Reading Between the Lines: Finding Jewish Values in Secular Texts
By ISJL Education Fellow Rena Lubin
While we may all be familiar with and fond of the Sammy Spider series and Behrman House’s Let’s Explore Being Jewish set, books utilized to learn and teach Jewish values need not always be explicitly Jewish in content! What if we could use some of our favorite secular books and novels —from childhood to adulthood—to highlight important Jewish values and/or Jewish holidays? Read up on these ideas to see how one might incorporate secular texts into Jewish learning!
The Harry Potter Series
From books and cleverness to friendship and bravery, the Harry Potter series expresses many distinct Jewish values. Consider the loyalty and partnerships between Harry, Ron, and Hermione; the concept that if we surround ourselves with those who cherish the same things as us, we will grow into better people and succeed. We may also reflect on the well-known quote by Sirius Black: “We’ve all got light and dark inside of us. What matters is the part we choose to act on, that’s who we really are.” According to the Torah, we are all born with both yeitzer harah (evil inclination) and yeitzer hatov (positive inclination). So next Yom Kippur when the community questions making good choices in order to become better people, think of Sirius Black!
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
Well, this one is all about the trees! Perhaps work this timeless children’s book into a future congregational Tu B’shevat seder! We equate this holiday to a Jewish “Earth Day,” and The Lorax teaches us about the drastic and devastating effects of consuming the last of our environmental resources and, therefore, about environmental conservation. This book also teaches children about tikkun olam, our responsibility as Jews to help repair or fix the world. Dr. Seuss wrote: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.”
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
In this touching Shel Silverstein classic, a tree loves a boy and, throughout their lives, the tree continues to give and give to him. When the boy is young, the tree offers the boy apples, its shade to lounge in, and its trunk to climb on; as the boy ages, the tree offers its apples so that the boy can make money, its branches to build a house, and its trunk to make a boat. Though the tree is a stump by the end of the book, giving to another made the tree happy. The tree exhibits the utmost tz’dakah (righteous giving) and generosity. This tale advises children that tz’dakah comes in forms other than the giving of money, such as through time, effort, and even self. With all that being said, it is important to advise against stretching oneself too thin for someone else, or simply just going around chopping down trees for your own gain (see above).
Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes
This secular children’s book encompasses two very important Jewish values: kavod, which means respect, and chesed, or kindness. A young mouse named Chrysanthemum thinks she and her name are absolutely perfect until she starts school, where the other students make fun of her. This book teaches us all (regardless of age) to remember that our words impact others; to be kind to others; and to have respect not only for ourselves, but for others - no matter how unique or quirky they are!