Illus­tra­tions by Helen John, from All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly, by Syd­ney Tay­lor, Wilcox & Fol­lett, New York, 1951.

Sukkos and Sim­chas Torah (the Ashke­naz­ic pro­nun­ci­a­tion) are two of the most col­or­ful fes­ti­vals of the Jew­ish year, each reen­act­ing piv­otal moments in Jew­ish his­to­ry. As in vir­tu­al­ly all Jew­ish hol­i­day obser­vances, beliefs about appro­pri­ate gen­der roles influ­ence how chil­dren par­tic­i­pate in these joy­ous rit­u­als. How­ev­er, ques­tion­ing those norms, whether implic­it­ly or more bold­ly, is not new to the world of Jew­ish children’s books. Two beloved clas­sics, All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly Down­town (1972), by Syd­ney Tay­lor, with pic­tures by Beth and Joe Krush, and Sadie Rose Weilerstein’s Ten and a Kid (1961), illus­trat­ed by Jan­i­na Doman­s­ka, each antic­i­pates changes to come in Jew­ish life in the area of gen­der roles. In both books for mid­dle-grade read­ers, chil­dren observe and ques­tion the incon­sis­ten­cies which dic­tate what girls and boys may do with­in their social­ly pre­scribed spheres. While the Amer­i­can All-of-a-Kind girls are con­tent with encour­ag­ing some changes with­in the struc­tures of tra­di­tion, Reizel, the hero­ine of Ten and a Kid, chafes at the lim­its on female spir­i­tu­al­i­ty in her Lithuan­ian shtetl and demands to know why male author­i­ty is so resis­tant to change. The halakhic (legal) rea­son­ing that exempt­ed women from many com­mand­ments seems to her a trans­par­ent means of exclud­ing them from the most pro­found con­nec­tion to their faith.

Syd­ney Tay­lor (19041978) was the matri­arch of Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture — the author who pro­vid­ed a new and affir­ma­tive ver­sion of Louisa May Alcott’s Lit­tle Women for the chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of immi­grants. In the five books of the All-of-a-Kind series, echoes of Alcott’s four main pro­tag­o­nists can be found in Ella, Hen­ny, Sarah, Char­lotte and Ger­tie. Instead of cel­e­bra­tions of Christ­mas in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry New Eng­land, read­ers fol­low the Jew­ish cal­en­dar of New York’s Low­er East Side and the Bronx in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. When it’s time to build a sukkah in All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly Down­town, dif­fer­ent tal­ents are required — from phys­i­cal strength to artis­tic cre­ativ­i­ty. As in oth­er books in the series, non-Jews play a promi­nent role — empha­siz­ing that both fideli­ty to tra­di­tion and assim­i­la­tion in Amer­i­can soci­ety were part of immi­grant life. The girls’ father wel­comes their enthu­si­asm about build­ing the sukkah, but sug­gests that some male phys­i­cal strength is need­ed, “‘You know, Mama,’ Papa remarked, our girls are won­der­ful helpers. But what I need is some­one for the heav­ier work.’”

That some­one is Gui­do: an Ital­ian-Amer­i­can neigh­bor, whose fam­i­ly is poor, vul­ner­a­ble, and receives sup­port from the local Set­tle­ment House, where social work­ers help immi­grants accul­tur­ate to their new home. Gui­do is glad to offer his mus­cles, but insult­ed at the sug­ges­tion that dec­o­rat­ing the sukkah is part of the deal, He watched the girls busy them­selves with scis­sors, col­ored paper, and paste. Mak­ing sil­ly old paper chains and stuff…That’s for sissies!’” Rather than have the girls object, Tay­lor choos­es to let them gen­tly ignore Guido’s hos­til­i­ty towards their dis­tinct­ly gen­dered con­tri­bu­tions to the sukkah.

When Miss Carey, the Set­tle­ment House nurse, arrives to admire the beau­ty of the booth’s con­struc­tion, she remarks on its stur­di­ness and its del­i­ca­cy, The strong wood­en walls, the home­made table and benches…the scent of the fresh green­ery fes­toon­ing the walls.” The white line draw­ing empha­sizes the sukkah’s detailed per­fec­tion, show­ing Gui­do grin­ning with delight in the cen­ter of the house he has helped to build, while the girls stand behind and around him. Two sis­ters peer out the win­dow, one is par­tial­ly glimpsed from behind the sukkah, and anoth­er stands at the side hold­ing the paper chain which Gui­do had deemed girl­ish. Only the youngest and small­est, Ger­tie, stands in front, look­ing up at Miss Carey. Gui­do stands front and cen­ter, proud of his con­tri­bu­tion, while Ger­tie, the youngest sis­ter, looks up at Miss Carey in admi­ra­tion. In an Amer­i­ca where women still did not have the vote, activists and social ser­vice work­ers like her were impor­tant female role mod­els because they showed women in roles out­side of the home and domes­tic responsibilities.

When Papa lat­er brings the lulav and esrog into the sukkah, he explains the mean­ing of the hol­i­day clear­ly, with­out con­de­scen­sion. When Ger­tie admits that she has for­got­ten the sto­ry, he reas­sures her, That’s all right, Gertie…the sto­ry can always bear repeat­ing.” Sim­i­lar­ly, when Sim­chas Torah arrives at the end of Sukkos, Papa responds to Charlotte’s con­fu­sion about the hol­i­days’ prox­im­i­ty by prais­ing her intel­li­gence, That’s a good ques­tion, Char­lotte, and it deserves a good answer.” With great seri­ous­ness, he instructs his daugh­ters on how to per­form the mitz­vah of shak­ing the lulav and hold­ing the esrog—a mitz­vah which is not required of women in Jew­ish law; as a time-bound com­mand­ment, it would con­flict with their more impor­tant duties of child­bear­ing and main­tain­ing a home. In prac­tice, this inter­pre­ta­tion almost always served to jus­ti­fy the exclu­sion of women from rit­u­al life.

In prac­tice, this inter­pre­ta­tion almost always served to jus­ti­fy the exclu­sion of women from rit­u­al life.

As the week of Sukkos con­cludes, the fam­i­ly goes to their syn­a­gogue to wel­come Sim­chas Torah. There is a scene in which Tay­lor acknowl­edges that change will come with­in the girls’ life­times. The scene begins with solem­ni­ty; words such as awe,” rev­er­ent­ly,” and pre­cious” are used which describe the priv­i­lege and respon­si­bil­i­ty of receiv­ing the Torah. Then, the Torah scrolls come out of the ark in a riotous scene cap­tured by the illus­tra­tions, where every space is pop­u­lat­ed by over­lap­ping wor­ship­pers, old and young, male and female. As Papa explains, It’s God’s par­ty and every­one is invit­ed!” Pic­ture and text reit­er­ate the same mes­sage: The cur­tain sep­a­rat­ing men and women was thrust aside, and so con­ta­gious was the rev­el­ry, many of the younger women joined the dancers…Only the old­er women remained seat­ed on the bench­es…” Taylor’s enthu­si­as­tic descrip­tion of this Low­er East Side cel­e­bra­tion assures read­ers that life in Amer­i­ca will bring pos­i­tive changes for Jew­ish women.

Reizel, the lit­tle girl liv­ing with her par­ents, five sis­ters and two broth­ers in a Lithuan­ian town in Weilerstein’s Ten and a Kid, could well have been a cousin to Taylor’s immi­grant fam­i­ly. She is not exposed to the chal­leng­ing cli­mate of Amer­i­ca, where Jews are large­ly free from out­right per­se­cu­tion, although sub­ject to both the rewards and the pres­sures of assim­i­la­tion. Although some East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish women did advo­cate for changes in tra­di­tion­al ways of life, they had far less sup­port with­in their com­mu­ni­ties. Weil­er­stein (18941993), an author, teacher, and home­mak­er mar­ried to a Con­ser­v­a­tive rab­bi, chose to give Reizel a strong and per­sis­tent voice deny­ing that oppres­sion of women and girls need­ed to be a per­ma­nent fea­ture of Jew­ish observance.

The fes­ti­val of Sukkos is a source of frus­tra­tion to Reizel, so much so that she aston­ish­es her fam­i­ly by sug­gest­ing that they not build a sukkah at all. She point­ed­ly attacks a cen­tral para­dox of Jew­ish hol­i­days for women and girls; for them, ser­vice to males con­sumes any mean­ing­ful oppor­tu­ni­ties for inter­nal­iz­ing the festival’s message:

That’s just the trou­ble. Girls don’t sit in the sukkah. Only boys and men do. Boys get every­thing. They don’t have to wait their turn to go to school. They sit in the sukkah. It’s not fair.

Reizel’s frus­tra­tion is exac­er­bat­ed by the fact that her younger broth­er will be allowed to attend school, but she will not, one more exam­ple of male priv­i­lege. She can­not accept the peren­ni­al argu­ment that sit­ting in the sukkah is not actu­al­ly for­bid­den to women, but is not required — a mean­ing­less dis­tinc­tion for the girls and women cook­ing and serv­ing food while men study and pray. A small pic­ture of Reizel hold­ing the lad­der as her father ham­mers the sukkah’s roof illus­trates the inten­si­ty of her aspi­ra­tions to look up at the heav­ens rather than down at her domes­tic tasks.

K’ton­ton rid­ing a lulav, in Sadie Rose Weilerstein’s in K’ton­ton’s Sukkot Adventure

Reizel ulti­mate­ly has the good for­tune to learn from her mother’s friend, Han­nah Rachel, about an inspir­ing alter­na­tive from the past — the famed Holy Maid of Ludimer. This his­tor­i­cal fig­ure was a nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish woman, so deeply pious that she took on the mitzvot of both tallis and tefill­in, con­tra­dict­ing accept­ed soci­etal norms. Reizel is over­whelmed with excite­ment upon learn­ing of this prece­dent; a woman who man­aged to defy oppres­sion by appro­pri­at­ing the very signs of reli­gious com­mit­ment which men alone had been allowed to assume. Reizel con­fronts her father, who at first responds with humor, which Reizel feels as belit­tling. When he asks if she plans to become the next Holy Maid, Reizel answers for gen­er­a­tions of girls and women, I have asked you a ques­tion and you should answer it, not tease me.” In con­trast to what is expect­ed, her father admits that she is right, and con­cedes the dig­ni­ty of her point by answer­ing. Reizel may accept the oblig­a­tion to sit in the sukkah.

When he asks if she plans to become the next Holy Maid, Reizel answers for gen­er­a­tions of girls and women, I have asked you a ques­tion and you should answer it, not tease me.”

When Sim­chas Torah arrives, Reizel and her fam­i­ly attend syn­a­gogue. Unlike the girls of All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly Down­town, there is no pub­lic bound­ary-break­ing; only men dance with the Torah. Yet the next day, her par­ents inform her that they have spo­ken with Reb Ger­shon, who teacher reli­gious stud­ies to boys in his hed­er. This saint­ly man has agreed to make an excep­tion and teach Reizel, as well. Reizel has been try­ing to learn inde­pen­dent­ly, and the rab­bi deter­mines that A child who finds her way into a book with­out a teacher deserves to have a teacher to take her fur­ther.” In spite of the cul­tur­al dis­tance between Tay­lor and Weilerstein’s sto­ries of hol­i­day obser­vance, both books embody this pro­found­ly Jew­ish belief.

Both books reflect a long tra­di­tion of women seek­ing to enlarge their expe­ri­ence with­in Jew­ish rit­u­als, whether qui­et­ly or more assertive­ly; both authors look back at the past with the knowl­edge that change will come. The five girls of All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly Down­town enjoy glimpses of the progress that life in Amer­i­ca will inevitably bring, while in Ten and a Kid Reizel needs to active­ly sum­mon a bet­ter future. Each of these clas­sic Jew­ish children’s books would be per­fect to dis­cuss over a meal in the sukkah, where every­one is cer­tain­ly invited.

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.