“Living so long in exile and so often in danger, we have cultivated a defensive and apologetic account, a censored story, of Jewish religion and culture.”
The $100 million-dollar film Where the Wild Things Are was released last October. Older readers might remember the 1963 children’s book on which the film is based. The original book was penned by Jewish American writer Maurice Sendak, who grew up in Brooklyn. Today I will consider whether or not the writer’s Jewish background played a role in the book’s creation.
Many accounts of the book (and film) ignore the Jewish angle. For example, right around the time of the release of the film, The New York Times carried Bruce Handy’s review of the book. No mention at all was made of Jewishness.
Just to bring the reader up to speed, let me share Handy’s summary of the story:
Max, a young boy in a wolf costume, makes mischief of one kind and another, is called “wild thing” by his unseen mother, and is sent to bed without supper. As he stews, his room transforms into a jungle. He finds a boat and sets sail across the sea to discover a land full of real wild things — big monsters with “terrible teeth” and “terrible roars.” Max tames them, plays with them, sends them to bed without their suppers and then returns home, where he finds dinner waiting for him. “And it was still hot,” the book concludes — a lovely and reassuring grace note.
Handy relates how he only came to appreciate the book upon rereading it as an adult, perhaps because Sendak himself was revealing his adult anxieties in the book. As Sendak said in 1966, “It’s only after the act of writing the book that, as an adult, I can see what has happened, and talk about fantasy as catharsis, about Max acting out his anger as he fights to grow. . . . For me, the book was a personal exorcism. It went deeper into my own childhood than anything I’ve done before.”
I suspect Sendak is being honest when he says it goes deep into his childhood. But one angle I think he is describing is his urban Jewish view of the non-Jews around him. And his book — which he also illustrated — likely represents his view of the world outside the Polish shtetl of his parents and relatives. That unknown world, malevolent and dangerous, was, in Sendak’s mind, full of lurking creatures. Brandeis professor Stephen J. Whitfield, a specialist in American Studies, realizes the extent to which Jewishness animates Sendak’s work. Sendak, Whitfield notes, “wrote out of personal obsessions rather than formulas.”
To be sure, we all have various aspects to our personalities, so Sendak may indeed be mixing various memories and such. For instance, according to his Wikipedia bio, he admitted in an interview that he is homosexual, which may or may not influence his individual stories. (In the Night Kitchen is a 1970 story about a naked boy — roughly three years old — who is almost baked into a cake. Sendak’s drawings depict the boy’s penis and testicles, which caused many parents to object to libraries stocking the book.)
To further challenge my thesis that Jewishness played a role in Where the Wild Things Are, we must also consider this: “The monsters in the book were actually based on [Sendak’s] relatives who would come to weekly dinners. Because of their broken English and odd mannerisms, they were the perfect basis for the monsters in Sendak’s book.”
I believe his relatives may have provided a rough frame on which to hang the fleshed-out monsters, but I still think Sendak’s primary inspiration for the book was his conscious and unconscious views of the wider non-Jewish world. I think this because it jibes so well with other accounts by contemporary Jewish Americans, thus revealing a shared Jewish mindset.
Let me start with this account of what West Coast Jews think of their non-Jewish fellow countrymen, as related by social scientists Martin Lipset and Earl Raab:
In 1985 about a third of those affiliated with the Jewish community in the San Francisco area said, in response to a questionnaire, that Jewish candidates could not be elected to Congress from San Francisco. Yet three out of the four congressional representatives from that area — as well as the two state senators and the mayor of San Francisco — were, in fact, well-identified Jews at the time the poll was conducted. And they had been elected by a population that was about 95 percent non-Jewish.
In 1981 nine out of ten respondents in the same regional Jewish population said that they felt “comfortable” in America. But seven out of eight also believed that anti-Semitism is a serious problem in this country. Nationally, about eight out of ten affiliated Jews voiced serious concerns in 1990 about anti-Semitism, while the same overwhelming proportion replied that they felt “close” or “very close” to the American people.
Clearly, many American Jews are battling with cognitive dissonance when it comes to assessing their safety and welfare in America. Objectively, there is very, very little that has threatened American Jews financially, socially or physically. Yet deeper inside their psyches, there is something telling them that all non-Jews are potentially dangerous and unfriendly anti-Semites. (As the old saw goes, “Scratch a goy, find an anti-Semite.”)
This fear and defensiveness may stem from what Professor Salo Baron, a prominent Jewish historian, has called the “lachrymose view of Jewish history.” Or, as Barbara Fuerlicht writes, “The diaspora is often presented as 2,000 years of uninterrupted martyrdom.” Again, however, we find that paradox spawned by the incongruity between reality and perception. Consider, for example, that one scholar wrote, “Most medieval Jews in most places in most years were not the targets of pogroms. Most lived lives that, protected by geniz charters [i.e., charters specifying Jewish rights] and privileges, were far more secure and prosperous than the overwhelming percentage of non-Jews around them.”
For example, this charter for the Duchy of Austria from 1244 is summarized as follows:
This document is important because it was soon adopted, with some changes, by most East European countries to which the masses of Jews finally drifted: Hungary, Bohemia, Poland, Silesia, and Lithuania. This charter — a very favorable one — was issued to encourage money-lending among the Austrian Jews and probably also to attract moneyed Jews to migrate to this outlying German state which was in need of ready credit. Every effort is therefore made in this Latin constitution to grant the Jews ample opportunity to sell their wares and, above all, to lend money. They were given adequate protection: they were subject to the direct jurisdiction of the Duke who guaranteed them safety of life and limb. The right of the Jews to govern themselves in communal and religious matters was not specified by the Duke, but this was taken for granted. We may assume, indeed, that the Jews of Austria enjoyed extensive political autonomy under this pact.
In any serious study of Jewish history, one is surprised to see how true this is for accounts of many different times and places. As we’ve seen, however, this sense of defensiveness continues to haunt Jews in America, as social historian David Gerber details in his insightful 1997 essay “Ill at Ease: The Insecurities of American Jewry”:
The almost universal feeling of anxiety American Jews have about intergroup relations raises many complex questions. Do Jews feel threatened because they really are threatened? Does objective evidence indicate a resurgence of the anti-Semitism that is widely acknowledged to have declined in the decades immediately following World War II? Or, is it the case that little objective evidence is needed to make a people whose conditions of life have historically been so insecure feel threatened, even in the apparently benign American diaspora? [p.95]
Philip Weiss, writing in New York magazine (January 29, 1996), suggests psychological reasons for this defensiveness:
Jews cherish feelings of exclusion not just because there is wisdom in foreboding but because these feelings are useful. They preserve our position as outsiders, a status that has certain moral and practical advantages. As an outsider, you have motivation: to get in. And you get to be demanding without any particular sense of reciprocity . . . Perhaps most important, these feelings solidify Jewish identity.
A personal account that got my attention was one by New Yorker Karen Brodkin, who spent summers in Vermont with her friends and family in a bungalow colony of Jewish families:
Late one summer night, a group of us tied up all the rowboats that belonged to our group of families out in the middle of the lake. We looked forward to parental surprise when they woke up, but we weren’t prepared for their genuine alarm: This could only be an anti-Semitic act by angry Yankees. What did it portend for our group? We were surprised on two counts: that the adults didn’t assume we had done it, since we were always playing practical jokes, and that they thought our Jewishness mattered to Vermont Yankees.
There is no shortage of similar accounts. For instance, American Israeli journalist Ze’ev Chafets relates how his maternal grandmother, born in Sterling, Illinois, maintained a mental map of Jewish and non-Jewish America:
Pontiac [Michigan] never had enough Jews for a Jewish neighborhood, but from the time I was a small boy I was aware that it had a special Jewish geography, and my grandmother was its da Gama. She would point out an unremarkable brick home on a leafy street and confide, “That’s a Jewish house.” Downtown she would pause near a certain store and say, “This is a Jewish business.” Occasionally, when we passed a parking lot, she would point out a Chevrolet or Plymouth and say, “There’s a Jewish car.” None of these cars, shops, or houses impressed me as being especially Jewish, but I was prepared to take her word for it.
At first I thought that mastering Pontiac’s Jewish geography was some sort of Sunday school lesson, like memorizing the Hebrew alphabet or the kings of Judea. But as I grew older, I realized that my grandmother mapped out the town reflexively, more for her benefit than mine. Jewish houses, stores, and offices were safe havens, places she could count on if, for example, she needed to use a bathroom, or was being chased through the streets by a sex-crazed Cossack rapist.
Jewish historian Peter Novick describes the “the fortress-like mentality” of many American Jews, where the institutional imperative was to promote “a wary suspicion of gentiles.” Consider three examples he provides from three “otherwise apparently sensible American Jews” to show how they had internalized these Jewish “collective memories — memories that suffuse group consciousness.” First, a university teacher writes, “When I move to a new town, I give great thought to whom, among my gentile friends, I might entrust my children, should that ever become necessary.” Next, a prominent Jewish feminist shares this thought: “Every conscious Jew longs to ask her or his non-Jewish friends, ‘Would you hide me?’ — and suppresses the question for fear of hearing sounds of silence.” Finally, a professor of psychology reports:
Many Jews report that the unspoken question they ask themselves when interacting with a non-Jew is, “Would she or he have saved me from the Nazis?” I have asked myself this question innumerable times: sometimes I surprise myself by answering, “I don’t know,” when asking this question of a non-Jewish friend I had otherwise assumed was close to me. The answer is the ultimate standard by which to measure trust in a non-Jewish person.
Honestly, do you want to live with such irrationally suspicious people? Worse, do you want to live under such “fellow” Americans now that so many of them dominate the controlling heights of this country?
Take Harvard, for instance. A leading law professorship there is a powerful position. And that’s precisely what Orthodox Jew Alan Dershowitz has held for years. Never mind that this fourth-generation American can write: “It was at Yale that I met and befriended my first Wasps, blacks, and even non-Orthodox Jews.” Are we really living in the same universe?
Dershowitz admits he is so highly invested in the “Holocaust mentality” that the world in which he sometimes lives borders on the horrifically imaginary. Witness his feelings as he sat watching the accused concentration camp guard Ivan Demjanjuk on trial in Israel:
I kept looking at Demjanjuk for another reason. I imagined him as my killer. At the time he was murdering babies, I was five years old. . . . I could have been one of the thousands of nameless and faceless babies he grabbed out of the hands of screaming mothers and shoved into gas chambers. I imagine him laughing with sadistic joy as he killed entire families, ending their seed forever, after taunting and torturing them gratuitously.
This vicarious sense of suffering is intense for Dershowitz and haunts not only his future but the future of Jewish children: “Every time I attend a gathering of Jewish children — at a family event, at a Bar Mitzvah, at Simchath Torah — I imagine SS guards lining up these children for the gas chambers.” Isn’t this evidence enough that Dershowitz needs, at a minimum, counseling?
How might such a mentality be constructed in a place where daily life never offers the chance to experience real persecution? Try this: Jewish American journalist Marjorie Miller relates a childhood story regarding her religious school. In addition to learning the Hebrew alphabet, she also learned about the Holocaust. One Sunday her teacher, “in a scared voice,” called the students to attention and told them to listen carefully: “Had we heard the radio? The government was telling the Jews that we had to convert or leave the country.” This, the teacher explained, “was the first step . . . maybe the beginning of another Holocaust.” Not surprisingly, “Many children in the class began to cry.”
This mentality is reminiscent of interviews done in the 1970s with noted Jewish men, where the question “Do you think it could happen here?” never needed “it” defined. Nearly unanimously, the reply was the same: “If you know history at all, you have to presume not that it could happen, but that it probably will,” or “It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when” [quoted in MacDonald, The Culture of Critique, p.245].
Reader, think about it: If you’re an average American, you quietly pay your federal taxes, likely knowing that some goes to aid Israel. (On top of that, many of you Christian Zionists support Israel further through donations and political support.) Further, it’s highly improbable that you’ve ever committed a crime against a Jew, let alone actually harmed one. The thought has probably never even crossed your mind.
Yet a good percentage of American-born Jews still consider you a lethal threat simply because you are not a Jew. At this stage in history, is there any excuse for that? Worse, such Jews are often able to translate their fantasy-based fears about goyim into cultural products such as films and TV shows—and books like Where the Wild Things Are. Through the activism of groups like the ADL, they are also able to affect legislation such as the new Hate Crimes Law that may well target people like you for potentially thinking the wrong thing. This is not good.
In any case, it will be interesting to see how the film has been adapted from Sendak’s book. My guess is that the live action animation will not have a theme about dangerous non-Jews, but I should wait until I see it before saying more. Still, it’s got the typical Jewish background of a Hollywood production. For instance, Spike Jonze, born Adam Spiegel in 1969, is the film’s director, replacing earlier director Eric Goldberg. Let’s just hope Jonze is not one of those paranoid Jewish Americans always wondering if “it” could happen here.