Maurice Sendak, an Unlikely Hero

By Alexa Broida, NFTY-MAR Regional Advisor and NFTY Mitzvah Corps Coordinator

“Okay smarty, you’ve had your party but never again.”  Bumble-ardy replies, “I promise, I swear, I won’t ever turn 10.” –Bumble-ardy

By all accounts, Maurice Sendak was an unlikely hero.  While his colleagues in the world of children’s literature were creating Disney princesses, romanticizing gender stereotypes that would perpetuate anti-feminism in mainstream culture for decades to come, Sendak was exploring the darker side of the imagination.  He used his literature to convey the truth that “from their earliest years, children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can.  And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis.  It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.”  It is through his honest interpretations of struggle and the unspoken pains of childhood that his works have resonated through the decades, not only with the children who marvel at his drawings, but with the adults who continue to find new meaning and inspiration from his written word.

As Reform Jews, we have a history of looking for heroism in unlikely places.  In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, we have Moses, the man who had trouble speaking, tasked with verbally conveying all of God’s laws to the Israelites.  ALL of them.  And yet that’s just what he did.  He recognized that his role was to be the voice of God, the voice of reason, the voice of honesty and truth.  After wrestling at a younger age with his role as a leader of the Jewish people, Moses had finally found his niche, and was now ready to let the wild rumpus start!

Sendak, like Moses, understood the significance of having the responsibility of sending a message to a people, of spreading an idea, a truth, and giving a voice to those who do not find themselves in the majority.  The Israelites listened to Moses read a list of rules that were irrelevant to them, guidelines that applied only to the kohen gadol, the high priest, and yet it sent a vital message that their role as a community was to listen to the needs of one another, to understand the pressures and strains and standards that apply to each and every one of them.

While Sendak may not have received his instruction from God in a burning bush, there was something inside him that sparked the need to say something to an entire people.  His message was one of imagination, of creativity, of acceptance, of truth, and of baring your soul to light the path for others to do the same.   His books were the voice of children who did not see themselves as a princess, who lacked the faith that they would be carried off into the sunset by a prince, and who ironically used their imaginations to keep them grounded.  Through his literature, he advocated for those who did not fit a mold, and made sure that the world heard him, and each other.

Maurice Sendak was the voice of a generation, of several generations, who lived his life as an embodiment of Hillel’s “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?”  He was not going to stand idly by, he was not going to focus his attention solely inward, and perhaps most importantly, he was not going to let others dictate to him what should or should not be done.

As we examine the lessons of Maurice Sendak, and of Moses in the story of Emor, let us look ahead to our youth, to our people, to our future.  What message do we want to be sending?  And why are we waiting?  With the Campaign for Youth Engagement in full swing, the Union for Reform Judaism has no excuse not to listen to the voices of our children, to hear out their fantasies, and to strive to be the place where someone loves them most of all.  If we have something to say, we should say it.  If we have something to dream, we should dream it.  It’s what Moses, Maurice Sendak, and all of our heroes have taught us.

 “But the wild things cried, oh, please don’t go – we’ll eat you up – we love you so!” –Where the Wild Things Are

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