by Ruth Judah.
What to read? What to read in those few moments of time when you are not praying, working, cooking or caring for others. And when you read, are you going to turn to study books on parashah or Jewish wisdom? Perhaps you will look for escapism, hope and vitality in the pages of novels. Hardback, softback, digital or audio, books are easily available at all prices and a variety of formats. And here lies the true problem; what advice can you find to let you know the appropriateness of a book. It is well-known that the meaning and content vary broadly.
When you dive into the still calm waters of a new novel, the water can splash back, cold and murky. The few books we make time to read should provide a perfect and complete story, giving us the ideal escape; energizing our inner core and inspiring or empowering us to achieve more. And so often, they are not. How many books are published with themes, words and imagery that are unsuitable and incompatible with traditional Jewish values?
The movie industry has long ago established codes of morality which are recognized by viewers and their parents. Is this system ever going mainstream for book readers? There are online resources, yet parents must take care as well-meaning bloggers have created sites that offer Jewish books where the characters are critical of Jewish family values and there are books where outrageous situations are depicted that have taken the orthodox teenager away from their traditional values.
Given the lack of any organized review board, it is not surprising that many a school librarian resorts to cutting pages, stapling pages together or using a sharpie on the offensive section of an otherwise decent book. Yet, there are now schools and websites that have created their internal review board which rate a book for themes of concern.
Goodreads.com is an extensive book site that provides their Best Book Choice Awards and allows for a consumer ratings systems. Additionally, if you input the title of a book that you approve and like, the site suggests compatible reading material. The site allows the user to quickly understand whether the book is acceptable. Explanations such as, “Oria is the Golden Queen of the Ahwahneechees,” let you immediately know the story is magical fantasy. The accompanying review notes, “The wisdom is of the old days and they are both considered wise elders of the tribe,” lets you know the flavor.
Author’s blogs can provide certain book recommendations, for instant the well-reviewed children’s author, Melissa Wiley has been compiling an extensive booklist which you can see at http://melissawiley.com/book-recommendations/. For every title that you click on, there are more title suggested in the same age range with explanations like the following, “These are a gentle and steady source of comfort for a little kid who is beginning to take notice of a very big world.” Library Thing has a great list of Jewish literature for Young Adults, perhaps a source for ideas. http://www.librarything.com/topic/57884. Of course, there is always Amazon.com who have an serendipitous compilation of book lists with a variety of themes, although there is no way to avoid the modern litreature that presents questionable language and dubious morals.
The best site yet found is created by the yeshiva of Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam of Monsey. His yeshiva has a detailed breakdown and review of 500 approved books. A group of parents has worked through thousands of books which they have rated for “boy/girl themes”, the “depiction of other religions”, the “use of objectionable language” – major language, minor language, slang and inappropriate talk. They also rate for books which, G-d forbid, glorify in any way the areas of divorce, death, abuse and broken families. They vote against books of “truly horrible middos” and books that are too gritty in their depiction of the social realities that face the modern city inhabitant, or which idolize western values of fame and fortune. First created in 2013 you can see their list of books at www.darcheinoam.org