her intro­vert­ed nature and qui­et spir­i­tu­al­i­ty set her apart from Ella’s very pub­lic pres­ence. Reli­gious obser­vance is cen­tral to her large fam­i­ly and their com­mu­ni­ty, but she and each one of her sev­en sib­lings are indi­vid­u­als with dis­tinct ways of express­ing their per­son­al­i­ties. While her sis­ter is an elo­quent fem­i­nist who insists on learn­ing Torah and ful­fill­ing oth­er mitzvot usu­al­ly denied to women, Fayge is most focused on artis­tic expres­sion of her rela­tion­ship to God. The author states, that Fayge had always been dif­fer­ent from the rest of the chil­dren.” Where oth­ers see only what is before their eyes, Fayge sees beyond that. Her favorite hol­i­days are Sukkos and Shavuot, specif­i­cal­ly because of their asso­ci­a­tion with phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. Fayge sees the green boughs and grass­es that beau­ti­fy her home on Shavuot as anal­o­gous to a poor girl being dressed like a princess.

The chap­ter Fayge’s Tree” weaves togeth­er the nat­ur­al and artis­tic cre­ations, which, for Fayge, embody the fes­ti­val. When a neigh­bor gives her a small tree to plant in her own yard, she lov­ing­ly waters it and pro­tects it with bar­ri­ers; when a goat uproots the tree, she is heart­bro­ken. At the same time, the arti­fice of skilled crafts­men also fas­ci­nates her. Sit­ting in the women’s bal­cony in syn­a­gogue, Fayge looks down at the elab­o­rate­ly carved bimah where the Torah is read. Her old­er sis­ter, Esther, is pray­ing, but she is not: She was look­ing, just looking…At the bimah, its wood­en rail­ing and canopy carved with pears and apples and curl­ing leaves. Fayge wished that she could go down and curve her hands around a pear.” Fayge responds so deeply to the nat­ur­al forms embed­ded in the wood that she los­es any sense of per­son­al bound­ary between her­self and the rit­u­al object. Her ver­sion of piety is as legit­i­mate as the more for­mal­ized prayers of her sister.

Through­out his­to­ry, women’s art­works have fre­quent­ly been giv­en low­er-sta­tus as form of craft. Whether needle­work, pot­tery, or jew­el­ry — for per­son­al or reli­gious use — they have required the same lev­el of exper­tise as the paint­ing or sculp­ture more typ­i­cal­ly pro­duced by men. Fayge’s moth­er, Git­tel, her­self a gift­ed craftswoman, intu­its that her daugh­ter needs an out­let for her artis­tic abil­i­ties: What Fayge needs is to make some­thing beau­ti­ful with those hands of hers.” She is as sup­port­ive as Ella’s moth­er, but her under­stand­ing of Fayge’s needs is deep­er. While Ella’s moth­er views her involve­ment in the Shavuot play as a help­ful dis­trac­tion, Fayge’s moth­er rec­og­nizes that the cre­ative process is an essen­tial part of her daughter’s psy­che. Giv­en the family’s pover­ty, she can only pro­vide mate­ri­als for Fayge’s work by dis­man­tling one of her most pre­cious pos­ses­sions, a bas­ket cov­ered in elab­o­rate bead­work. In Ten and a Kid, Weil­er­stein por­trays the chain of tra­di­tion between moth­er and daugh­ter with as much dig­ni­ty as the trans­mis­sion of Torah study between father and son.

While Ella’s moth­er views her involve­ment in the Shavuot play as a help­ful dis­trac­tion, Fayge’s moth­er rec­og­nizes that the cre­ative process is an essen­tial part of her daughter’s psyche.

Her father had orig­i­nal­ly been dis­mis­sive of Fayge’s extreme sor­row over the loss of her tree, and the lack of com­mon sense, which it implied. But he is con­vinced by his wife’s pro­posed solu­tion and he offers to help Fayge to cre­ate a mizrach, the wall hang­ing indi­cat­ing the east­ern direc­tion for prayer towards Jerusalem. Like Ella’s play, Fayge’s work will have reli­gious and com­mu­nal val­ue, but in a more focused form. Ella’s range of per­for­ma­tive pro­fi­cien­cies allowed her both to express her­self and to enjoy the author­i­ty of coor­di­nat­ing the work of oth­ers. Fayge’s mizrachis exquis­ite on a small­er scale, a fem­i­nine ver­sion of the mas­sive bimah, but some­how more pow­er­ful in its impact: Around the bor­der ran pears and apples with stems and curv­ing leaves like the carved ones in the syn­a­gogue, only these glowed red and green and yel­low.” Her father teach­es her the Hebrew let­ters so that she may embroi­der the bib­li­cal phrase refer­ring to the Torah as a tree of life.”

Although Fayge’s mas­ter­piece was designed for her­self and her fam­i­ly, its unmatched qual­i­ty draws the admi­ra­tion of the whole town. Vil­lagers stop by dur­ing Shavuot just to see it, stand­ing “…in awe before the mizrach, admir­ing the glow­ing bor­der, the per­fect tree, spelling out the sacred let­ters.” Her work of art has become, in its own way, as instru­men­tal to rit­u­al obser­vance as the synagogue’s bimah, her neigh­bors active­ly pro­nounc­ing her embroi­dered Hebrew let­ters a tes­ti­mo­ny to its impor­tance. At the same time, every­one rec­og­nizes in Fayge’s gifts the lega­cy of her moth­er, many com­ment­ing that The child has your hands, Git­tel.” On Shavuot, when Jews com­mem­o­rate God’s gift of the Torah to the peo­ple of Israel through His prophet, Moses, Fayge’s mizrach­brings women into the pic­ture. Moses held up the stone tablets engraved with God’s law, while Fayge’s bead­ed let­ters make them tan­gi­ble in her community.

The fes­ti­val of Shavuot is mul­ti­di­men­sion­al; children’s authors have often high­light­ed the cen­tral­i­ty of Torah or the holiday’s his­tor­i­cal ori­gins in an agri­cul­tur­al soci­ety. Syd­ney Tay­lor and Sadie Rose Weil­er­stein, both con­cerned with the dis­tinc­tive role of women in Jew­ish life, chose to exam­ine those roles through the lens of artis­tic cre­ativ­i­ty in their Shavuot sto­ries. On Shavuot, ele­ments of the nat­ur­al world and the fruits of artis­tic labor are both used to reflect the splen­dor of cre­ation and the gift of the Torah. Ella’s untir­ing enthu­si­asm and relent­less mul­ti­task­ing bring the sto­ry of Ruth and Nao­mi to a grate­ful audi­ence, even as she affirms the val­ue of her own iden­ti­ty as a per­former and direc­tor. Fayge, a qui­et young woman who out­ward­ly con­forms to soci­etal expec­ta­tions, is com­pelled to cre­ate works of last­ing beau­ty. When giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty, through her mother’s love and sac­ri­fice, her work becomes a link in the chain of Jew­ish tra­di­tion; her mizrach is declared a won­der, a mar­vel.” The won­der and mar­vel of women’s cre­ativ­i­ty, on a pub­lic stage or in the pri­vate can­vas of home, are essen­tial com­po­nents of Shavuot cel­e­bra­tion in these mem­o­rable books.

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.