PJ Library starts off on the wrong foot

On Yom Kippur, I did not spend the day in shul. I went early, but I left as soon as I started to get antsy. When I got home, I checked the mail. I opened our mailbox and found a small package inside – Orli’s first PJ Library book.

After hearing about it somewhere, I had been excited to sign up for PJ Library. I didn’t know the name of the program, so I went to try to find it online. I searched things like free jewish books and it came up quickly.

Your first book doesn’t arrive right away.  It takes a few months for an application to be processed, so it had been a while since I signed up but I knew that our first book would come eventually. I had been eagerly awaiting it.

I excitedly opened the package and was greeted by a bright, colorful cover.

My first Shabbat board book – cute!

It was appealing and I started to skim through.

I loved the first line – Shabbat is a holiday that takes place every week.
“How fun!!”, I thought.
It made Shabbat sound like a real treat. 🙂

Then I turned the page.

Our Torah teaches that God created the world in seven days.

Just jump right in – no need to hold back on the creationism!

On the first day God made darkness and light. 

It’s true – that’s what the Torah says.

On the second day God made heaven and earth.

The word God appeared 10 times in 5 pages.

The nine pages after that pictured 33 white people. I counted 44 in the whole book.

The (Orthodox) Jewish communities I grew up in and my Jewish community today include Asian- and African-American kids and adults. How about having a few of the 44 Jews in this custom-made PJ Library book reflect the diversity of our communities?

Of course I am grateful to be receiving free books. But spreading images of Jews as all-white is not good. And nontheistic families would be better served and attracted by Jewish content that focuses more on the many wonderful and more universally-inspiring elements of Judaism (see www.atheistjew.org and table below from Pew’s Survey of U.S. Jews for some of them) than the alienating theistic/supernatural aspects.

Points for gender roles though – boys cleaning and serving, and the next page shows a boy making challah 🙂

Instead of theism, lead with these aspects of Judaism!

I know I’m not the only Jewish parent who’s turned off by heavy god-talk and lack of diversity. Leading with theism or ethnic homogeneity is not going to attract or engage these families.

PJ Library could more effectively increase Jewish living and learning by catering to the 32% of Jewish Millenials who say they have no religion. Pew reports that these Jews, secular or cultural Jews, are much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish than Jews who identify as religiously Jewish. Two thirds of secular/cultural Jews say that they are not raising their children even partially Jewish in any way. Finding ways to make Judaism appealing to these Jews of no religion and draw them into Jewish involvement would be the highest-impact way to increase Jewish living and learning.

To increase Jewish living and learning, there’s no need to serve up a hefty dose of theism – there is MUCH more to Judaism than theism.

Since we all want want more parents to teach their children Jewish values, traditions, and culture, let’s focus on the values, traditions, and culture instead of the alienating theism/supernaturalism.

There are ways to present the Jewish creation story that are not as theistic and creationist.

Our torah teaches that the world came into being in seven days.  

It could even be presented as a story:

Our torah tells a story that the world came into being in 7 days.

Save the metaphor, ditch the theism overdose.

Again, I am grateful for the free books and excited to check out the next one. I’m sure that they won’t all be this theistic. (They might all be this white, though.)  

(UPDATE: they are not all this white!! yay www.atheistjew.org/pj-library-redemption)

If they are, I’ll just rewrite them to be more inclusive – compatible with science, naturalist-friendly, and diverse.  

Shana tova!

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One Reply to “PJ Library starts off on the wrong foot”

  1. Sara Post author

    I got an email from someone I know very well saying this:

    Hey Sara,
    Happy New Year!
    I saw your post on facebook. So I know the person who gives basically all the money for all the books for PJ library. He is an amazingly kind and generous man. The books are free. I think criticizing them publically isn’t the coolest thing. It is basically criticizing a gift right?
    Just a thought…
    Hope you guys are doing well.

    I hope that PJ Library donors and sponsors can take this feedback as constructive criticism that could help them better serve and engage more people. I think their goals are to increase Jewish education and involvement with Jewish practice and community. But the things I point out above alienate some Jews, and negate efforts to attract them to Judaism and Jewish community involvement.
    PJ Library is a public program that presents Judaism to hundreds of thousands of children in North America. That is a lot of power. PJ Library donors and sponsors hold public positions of power. People with wealth to sponsor programs like this have tremendous power to shape the vibe and quality of Jewish community in North America. The program can present Judaism as outdated and backwards or as vibrant and evolved.
    Given all that, I see this as very different from a private gift – it’s a public program with a public role in shaping modern Judaism.


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