Ban the books?

BannedBooksWeekpictureThis article is all about a school district wanting to ban books that are, in their view, controversial. This particular book by the great Maya Angelou details a rape scene and the school board finds it unsuitable for their students. It doesn’t mention whether this is on the high school list or in the high school library or not. This censorship is nothing new to me. For years the books that my kids have been bringing home from school have been censored, albeit on a different scale. A Berenstein Bear book, that has one of the bears on the beach in a bathing suit, has had one of the teachers or staff, take a coloured marker and draw a shirt and skirt on her. Words in these books such as Christmas and Halloween have been blacked out to make them not exist.

I wish my kids would be able to read Maya Angelou’s books in school, I wish they didn’t have to be ashamed to say they read all the Harry Potter books – like a lot of kids in their school. But Harry Potter is about magic, and that’s just not PC in a religious school. My kids have read Twilight – they are not going out and biting people. My oldest reads Ludlum and Clancy – he isn’t out spying on people and blowing them up. He understands that it is just fiction. These books encourage my kids to ask me so many varied questions and have led to some awesome discussions. But don’t tell the school, ok?

How does censoring what they read make them better people? It doesn’t. Reading all different kinds of books as I was growing up helped round out my education. Helped me understand so much about the world that I live in. If I read about a love scene – it didn’t make me want to go out there and re-enact it. If I read about treife food, it didn’t make me want to eat it. It just added to my education.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is banned in many religious schools – and it shouldn’t be. Star crossed lovers who have to die to be together. It could be used as a metaphor for so many situations. We could learn that life doesn’t have to be like this in our day and age. In our high school I would have loved to have studied it – every girl loves a good love story, no matter how badly it ends. I am sure we would have all done so much better on our English Lit exams. Instead we learned Coriolanus, of which I remember nothing.

At the meeting referenced in the above article, the “offensive” paragraph was read out. How can you just excerpt one scene from a book that has a much broader scope, a book that is an autobiography of an icon? A book in which, according to Wikipedia , rape is used as a metaphor for the suffering of her race. How can we not use this to teach our kids lessons about history? But their question is do we want our children knowing and reading about rape? It’s not a simple answer. After recent events (the gang rape of a high schooler) I would say that kids need to understand what it is and that it is wrong. How are they going to learn that if no one tells them, if they aren’t exposed to the messages that are sent through literature? Teachers don’t talk about it in class, and parents aren’t listened to. Books are a tremendous way of getting a message across.

We should be encouraging our youngsters to read. Today the young folk are plugged into every device available, they know they latest video games and music, and the idea of opening a book and sitting down to read is anathema to some.

Banning and censorship like this go a long way to turning people away from great works of literature.

Please share your thoughts with me.

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  1. mekubal says:

    Essentially what you have is thought control. Or perhaps I should say encouragement to not think, as I have heard a growing number of Gedolim and Rabbis gripe about behind closed doors.

    30yrs ago R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach Z”L, would, at the end of his day read a dime novel. Partially for entertainment, partially to get his brain to downshift after intense learning. If, today living in the same communities, I were to admit to such a thing(reading non-Jewish books) my children would be asked(expelled) from their schools.

    • Mark says:

      as I have heard a growing number of Gedolim and Rabbis gripe about behind closed doors.

      I’ve heard this a few times recently and I have to wonder how “Gadol” they could possibly be if they can only state their opinions “behind closed doors”? Gedolim from previous generations would declare their thoughts on an issue, and most of their kehillah would heed their words, or not heed their words as the case may be, but they still garnered enough respect to be able to declare their opinions on most relevant things openly. Obviously certain issues were not discussed publicly, but things that affected the kehillah at large were.

      • hadassahsabo says:

        i guess no one wants to be responsible for announcing something that might cause someone to possibly go off the derech.

        • Mark says:

          But, lehefech, in general, being meikel a little doesn’t cause people to go OTD, but rather keeps people (that may be fed up) on the derech!

      • mekubal says:


        The Jewish world has shrunk considerably in the last 60years, and not all of the change that this has brought has been good. Whereas in times past we had a Gadol over a city or a nation, now we have Gedolim claiming authority over Klal Yisrael. Which leads to civil wars of sorts over issues that ought to be fairly basic. I am blogging about this on a fairly regular basis.

        It is not so much that they can’t share their opinions as they have to pick their battles. Take for instance three things that I think have become problematic in the last decade or two, tzniut going crazy, censorship issues, and a realization of the problems our community faces in the area of child abuse.

        Now because of these turf wars and some other changes that have happened, what should be a simple question with a simple solution, has become a fully pitched battle. That is whether or not we should try to impose punishment on child abusers.

        So when it comes to denier what denier of stockings zealots are trying to force on people, or what kind of thought control people are, for whatever reason trying to impose upon children, these things take a back seat to what is quickly becoming one of the major issues of our time.

        It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a fight over it, it just happens behind closed doors. As in which teachers get hired at which schools. I have been offered a job at a Sem here in Jerusalem for just that reason…

        • Mark says:

          Whereas in times past we had a Gadol over a city or a nation, now we have Gedolim claiming authority over Klal Yisrael.

          Which Gadol has “claimed authority over [all of] Klal Yisrael”? Please give an example, and preferably a direct quote of him claiming such.

          How is it even possible in the first place with Sefard, Ashkenaz, Eidot Hamizrach, Chassidish (various varieties), Chabad, etc…

          • mekubal says:

            Rav Shach was one. His views and statements lead to the break between him and R’ Yosef.

            R’ Eliashiv today. His varying statements on what does and does not constitute valid geirus, which lead one of his proxies to attempt to nullify thousands of conversions with a single ruling.

  2. ilanadavita says:

    I totally agree with you. The bear in bathing suit with an added shirt seems ludicrous. Don’t they realize that kids understand he was in bathing suit?
    How do your kids manage with the two standards?
    When you move (eventually they’ll let you in!) will you look for a religious school which is more tolerant towards literature – and other topics?

  3. batya from NJ says:

    interestingly at BY, i happen to recall reading romeo & juliet in HS (i doubt they still do though)… who woulda thought that hasmo was “frummer” than BY?!! i personally enjoyed reading all kinds of books growing up & my parents although very religious never censored my book choices as i was an avid reader. growing up in the lubavitch section of my town, i had friends whose parents forbade them from reading many secular books. in fact, my mom who worked as a librarian in the local school would complain about the “book-burners” (parents in the school) who would come to censor & ban many of the books in the library. i recall that lubavitch did not permit children’s books in which the characters were non-kosher animals which ostensibly would render “mendel the mouse” treif!! i don’t know what the policy on that particular issue is nowadays but my guess would be that it is still in effect :(!

  4. Lady Lock and Load says:

    How about the ban on the internet that some yeshivos have?

    • hadassahsabo says:

      i understand it, but when you ban something outright, you strip away the ability for anything good to come out of it. there is tremendous torah power online. In any one day i have the most awesome conversations about yiddishkeit and halacha and everything in between, only possible, for me, because of the internet. i am learning more about my jewishness because of the internet.

      yes there are terrible things online too – but as parents we have to teach our kids what’s acceptable and what’s not.

  5. Dov says:

    I happen to agree, and decided to use books like that in Divrei Torah at the Shabbos table. After a few years of doing that, I wrote a book Harry Potter and Torah with a collection of over 20 vortlach.

  6. batya from NJ says:

    well, LLL, there is a lot of danger out there on the internet but i disagree with all the bans & instead i feel kids must learn to use the internet properly with filters so that we can try & limit our kids’ exposure to some of the filth out there & even with filters, nothing is fool-proof so it is dangerous but nonetheless they must learn to navigate in safely in order to become productive members of society in my opinion. also, it’s important for parents to try as much as possibly to keep an eye on what our kids are viewing on the web…

  7. batya from NJ says:

    whoops, i noticed a few typos while re-reading my post. i meant “navigate it safely” not “navigate in” & in the last sentence i meant to write “as much as possible” not “as much as possibly”…oh well…

  8. Vicki says:

    “But their question is do we want our children knowing and reading about rape?”

    Once you get past 7th or 8th grade, I think kids already know about rape. Books that deal with rape put it into a better context for them.

    I never got book bans, either. A lot of what I know about the world, the good and the evil, came from books. Banning books just limits kids.

  9. Ari says:

    Hey, the Torah is pretty gory. Dena’s rape, the Tamar episode, etc. And 9th grade Gemara? My goodness. Downright graphic when describing both conventional and uncoventional, ah, acts of intimacy.

    So, for schools to get all squeamish because the characters aren’t Jewish, just doesn’t add up. And it certainly isn’t justified for some superficial or incidental romance / violence.

    Besides, as a parent and educator, wouldn’t you rather be in a position to provide your children with the right perspective on such matters, rather than pique their interest even more, then having them sneak off and get the wrong perspective?

    • hadassahsabo says:

      Ari – why do they teach all that to 9th graders? some of the things my 9th grader has told me really shocked me. what is the point of that?

      i remember sneaking off with my girlfriends to read a banned book – Judy Blume…I can’t even remember which it was, but i remember the palpitations of the fear of getting caught. I would rather know what my kids are reading, and be able to discuss it with them.

      (Just to add, my mum never banned us from reading any book. Occasionally concern was voiced, but we were going to read it anyway. I deal with my kids in the same way)

      • Ari says:

        Darned if I know. Because “that’s the way it’s always been done?”

        I think the answer is that it’s part of a time-honored canon of mesechtot considered essential for the budding halachic scholar. But why such subject matter should specifically be part of the canon, is beyond me.

        The mind boggles.

  10. Z! says:

    What I love about books is the exposure to different (sometimes impossibly hard) situations that I find so distant from my own life experiences. It helps us to empathize, to have tolerance for others. To see the ‘other side’. Books that share our opinions help us to feel part of something larger than ourselves.
    That being said, there are some books that are inappropriate in a school library. (A few books I read in High School come to mind and I went to a liberal arts school)I’d be more afraid if they want to remove it from a PUBLIC library. Who gets to make those decisions? Impossible to say. Perhaps the same people who rate the violence and sexual content of movies? (lol)
    BTW, the more controversial the book, the more readers it will have. Making an example out of Maya Angelou’s work will only cause MORE students to get ahold of it and read it.
    (Not that there seem to be that many “readers” out there in the world anymore, unless you count online and text messages.)

  11. Shalmo says:

    Cool. So would you then agree with having Mein Kampft available in your children’s schools? Why can’t Nazis come to schools and share their points of view? I mean hey its free country and everyone should have freedom of speech, right?

    Wrong. Face it censorship exists, because there are many many bad viewpoints out there. Every community practices censorship to some extent.

  12. mekubal says:

    My wife is a balloon artist and I can assure you that the non-kosher animal ban is still in full force amongst Chabad…

    As it happens, being an escaped Chabadnik I can tell you why.

    The last Lub Rebbe felt that if children developed strong positive attachments to non-kosher animals they would come to want to eat them. Hence no pets that are non-kosher, no stuffed animals(such as teddy bears) no pictures of non-kosher animals ect…

    Obviously Judaism has been too long divorced from an agrarian society. Growing up I had a friend that lived on a farm… he would cry his eyes out on slaughter day.

    • hadassahsabo says:

      um, that makes no sense at all. when my son saw what veal looks like when it is alive he never wanted to eat it again. if they form attachments to animals they WON’T want to eat them.

    • ilanadavita says:

      if children developed strong positive attachments to non-kosher animals they would come to want to eat them.
      Apparently it was just the other way round when Babe was released.

      • Trip'n Mommy says:

        Actually, as I understand it, the Rebbe was concerned with the attachment and affection to non-Kosher animals having an impact on a child’s neshama, not a concern that they would want to eat it.

        This is how it was explained to me when I was building a Jewish children’s library in Crown Heights. They actually brought me a copy of the Rebbe’s comments on it. I don’t remember anything about leading to eating treif food.

  13. Abbi says:

    So why do you send your kids to a school with a hashkafa you don’t agree with? Although I tend to agree with the Maya Angelou ban, because I don’t think she’s that great of a writer, in any case. “Trite” and “bombastic” come to mind when I think of her writing.

    I went to religious day schools all my life growing up, and no one ever censored my books; I did book reports on books about witches and magic, learned Aesop’s fables, the Odyssey, the Iliad, all of Greek mythology. Of course, these schools were “modern” which is why none of this reading material was an issue.

    I just don’t get complaining about the hashkafa when you make the conscious choice to send your kids to these schools.

    • hadassahsabo says:

      Abbi, in some cities there is not much choice of schools when it comes to religious education. it’s either a school that is way too modern, or one that is way right wing – like it is here in my fair city. there is no school that exists that will have every parent agreeing with the hashkafa.

      for me, i would rather have my kids become more religious than me, than for them to go the other way.

      when we move, the schools I have CHOSEN (i have the luxury of choice) are much more geared to who we are as a family.

  14. Lady Lock and Load says:

    I like it that although you are sending the children to a right wing school, you are teaching them to be respectful of school rules and policies. Like you would tell the boys not to bring Harry Potter books to school…not that you think they are bad but the school does not allow it. If we as parents show respect to the schools and yeshivos then the child shows respect to the teachers. I have been a teacher and I have put three kids through school so I know it from both angles.
    As far as banning things, I think that when you ban too many things the kids rebell and go off the derech. Even the kids that are frum nowadays feel the pressure of the demands made on them. What they read, what they wear, what they eat, where they should shop…The list is endless. The only solution, in my mind, is communication with our children, spending time and talking with them. And of course, being good role models. For example, I stopped wear slits in my skirts even if the slit stopped below the knee, because in my girls school it was not acceptable. How could I expect my girls to follow something that their own mother was not following? I didn’t want my girls to read the Sandra Brown, Daniella Steel books that I was reading….so I stopped reading them and I only read Jewish books now. I have no regrets for the things I gave up or had to change for my children’s chinuch, because I wanted to be a good role model.

  15. Lady Lock and Load says:

    I only read books published by Feldheim or other religious publishers and written by Jewish orthodox people.

  16. Trip'n Mommy says:

    I have worked in a few Yeshivot in NY, as well as with the Chabad community in Crown Heights, and I have had to face censorship on many different levels. As a librarian, it has always rubbed me the wrong way and made me uncomfortable. The crossing out and altering pictures is a particular pet peeve and I won’t do it. My attitude is that if there is even one word that is offensive to your audience, don’t have the book. There are plenty of other choices out there. Crossing it out makes it more alluring and draws more attention to it.

    What I have learned is that libraries, no matter if public, school, or private are meant to serve the community in which they are situated. They should have clear collection development policies that state the goals of the collection and guidelines for the books that they acquire. You know, every time a librarian makes a decision NOT to order a specific book, it is censorship on some level. But the bottom line is – will the patrons want to/need to read this book?

    In a school, the parent body very often influence those decisions. But if it is a PUBLIC institution, then the general morals and mores of the ENTIRE community needs to be taken into consideration. Some people may not be happy with some of the selections. Then THEY can choose not to read them, and instruct their children not to read them.

    All that being said, personally and as a parent, I agree with you HSM. I want to expose my kids and be there to discuss with them what they are reading. I want them to have a view of the “outside” world from the inside (on the safe pages of a book, of course ;-)). I want them to experience the fantasy of Harry Potter, and the pain of Maya Angelou, etc. Books offer “teachable moments” to parents and open the door to topics that children need to understand and may have questions about. Isn’t it better that they get exposure to these things from books and their parents and not from the news, internet, or their friends?

    I do respect that they may not get access to these books in their (private) Yeshiva libraries. As long as they are not condemned for reading them, that’s okay with me. They can get them off my personal book shelves, or at the public library, like I did.

    (BTW- I went to modern orthodox day schools and we did read Romeo and Juliet and Toni Morrison in class.)

  17. batya from NJ says:

    i agree hadassah that the perfect school does not exist (or shall i say seldom exists)? sometimes a school sounds appropriate on paper but in reality it’s not always the case & also sometimes the school is wonderful but just a good match for the particular child. it is upsetting when it happens but it does happen quite often, in fact. hey, perfection rarely exists in my humble opinion!

  18. batya from NJ says:

    whoops again, i forgot an important word which was “NOT” in the sentence sometimes it’s just NOT a good match for the particular child…

  19. Deborah Rey says:

    Extremely interesting and equally frightening subject this Banning (Burning?) of Books.
    The wise people who decide what your/my child may, or may not read seems to know it all, don’t they? If they ban a book, it must be for a reason and to find that reason … they must have read the book. Hmm.
    They also seem to think that we, the parents and children are total morons and must be guided. But, what about Life and the World, and other People?
    Most upsetting and one thing is certain: my book would not even be opened and burned immediately.

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