Where the Wild Jews Are: Maurice Sendak’s Real Life Monsters

For the monsters in the book "Where the Wild Things Are", Maurice Sendak had in mind people he actually knew. The dark themes of his children’s books, which have been the subject of repeated criticism, reflected the world he inhabited

Yael Ingel
Writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak against a background featuring characters from his book "Where the Wild Things Are", photo: Clarence Patch

“And when he came to the place where the wild things are

they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth

and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws

till Max said ‘BE STILL!’

and tamed them with the magic trick

of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.”

From Where the Wild Things Are

“Scary.” “Gloomy.” “Not suitable for children.” “High potential for nightmares.” These were some of the criticisms used to describe Maurice Sendak’s books.

In Where the Wild Things Are, young Max encounters terrifying creatures with pointed teeth and sharp horns after being sent to his room without supper. In In the Night Kitchen (1970), a boy barely escapes drowning in a pot of cake batter, and in Outside Over There (1981), yet another boy is kidnapped by goblins. But despite the dark themes (or maybe because of them?) Maurice Sendak’s books have been a huge international success.

Maurice was born in 1928, the youngest of three children, to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents. His mother Sarah didn’t speak a word of English when she arrived in the United States on her own at the age of sixteen in the early 1920s, following a terrible quarrel with her mother. His father Philip also arrived alone from Poland. Philip’s father, a communal rabbi, cut ties with his son when he decided to leave home and move to the States. From careful reading between the lines of Sendak’s books, as well as from various interviews with the author, it appears that the melancholic atmosphere of his parents’ home, each of whom had left their family behind after a falling out, greatly influenced Maurice and his work. Of course the looming shadow of the catastrophe of the Jewish people in those years also played a part.

Maurice Sendak as a baby with his family, 1928. From the book: The Art of Maurice Sendak

Sendak himself said that he did not grow up in a happy home. His descriptions of his childhood and the atmosphere at home are characteristic of the stories of second-generation Holocaust survivors. Although his parents did not experience the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand, it was nevertheless a pervasive presence in his communal and family space in Jewish-Yiddish Brooklyn. Gloom was an integral part of his home life as a child, and he conveys this in his work.

In his books, he acknowledged the less agreeable parts of childhood and the cruelty and loneliness that can accompany it. “I refuse to lie to children,” he said. That is why, rather than beautifying reality, he chose to write also about the less pleasant experiences of childhood that would be familiar to every child. And perhaps this is precisely the secret of his success.

From Where the Wild Things Are

The clearest example of this is Sendak’s description of his inspiration for the famous wild creatures of Where the Wild Things Are:

“The wild things are my aunts, uncles and cousins who came from the old country, those few who got in before the gate closed, all on my mother’s side. These people didn’t speak English, only Yiddish. And they were unkempt. Their teeth were horrifying. They had hair unravelling out of their noses. And they’d pick you up and hug you and kiss you. ‘Aggghh. Oh, we could eat you up’, they’d say. And we knew they would eat anything. Anything.”

Sketch for Where the Wild Things Are, 1963. From: The Art of Maurice Sendak

The diasporic Jewish context permeated Sendak’s childhood. One tragic personal memory stands out: on the day of his Bar Mitzvah, his father received the terrible news that his entire family had perished [in the Holocaust]. Not a single relative remained alive. He collapsed on his bed and refused to get up. Thirteen-year-old Maurice walked into his father’s bedroom and screamed at him: “You gotta get up, you gotta get up!” And he did. The event took place as planned, but Sendak was left with terrible feelings of guilt for the way he behaved to his father.

In interviews later in his life, Sendak’s descriptions of his parents were unbearably harsh. “They should have been crazy,” he said. These were traumatized, angry people who lived miserable lives.

Sendak didn’t like school, and started drawing at a young age. His first works were very “Jewish.” The first book he illustrated was called Good Shabbos, Everybody, published in 1951 by the United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education.

Another Jewish-themed work written and illustrated by Sendak was Chicken Soup with Rice—a lovely book that teaches toddlers about the months of the year, and describes how chicken soup—the traditional Jewish dish known as a cure for almost everything—is suitable for every month.

His parents did not particularly appreciate his work and were even disappointed when he took a job as an illustrator instead of going to university. However, a momentous reconciliation occurred when Sendak was asked to illustrate the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning writer. This was something his parents could be proud of.

Before starting work on the illustrations for Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories Maurice pulled out his parents’ family photo albums from Poland. Inside he found pictures of his father standing next to his tall handsome brothers and women with long hair adorned with flowers. He went through all the albums, selecting some of his father’s relatives and some of his mother’s, and drew them with great precision. His parents burst into tears when they saw the drawings and recognized their relatives. Maurice cried with them. He recalls this as a special moment in their relationship when they realized that thanks to him the memory of their beloved relatives had been made indelible in the book.

Maurice Sendak’s maternal grandparents. From the book The Art of Maurice Sendak

In a way, Sendak saw himself as a Holocaust survivor. He always remembered that he was alive by chance; that if his parents had not boarded the ship from Poland when they did, he would not be here. He and his older brother chose not to have children. “People always ask me,” he once said, “if I am so interested in children, why don’t I have children of my own. The answer is simple: I think I would be a failure as a parent. And I hate to fail. I had a very troubled childhood. As an adult I didn’t feel I had the right qualities to be a parent.”

Maurice Sendak passed away in 2012, at the age of 83. As a person who came from a Jewish-Yiddish background, his life was characterized not only by melancholy and a deep uncompromising desire to tell his truth, but also by a sharp sense of humor. An interview with Emma Brockes of The Guardian just a few months before his death captured his sarcastic wit: The reporter, arriving at his house in rural Connecticut, was greeted first by Sendak’s big German Shepherd named Herman (after Herman Melville).

When Sendak came out to meet her, he whispered to her: “He doesn’t know I’m Jewish”.


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