Curate and Create: The Poster Competition That United Kids Worldwide With Israel

As Israel turned 75 years old, the National Library of Israel wanted to celebrate with a new and exciting project. Thus, Curate & Create was born, a poster competition for children from all over the world, complete with educational resources and primary sources. With over 600 participants, read about how this NLI project came to be so successful!

Curate & Create logo, Curate & Create Yom Ha'Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

In 1984 a competition was inaugurated in Israel for children worldwide to design a postage stamp for the upcoming Jewish New Year.  At the same time, a little girl named Shuvi Hoffman was living in New York, and was excitedly looking forward to her sixth birthday. For her birthday party, Shuvi decided to invite her friends to join her and design a stamp to submit for the competition. The children congregated around the posterboard and spent the afternoon making a stamp which represented their connection to Israel, not knowing that this art activity would leave a lasting impression on the little girl.

Nearly 40 years later, Shuvi, now an adult, sat around the meeting table with her colleagues at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, brows furrowed together as they brainstormed ideas. This year, the National Library had a big task: Israel was turning 75 years old the NLI wanted to celebrate Israel’s significant birthday with a new and exciting project.

Curate & Create logo, Curate & Create, Yom Ha’Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

After throwing around many ideas, Shuvi thought back to her sixth birthday party and how excited she had been to take part in an art competition which connected her to Israel, and a metaphorical light bulb flicked on over her head: Before long she was suggesting that the NLI host its very own competition. The idea would be to challenge kids all over the world to make a poster, much like the ones in our own archives, and send them in from around the globe for judgment, and the chance to win a trip to Israel. The team knew a great idea when they heard one and got to work almost immediately.

It was early in the summer of 2022 at this point, so they had almost a year to pull off the competition. The idea was complex but manageable: they would collate 75 archives from the National Library collections – mainly posters but a few photographs and adverts too – and upload them to a specially-made website. Next, they would formulate 6 unique lesson plans which educators could utilize to teach their students about Israel. Finally, a special portal was to be set up for students to submit their posters to the NLI, and within a few months the project would be ready to go live!

Some of the 75 primary sources, Curate & Create Yom Ha’Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

And soon enough the entrees started pouring in. As the competition went on, the whole National Library watched on with awe as a whopping 153 submissions came in. They had managed to reach 12 countries with a total of 5 languages, 28 schools and a massive 644 participants! Far and wide, the competition had taken root in the hearts of students and educators from Columbia and Estonia, Argentina and Canada, and so many other far-flung places.

Map of places from which submissions were received, Curate & Create Yom Ha’Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

As the posters were uploaded, an interesting trend could be seen: the posters were not just works of art but also commentaries on the society that they had come from, and how that specific student viewed Israel.

These elements considered, the winning posters were eventually chosen for their beautiful meaning, the tremendous efforts put in by the children, and their aesthetic and artistic quality. The winners, spanning four countries, each chose to focus on a unique part of Israel’s identity. From a love for Jerusalem, to Israel’s famous landmarks, the diverse and vast range of people who live in this special country, to the symbols and elements that make Israel spiritually elevated, these winning posters show how varied each student’s connections to Israel really are. It’s truly remarkable to see how different students relate to the State with different lenses – something which is worth diving deeper into.

Poster Competition Winners, Curate & Create Yom Ha’Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

Something that can be immediately noted is whether students related to Israel on a cultural, political or spiritual level.

Romanian 11th grader, and budding artist Rață Ionuț, drew an impressive poster of Einstein and David Ben-Gurion alongside other political leaders of Israel, explaining how Israel “champions democracy and freedom of expression. By showcasing these figures conversing with reporters, the poster suggests that Israel values open dialogue and transparency and strives to uphold these principles in its governance and society.” Alternatively, 6th grader Abraham Murciano Cohen-Henriquez from Panama who made a poster about Israeli dates, or Maya, a German 5th grader’s poster about Bissli, an Israeli snack, “convey the message that [Israeli food] turns you into a superhero.” Finally, Margie Pol, a 6th grader from Panama, showed that she relates to Israel via Judaism, as expressed with her poster of the Jewish holiday of Passover: “I chose Pesach for my poster to show why this Holiday is important for Israel.”

Abraham Murciano Cohen-Henriquez, Colegio Isaac Rabin, Margie Pol, Colegio Isaac Rabin, Maya, Heinz Galinski School, Rață Ionuț, Colegiul Național “Spiru Haret” – Tecuca, Curate & Create Yom Ha’Atzmaut Program and Poster Competition, the National Library of Israel

Whether it is the awesome food, the divine spirituality, the political discourse, or something else entirely, everyone has something that they can love about Israel or at the very least use to connect to Israel on some level. These students have proven this theory with their posters – some youngsters connect to the cultural elements of Israel, some the religious aspects, some the culinary, and some connect to elements not even shown here! But no matter what stands out for you, Israel is at the epicenter of it. In the original 75 primary sources, all of these elements are depicted via the various posters and images. Some educators taught their students from a more religious standpoint as is evident in their student’s posters, while one teacher had her entire class dedicate their posters to Israeli food! But ultimately all of these aspects were similarly used as vehicles to open discussion, teaching, and closeness to Israel.

The whole point of the poster competition was to meet educators where they were at and help them open the discourse on Israel. To encourage them to build connections between their students and our amazing country. To help them understand that Israel is a global project – one that we can all relate to, care about, have opinions about, and love. It is so evident that this goal has been achieved: just look at the gallery of posters and see how over 600 young people across the globe have found unique and beautiful ways to give meaning to this country which may even be thousands of miles away from them. Now that, is truly something remarkable.

The False Messiah: Shlomo Molcho’s Fascinating Life

When Portuguese crypto-Jew Diogo Pires met the daring adventurer David Reubeni, his life took an unexpected course. Converting to Judaism, Pires set off around the globe, learning Kabbalah, inspiring the greatest of Rabbis, attempting to create a Jewish army, and most famously, appointing himself as the Messiah.

"Portrait of a Man with A Turkish Hat", Maurycy Gottlieb, cover art for the book "Le Messie", Marek Halter, The Toby Press LCC, Robert Laffont, Paris

In the Kingdom of Portugal lived a group of Christians. These Christians kept the laws of kashrut, shabbat, and niddah. These Christians prayed from Jewish prayer books and learned from the Torah. These Christians did not want to be Christians, and in fact many claim that they never really were part of that religion. You see, these Christians had been born as Jews, but during the Middle Ages they were faced with a choice: convert to Christianity, leave their home, or be killed. They decided to convert, but in their hearts they still knew that they were Jews, and this secret group of people, known as crypto-Jews, continued to practice and believe in Judaism.

At some point between September 1500 and August 1502 (if you are already thinking that this timeframe is a little liberal, I’m warning you that this may not be the article for you!) a little boy was born to crypto-Jew parents, uncircumcised and denied a Jewish identity. He was named a traditional Christian Portuguese name: Diogo Pires. And for all legal intents and purposes Diogo Pires grew up as a Christian boy. He went through the Portuguese education system, doing well academically, and at the age of 21 he was appointed by the Portuguese King to become the royal secretary in the High Court of Appeals of Portugal.

Portrait of a Man with A Turkish Hat, Maurycy Gottlieb, cover art for the book Le Messie, Marek Halter, The Toby Press LCC, Robert Laffont, Paris

Diogo Pires would have made a name for himself in Portugal no matter what, and he was certainly on his way to doing just that, when fate decided that Pires’s life was about to change forever. He owed this upheaval to a man named David Reubeni.

Reubeni was born in 1490 in Khaybar in the Arabian Peninsula, but as with many aspects of Reubeni’s life, this fact is contested. Some claim that he was actually from India or Afghanistan, but considering that we have no proofs with which to confirm any of these myths, we will assume for our own purposes that the story Reubeni told of his own life is true. And according to Reubeni, he was an Arabian Prince and part of the lost Israelite tribe of Reuben (for which he was named). Reubeni had a brother, Joseph, who claimed that he was the King of the Jewish tribe of Reuben, and at least some of his community believed this to be true as he was granted authority to rule the ‘tribe’ with a group of 70 elders. The supposed Reubenite king and his elders kick off our story by sending young David on an important mission.

David Reubeni was an adventurer by trade and a political activist by choice. Shengold’s Jewish Encyclopedia describes him as “half mystic, half adventurer” as he spent his time learning Kabbalah and exploring Europe, carrying out daring missions on behalf of his brother. Arriving in Portugal in 1525, he began negotiating with the King of Portugal to seek an alliance and ask for weapons and money in order to create a Jewish army which would run the Ottoman Turks out of the Land of Israel and thus enable the Jews to regain control of the region. Reubeni needed resources and allies in order to fulfil this extravagant goal, and believed that Portugal, as a competing superpower to the Turks, would help.

An Illustration of David Reubeni on his horse

Considering that Israel is 75, not 500, years old, we know that this wasn’t a particularly successful mission, but it didn’t deter Reubeni. He stayed in Portugal for some time, secretly teaching Kabbalah to conversos and trying to garner support for his army. It was during one of these Kabbalah classes that Reubeni met Diogo Pires. Pires was completely taken by Reubeni and formed a belief that this remarkable man must be the Jewish Messiah. Pires claimed that he was given divine knowledge of this fact by G-d Himself, and would receive ‘visions’ informing him that Reubeni was the Messiah and would soon save the Jews, gather in the lost tribes of the Israelites, redeem the Land of Israel and rebuild the Jewish Temple. Yet again, considering the fact that no Messiah has thus far come to change the world, we know that this wasn’t the case, but to be fair Pires didn’t have that omniscience, despite his best efforts to persuade others that he did!

Diogo Pires believed that Reubeni had been brought into his world by divine providence, and that his entire life’s work was now laid out before him: to join Reubeni on his travels as a middle-aged groupie and preach on his behalf, convincing the world that Reubeni was the Messiah. Reubeni wasn’t very fond of this idea. For whatever reason, he decided that he would rather not have a super-fan attached to his heels, following him around adoringly on his brave adventures. Think: Donkey and Shrek. But unfortunately, Pires decided that no didn’t really mean no – it simply meant try harder. So Pires decided to circumcise himself and change his name, thus officially (well not really, but officially in his mind) converting to Judaism.

He took on the name Solomon Molcho, which has a deep symbolic meaning. Pires was determined to espouse and crown the next Jewish king, thus picking a name of one of the most famous historical Jewish kings (Solomon) and the name Molcho from the word Melech – king. However, this chosen name also has a deeper significance, seemingly overlooked by most literature on Molcho. King Solomon was actually not born with the name ‘Solomon’ (2 Samuel 12:25) – it was a name given to him upon his kingship due to the fact that he brought peace (shalom) to the Kingdom of Israel. When Pires adopted his goal of bringing the kingship back to Israel, and along with it, peace to the world, Solomon was thus an appropriate name to pick, like King Solomon did so many years earlier. Molcho is also evocative of the world Malach or angel, and as Pires believed that he was an emissary of G-d at this point, labelling himself as an angel seemed fitting.

But Reubeni wasn’t impressed. No matter what Pires, who we can now call Molcho, did, Reubeni was a lone-wolf through and through. However, now Molcho had a bigger issue: as we previously mentioned, being openly Jewish in Portugal was a death sentence, and he had just – very publicly – declared that he was Jewish. So, encouraged by Reubeni, Molcho fled from his home country. Additionally, in a turn of events that must have seemed truly unfair to Reubeni, his reluctant association with Molcho meant that he also had to flee Portugal.

From here, the story of Molcho gets a tad sticky. There are many different accounts of what may have come of him after he left Portugal, but we’ll do our best to use all the documents at our disposal to put an actual timeline on his subsequent travels.

All sources agree that Molcho spent time in Salonika soon after leaving Portugal, and we have good reason to believe that this was in fact his first destination after leaving his hometown. This is because Reubeni actually claimed later on, when being associated with Molcho had become a bit of a clout-booster, that he had sent him on an adventurous mission to the Ottoman Empire, which Salonika was a part of at the time. Reubeni doesn’t exactly say what this mission was, but it is more than possible that Molcho was indeed carrying out Reubeni’s will – he certainly had that influence over Molcho! Molcho also claimed in later writings that a divine power had come down to him and directed him to the region – maybe less of a likely story.

Sefer Hamefoar, Shlomo Molcho, Bavarian State Library, Munich, Germany, M. Steinschneider, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project
Sefer Hamefoar, Shlomo Molcho, University Library Johann Christian Senckenberg, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project

Either way, it seems that he ended up in Salonika, where a community of dedicated Jews were practicing their religion. Molcho was drawn to these Kabbalists and studied with them intensely. He was skilled at deciphering Kabbalistic codes and understanding the nuances of the mystical teachings, and he was soon accepted into Joseph Taitazak’s Bet Midrash. Joseph Taitazak, also known as the Maharitats, was one of the most preeminent Kabbalists in the Jewish world. He was known across Europe and the Land of Israel for his mysterious teachings and customs. He was a leading Talmudic scholar and writer, and was convinced by Molcho’s claims to legitimacy. In fact, he financially supported Molcho throughout his stint in the Ottoman realms where Molcho was lovingly accepted by the Kabbalists.

The Deeds of Shlomo Molcho”, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, NY, USA, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project
Sefer Hamefoar, Shlomo Molcho, the Ben Zvi Institute, Jerusalem, Israel Ms. 235, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” Project

Molcho studied with the best of the best in the Jewish world, of course spending time in deep discussion with the Maharitats, but also learning with Rabbi Joseph Karo! Karo authored one of  the most important books in Judaism: the Shulchan Aruch, which remains the most comprehensive and widely-consulted book of Jewish law to this day. In fact, being the author of this book is such a big deal that Karo is often simply referred to as “the author” or even “our master.” So it is VERY cool that Molcho studied with him. It’s even cooler that some of Karo’s works actually mention Molcho and the deep respect that the esteemed Rabbi had for him. As a final name-drop, it’s also important to say that Molcho inspired Shlomo Alkabetz in his highly revered works. Alkabetz is the scholar who wrote the piyut (hymn) Lecha Dodi, as well as a wealth of vital books on Talmud, Kabbalah and more.

Joseph Karo (Bet Yosef), The Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Of course, all of this boosted Molcho to fame, and he soon had a growing group of students and followers who hung on his every word. He spoke and published works on Talmud, Tanach and Kabbalah, and preached his beliefs throughout the Ottoman Empire. One such belief was that the Messiah would be crowned in 1540, and many of his loyal followers believed him. They were wrong. But they didn’t know that yet, so they still revered Molcho and all that he had to say, and his students would often beg him to write down his sermons and publish his works, including his ideas of how the Jewish redemption would play out. In 1529 he finally agreed and published many of his sermons in a compilation which he titled “Derashot,” although it was actually renamed “Sefer ha-Mefoar” later on.

Derashot, Shlomo Molcho, the British Library, London, England, G. Margoliouth, Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project
Derashot, Shlomo Molcho, he Ben Zvi Institute Jerusalem Israel, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project

After this, it seems that Molcho did a bit of traveling. Sources place him in Tzfat, Bavaria, Amsterdam, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Constantinople, with loyal followers in each of these places and a wealth of his own published works now following him around. He documented his letters and dreams in Chayat Kaneh, his ideas of Kabbalah and the messianic days to come, as well as additional letters and even a song he composed in Kitvei Shlomo Molcho.

It is also worth mentioning that by this point Molcho had changed his tune, as was pretty inevitable, and he now believed, after a dream he claimed to have had in 1526, that he was the Messiah. Poor Reubeni had been replaced.

Despite it being a bit complicated to track his exact gap-year-esque travels around the globe, we do know that Molcho arrived in Italy in 1529 and by 1530 he was residing in Rome. Some strange things happened in Rome, but then again strange things seem to be the theme of Molcho’s life, so by now we can come to expect it.

Shlomo Molcho’s Kabbalistic graph, from Kitvei Shlomo Molcho: (The Collected Writings of Shlomo Molcho), edited by Zev Golan and Rinat HaBerman, the National Library of Israel collections

To start, while Molcho was preaching at the Great Synagogue of Rome to a large crowd of Jewish and Gentile followers and interested passers-by, Molcho predicted that there would be a flood in October of the same year. Sure enough, on October 8, 1530, a huge flood engulfed Rome! With his new-found meteorologist hobby, Molcho subsequently and accurately predicted an earthquake which he said would shake Portugal in January of 1531. As promised, on the 26th of January 1531, an earthquake was indeed felt throughout Portugal!

Pope Clement VII heard about these phenomenal feats and asked to meet with Molcho. Deciding that Molcho was the real deal, he granted him protection from the Inquisition and the rising tide of antisemitism that was sweeping across Europe. This was the nail in the coffin for Molcho who was now convinced without a shadow of a doubt that he must be the Messiah. In Sanhedrin 98a, it is written that the Messiah will endure a period of suffering in his lifetime. This came as a blow for Molcho as he had never really experienced suffering. What a shame! But it was no problem, he thought, because he could always inflict suffering on himself! So, Molcho donned the dress of a beggar, found a bridge over the river Tiber which was frequented by sick and poverty-stricken homeless people, and declared a 30-day stint of suffering, in which he refused to stand up, eat meat, drink wine, or be happy. Satisfied with this, he went home after 30 days, took a nice long bath (presumably) and got to work on his arts and crafts. He made a yellow flag bearing the word “MACCABI” – an abbreviation of the verse in Exodus 15:11 which says “Who among the mighty is like unto G-d”. This flag was with him until his (spoiler) eventual demise!

Shlomo Molcho’s handwritten signature, including his hand-drawn flag, Sefer Chayat Kaneh – Chazon Shlomo Molcho, the Gershom Scholem Collection, the National Library of Israel

Before long, Molcho heard news which made his heart sing: his old pal Reubeni was in Italy too, and wished to see him. The pair were reunited, but this time Reubeni saw what a following Molcho had garnered and took him a lot more seriously. This was a bad decision for Reubeni, as you’ll soon see.

By this time Molcho had hatched a plan to fulfil his messianic role and start saving the Jews, so with Reubeni in tow, the pair traveled to Regensburg in 1532, where the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V held court. Molcho and Reubeni were granted a private audience with the Emperor and the three of them engaged in a private conversation which lasted more than 2 hours. It would be amazing to know exactly what was said during that conversation. Unfortunately, we do not. However, there are letters from the court, found decades later, which give us an idea as to what the men discussed. These letters posit that Molcho proposed a joint Jewish-Christian army which would fight against the Emperor’s enemies and conquer the Land of Israel for the Jews. Alternatively, Josselman of Rosheim, an advocate for German and Polish Jews in the imperial court, wrote in his memoirs that Molcho hadn’t been trying to conquer the Holy Land but rather spent the meeting encouraging the Emperor to mandate that the Jews must fight against the Turks and regain their religious freedoms. A third account which appears in the Encyclopedia Britannica states that what Molcho really wanted from the Emperor was money and arms so that the crypto-Jews could stand up for themselves and fight the Ottomans.

Whatever the contents of their discussion, it seems clear that Molcho was trying to form some sort of army to fight the Turks either (or maybe both) in the Land of Israel or closer to home. Molcho assumed that since the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottomans were two of the world’s competing super-powers, the Emperor might be interested in pairing up with Molcho and the Jews to fight against their mutual enemy.

He was wrong. Charles V hated his idea so much that he labelled Molcho and Reubeni as heretics and threats to the order of power. He sentenced Molcho to a trial in Mantua, and Reubeni to imprisonment in Spain. During Molcho’s trial, he was given a choice: revert to Christianity and continue living his life as a good Catholic, or die. Molcho rejected this offer, and chose the death of a martyr. He was burned at the stake. Reubeni also died not long afterwards in prison, and many believe that he was actually poisoned while incarcerated.

Shlomo Molcho, formerly Diogo Pires, lived a life as interesting, meaningful, and confusing as they get. He fought for his beliefs all the way to the end, refusing to give up on what he always said was his path. He may not have been a Messiah, but he did at least try to stand up for the Jews. He may not have been a prophet, but he did gain the respect of some of the leading Jewish figures of his time. He may not have been a scholar, but his books are still widely circulated and read. His life may have been an enigma, but we can still see him for the determined, ambitious man that he was, and know that he undoubtably left his own unique, albeit somewhat bizarre, mark on Jewish history.

Was the Giving Tree Simply Spineless?

Shel Silverstein’s "The Giving Tree" sold millions of copies around the world, but it was also a target of harsh reviews. What is it about this minimalist book that evokes such conflicting feelings and what did its creator have to say about it? And perhaps we can all learn from success instead of arguing with it

Shel Silverstein (photo: Jerry Yulsman 1964) and the cover of the Hebrew edition of "The Giving Tree" (Adam Publishers, 1979)

When 34-year-old Shel Silverstein submitted the illustrated manuscript of The Giving Tree to publishers, it was rejected.

Silverstein was already a well-known writer with several books for adults, a children’s book and even a first album that he wrote and recorded (many more would follow) under his belt, and yet, his latest creative effort was rejected. The reason the publishers gave was that it was not clear whether the book was intended for children or adults and that it would be confusing to readers.

We know how this story ends: Silverstein persevered, the book was published, and the skeptics’ misgivings turned out to be his trump card – the book, bought by adults and children alike, flew off the shelves.

Since then, generations of children have grown up reading The Giving Tree, which was published in 1964 to resounding international success. The Hebrew edition came out in 1979. The book depicts the relationship between a child and an apple tree. The tree gives and the child takes. At first the tree only gives the boy its shade and fruit, but later, when the boy grows up and returns to the tree, it gives him its branches, then its trunk, until there is nothing left but a bare stump. And yet, “the tree was happy”, according to the book’s unforgettable ending.

There is no single explanation for the book’s enormous popularity. Perhaps it is Silverstein’s sharp and clear writing and minimalist, uncluttered illustrations. Or the book’s message about the universal values of generosity, giving, dedication and unconditional love. In the United States, many religious institutions incorporated the book into their curricula, using the story as a model for leading a good, unselfish life. In Israel, the book complemented the values of Zionism and Israeli culture itself – a culture highly influenced by the requirement of military service, which demands immense giving and absolute devotion.

The book has been translated into more than 30 languages, and in 2022, the US Postal Service issued a stamp in the book’s honor.

The stamp issued in 2022 by the US Postal Service in honor of The Giving Tree

However, alongside its enormous success, The Giving Tree was also the target of significant criticism from different directions. One of the main criticisms originated with feminist organizations. In the original English version of the book, the tree was referred to in the feminine tense: “Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy”. [emphasis YI]

Page from the 1964 edition of The Giving Tree, published by Harper & Row

Silverstein had chosen to imagine the tree in the feminine, which led to the book’s being interpreted as a mother’s absolute sacrifice or as women’s capitulation in the face of male selfishness.

In the Hebrew edition, the tree is referred to as male, but this change was in no way self-evident. Silverstein was very careful about controlling the copyrights and other publishing details of his books (which is why you won’t ever find any of his books in paperback). When the book was translated into Hebrew, a special request was made to refer to the tree in the masculine, due to the fact that nouns in Hebrew are either masculine or feminine, and a tree is masculine. The request was approved, which is perhaps why criticism of the Hebrew edition was more generalized.

A selection of Silverstein’s books in Hebrew translation, available in at the National Library of Israel. All of them, without exception are in hardcover editions only

Criticism also came from environmentalists who claimed that the book encourages destruction and wanton disregard for the environment. Others voiced concern that it will promote a child’s selfishness if they identify with the child, or self-destructive behavior if they identify with the tree. Author Rivka Galchen wrote in the New York Times: “The boy and the tree are both ‘flawed’, and in the most old-fashioned way, their flaws, which are also their characters, determine their fates”.

Over the last decade, perhaps with the rise of political correctness or the development of more conscious parenting styles, criticism of the book has intensified and given rise to several parodies and alternate versions. Daniel Goldstein created a Hebrew parody called The Polish Tree and American writer Topher Payne came up with another alternate take: The Tree Who Set Healthy Boundaries. Both seem to respond to the anger the book provokes when re-reading it as adults or as young parents, and seeing things in it that we did not see when we read it as children.

Cover of The Tree Who Set Healthy Boundaries. An alternate ending to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, by Topher Payne, part of the “Topher Fixed It” series which provides “parody alternate endings to beloved but problematic children’s literature”

Along with suggestions for discussing the book after reading it to children and asking what they feel and think about it, perhaps it is also worth asking whether we can simply ignore the matter of its political correctness or the messages it conveys. Can it simply be enjoyed as a story? Each of us has to decide for ourselves.

Born in 1930 to a Jewish family in Chicago, Silverstein was a prolific writer, but gave very few interviews throughout his life. He never tried to justify himself or respond to the criticism about his best-known book, The Giving Tree. He let his success speak for itself. In a rare interview from 1975, he summarizes his thoughts about reviews in general: “I think if you’re a creative person, you should just go about your business, do your work and not care about how it’s received. I never read reviews, because if you believe the good ones you have to believe the bad ones too. Not that I don’t care about success. I do, but only because it lets me do what I want. I was always prepared for success but that means that I have to be prepared for failure too”. Speaking to the New York Times in 1978, when asked about the meaning of The Giving Tree, Silverstein answered: “It’s just a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes”.

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

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”.