Thursday, October 11, 2018

Book Review: Mommy Never Went to Hebrew School by Rabbi Mindy Avra Portnoy

Mommy Never Went to Hebrew School by Mindy Avra Portnoy

The title really speaks for itself, right? I couldn't NOT get this book.

I've owned it for years, and it never fails to make me guffaw. This is the best possible title for a book on this topic. It remains one of my favorite books in my (ginormous) book collection.

But in all seriousness, it's not a bad book. It may not be useful to you, but there are definitely people who could benefit from it in certain ways. And you too can own it used for only $2 (plus shipping) on Amazon! It doesn't appear to be in print anymore, but there are about 25 used copies for sale right now.

Yes, it's 80s-rific (published in 1989). Yes, of course it's about a woman who converts for marriage who comes from a nominally Christian family ("Presbyterians to be exact"). Yes, of course she's blonde. Yes, of course it doesn't tackle patrilineal descent or having born-Jewish family. Yes, of course it overlooks issues of race in both content and illustrations (minus one or two background, black and white drawings who might be people of color). Yes, of course there's very little diversity in any sense.

But it's also a good explanation of conversion for kids. Not kids as young as mine. But maybe yours. No book on a topic this big with this many variables will fit everyone, unless you write your own. (Please write your own. We need more books on this topic.)


It also mentions the main character learning that his friend's dad is "Jewish by choice" (in case you love or hate that phrase) and a friend who converted as a baby after adoption. It even brings up a big question important to kids: "Last week, when I didn't feel like waking up for Hebrew School, I told mom I shouldn't have to go because she didn't have to when she was little. I thought it was a great argument. But mom explained to me that she used to go to Sunday School classes at her church, and that she had to wake up even earlier."

On non-Jewish families: "Mom knew that becoming Jewish was an important decision, so she talked it over with her parents. They agreed that even though they might pray in different ways and celebrate different holidays, they could still love and respect each other." That may not be your experience with your family, but that's a great lesson for your kid to hear moving forward.

Is this acceptable to orthodox people? Depends on your hashkafah. Not every male character is wearing a kippah (including the main boy), and there's nary a black hat in sight. All the rabbis are male, even though the author is a female rabbi. All the women are dressed in tznius-friendly ways as best as I can tell from black and white line drawings, minus the obvious exception of the toweled-back in the mikvah.

Will I read it to my kids one day? Yes. It doesn't totally track my own experience, especially since I come from an atheist family and converted as a single woman, but the core concepts are there. It's an excellent background resource and conversation starter for myself. Maybe not for you. But now you know it's out there if it's something you might be interested in!

There are very few books out there about conversion for kids. Which ones have you read, and what did you think of them?  

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