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A Children’s Classic with a Very Relevant Chapter

I don’t know why I never read books by Sydney Taylor when I was growing up (it wasn’t my gender; my sisters never did, either). But when my wife pulled her old copies out of a box recently, and my six-year-old daughter enjoyed listening to the first one, I was thrilled.

As a scholar of modern Jewish literature, and having designed and directed a residential program for authors of Jewish children’s literature, I had been a little embarrassed to admit that I know the All-of-a-Kind Family by reputation only. Getting to know Ella, Charlotte, Hennie, Sarah, and Gertie (and their little brother, Charlie) by reading Taylor’s books aloud to my daughter has been an unmitigated pleasure.

But imagine my surprise when, a few weeks into total Covid-19 isolation, as I read to my narrative-obsessed daughter for more hours each day than I had ever imagined possible, we unexpectedly came to the chapter in the second book in Taylor’s series, More All-of-a-Kind Family, “Epidemic in the City.”

I had been seeing historians posting primary sources on Twitter and looking to the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic as a newly relevant moment. But that’s not the epidemic the sisters encounter in Taylor’s book. Instead, it’s an epidemic of “infantile paralysis,” which only after a quick Google did I learn was the first major outbreak of polio in the U.S., which in 1916 ravaged the Lower East Side and Brooklyn neighborhoods where so many Jewish kids, like those in Taylor’s books, were concentrated. “The newspapers printed it in bold black headlines: Epidemic!”

Taylor is, as usual, spare and efficient in describing the plague’s effects: “Soon there were empty seats in the classrooms, and the clang of the ambulance bell was heard more and more frequently.” Apparently Japanese camphor was thought to ward off the disease (“Don’t like the funny smell,” Charlie says).

The family soon decamps to Rockaway Beach—their first-ever seaside vacation, made necessary (despite how little money they have) to avoid the disease in the crowded city. The children don’t get sick, but Lena, the woman marrying their Uncle Hyman, does, and eventually they have to convince her that even though she has lost her leg to the disease, Hyman still loves her and wants to marry her.

The same day I read those chapters to my daughter, I was spending my spare moments searching AirBnb and asking for recommendations on Facebook, trying to find a Rockaway Beach of our own (though in our moment, when public beaches seem unlikely to be useable, what I was hoping to find was a lake house with a little stretch of sand or dock). And every day we were hearing from friends and relatives who, like Lena, had caught the disease and ended up in the hospital.

In an excellent article about Taylor and her books, the literary scholar June Cummins—who tragically passed away last year, before publishing the biography of Taylor she had been working on—noted that Taylor “always claimed that she wrote the All-of-a-Kind Family stories for her daughter Jo, who asked, ‘Mommy, why is it every time I read a book about children, it is always a Christian child? Why isn’t there a book about a Jewish child?’”

What’s fascinating is that for my daughter, who has always had plenty of books about Jewish kids to choose from, the mirror that Taylor has given her, in the midst of a strange and upsetting situation, wasn’t of a Jewish child, per se, but of children living, bravely, through an epidemic.

 

Josh Lambert is the Sophia Moses Robison Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English at Wellesley College and until recently the Academic Director of the Yiddish Book Center.