A Not-So-Super Hero?

PJ Library is a national organization that sends free, Jewish-themed books to families around the country. Each month a new book is delivered. This year, "The Purim Superhero" (link below) was offered for free by request only. While some members of the Jewish community hailed this decision, many others thought that requiring families to specifically request this title sent the wrong message about LGBTQ inclusion in Jewish life. While this decision was made on a national level, there are also local PJ Library chapters that provide programming and family activities. SOJOURN has a continuing partnership with Atlanta's PJ Library chapter which has been at the forefront of these local programs and activities, including hosting programs on "The Purim Superhero."

A few weeks ago the PJ Library shared its reasoning for not offering the wonderful book,  “The Purim Superhero,” through its regular distribution.  Citing concerns about parental objections to the message, they hid heteronormative bias as justified censorship in the name of pacifying a diverse readership.  It therefore comes as no surprise to discover that in their resource page of books about Purim, "The Purim Superhero" is not listed.  It may not be surprising, but it is a sad state of affairs as they continue to exemplify a misguided decision by leaving off this book as a resource, further highlighting the poor choice which they have made. 

If you have not had the opportunity yet to read this book because the amazing Jewish community has left no printed copies available this season, it is about a young boy who wants to dress as an alien for Purim. His friends are dressing as superheroes and he is faced with making a surprising and empowering decision with the support of his parents.

Oh yeah, his parents? Are two dads.  

And there's the source of "concern".  Apparently nobody has notified our philanthropic foundations that in the United States in 2014 we have many different Jewish families with lots of diverse parent images and two dads just aren’t shocking to most of us, especially when they aren't essential to the plot of the book.

Many people shared in blog postings and opinion letters how hurtful, divisive, and misguided the decision of PJ library has been.  It has been noted how unfortunate and thin their argument was; that they didn’t believe it was their decision to make, but that “we know that there are some parents who would want to decide for themselves”.

As others have already observed, all parents review books before sharing them with their children, and to imply that forcing parents to specifically request a book is the sole way to “place parents in the driver's seat” is both infantilizing to the parent audience of the PJ Library and offensive to any parent who has ever received a book that speaks of God with a male gender pronoun or depicts parents in exclusively essentialist gender roles that believes in egalitarian Judaism. For many people, those are values which do not necessarily align with each family's beliefs. Somehow, though, these families manage to find a way to come to terms with these contradictions. To censor a book out of angst or concern that a parent might not be prepared for the Jewish values it embodies is unfortunate and projects more about the values of the foundation and less about our American Jewish community.

Having left already “The Purim Hero” as an optional selection of PJ Library, to now to leave it off of the resource list highlights the poor decision making of this effort.  The resource list, for parents and educators, is a web-based resource.  Nobody is caught unprepared and everyone can use their personal values and discerning eye to determine which of these books they want to choose to add to their home or school libraries.  The exclusion of “The Purim Hero” cannot be considered anything less than de facto censorship of a book with gay parents.  The implicit message of PJ Library has become one of intolerance for any family who might not fit the historically traditional definition of what a family is, and that is a sad message from an organization that views itself as an official "welcome basket" for new Jewish parents.

Books are a precious legacy of Jewish culture and tradition. Censorship of books has never been part of our Jewish tradition.  From the inclusion of the Song of Songs in the Biblical cannon and continuing through the writings of many who have been considered heretics (but whose written word was nevertheless preserved by a tradition with reverence for written work), our tradition embraces the critical reader and allows the community to be self-discerning of what they read and teach and to whom. Everyone in our Jewish community suffers when a book is censored; it is even more hurtful when the book that is censored specifically teaches the universal lesson of being "comfortable just being yourself”.

On this holiday of Purim, when a central idea is gaining courage and strength in unmasking ourselves and in recognizing the worth in each other being who we are and being comfortable with ourselves, it would be inspiring if PJ Library could see our Jewish community as we are: a complex, interesting, diverse community wherein many flavors of family and many flavors of values all live together, where marriage equality is a value of love and where being one's self is a value of Judaism.  Where parents are thoughtful and engaged and are always adapting the books they bring into their homes to best fit their own values and where foundations do not need to think, nor to censor, in the name of their own Jewish values or to think for other Jewish parents.  Let us hope that next Purim we can continue to celebrate the multiple ways we unmask ourselves, how we see ourselves for who we are in the mirror, how we understand how special, sacred, and valued for who we are as it is reflected back at us in the words, statements and the books shared across the Jewish community.