Sendak and Bible stories in embellished form

I’m mildly unsure if I should mention this, but I am not the world’s biggest Maurice Sendak fan. I like his work, certainly, but it didn’t transform or influence me in the same way it did so many of my peers. I’m even a big fan of the general genre he worked in — I just favor Czech or German tales such as Struwwelpeter. It’s kind of like Bruce Springsteen. I like him, and the live show I saw back in the late 1990s remains one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended. And yet I know that I don’t appreciate him in the way so many friends do.

When Sendak’s death was announced yesterday morning, the New York Times had ready a gorgeous eulogy of a man the writer clearly adored. It was a great tribute. For our purposes here at GetReligion, I noticed this portion:

As Mr. Sendak grew up — lower class, Jewish, gay — he felt permanently shunted to the margins of things. “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy,” he told The New York Times in a 2008 interview. “They never, never, never knew.”

I naturally became a bit more curious about the Jewish part and whether there was anything worth reading that explored these influences on him. If you are likewise curious, I’d recommend this essay headlined “‘Vilde khaye!’: Maurice Sendak’s not-so-cautionary tale” via the Yiddish Book Center. Here’s a relevant bit:

Sendak was born in Brooklyn to Polish immigrants. His father was a tailor who told his children biblical stories in dramatically embellished form. His mother was psychologically unstable. His parents; the experience of watching Walt Disney’s Fantasia at an early age; and the presence, visible and invisible, of relatives whose lives had been touched by the Holocaust defined the young Sendak’s world view. The parents spoke Yiddish to him. They often sent him to his room. And his mother called him vilde khaye, wild beast.

Some read Wild Things as a tale about innocence and courage, manliness, or even the rite of passage of a child seeking to define his limits in a world he doesn’t yet understand. Others seek a psychoanalytic explanation, looking at the disparity between the authority of the outside world and Max’s subconscious desires. A third interpretation, tangentially inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, approaches the plot through the prism of colonialism and abandonment. Like Prospero the magician, Max is exiled in a distant land surrounded by the sea. He becomes the ruler of the natives, subduing them, until he decides to leave them behind. Whatever interpretation one chooses (to me, they all seem forced), the book’s memorable title invites us to understand Max’s otherness at home and abroad.

The volume forms a triptych with Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There. Wild Things has been adapted as opera and recast as a musical as well as a film (with a screenplay by Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze, and directed by Jonze). None of these variations comes remotely close to the power of the original.

Apparently, the first draft of Wild Things featured horses instead of monsters. Sendak’s editor at Harper & Row, Ursula Nordstrom, realizing that the author couldn’t draw horses very well (the original title was Where the Wild Horses Are), asked him to change the characters into creatures he could ably depict. Sendak opted for lovable monsters that, in his own words, resembled the immigrant aunts, uncles, and cousins who visited his childhood home in Brooklyn and for whom he felt both affection and disdain. He saw them as rowdy and impolite: they “could eat you up.” In the opera, these monsters have names: Tzippy, Moishe, Aaron, Emile, and Bernard.

In the realm of children’s literature, Sendak’s method is revolutionary. He shows only what Max experiences and refrains from moralizing or reflecting on the events. Jewishness is implied: although no reference is explicitly made to it, the entire book is permeated with Jewish sensibility. Max inhabits his own universe; he resists outside authority; he arrives in alien lands but assimilates the inhabitants’ culture so well that he becomes a leader. Most of all, he longs for a return to his origins, the only place he feels truly at home.

Just great. I love the part about the embellished Bible stories. Here we have another reminder of what might lurk behind those ghosts you pick up in news stories and obituaries. This Guardian piece also gives a flavor of Sendak and his dark sense of humor.

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  • sari

    The religious aspect is not at all clear, Mollie. Sendak may have come off as unsunny and curmudgeonly, but he always seemed more of a cultural Jew than a religious one. His descriptions of his relatives, for instance, are of a time when Jews came in droves to escape the waves of pogroms that terrorized the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, followed by the decimation of Europe’s Jewish population during the Shoah. Those of us with immigrant parents (him) or grandparents (me) dealt with legions of female relatives who pinched our cheeks while proclaiming, “Such a shayna punim (beautiful face)”, or ostracized our hyperactive brothers in disapproving tones, “Oy! What a vilde chayah!” Attendance at family events (bris, Bar Mitzvah, wedding, funeral) was mandatory as were religious holidays, both at shul and for festive meals (Rosh HaShanah, Passover seder), even if one was completely irreligious. And always the sadness of the people left behind, dead or alive.

    The shtetl mentality, where everyone is in everyone else’s business, prevailed at first, even as people stopped practicing the actual religion. It’s not as if we were welcomed with open arms or allowed to blend into the mainstream culture. That took a couple of generations.

    His consistent sadness and anger suggest long term problems with depression. Depression has a strong genetic component. His unusual perspective could easily be attributed to heredity (his mentally ill mother) and the stress of circumstances beyond his control. Sendak gave many interviews during the course of his life, and all seem to indicate a firm grounding in the culture with little influence from the religion itself. Some obits posit a strong Jewish connection (e.g., Huff Post), but while it’s true that he never divorced himself from the community, I think some commentators are reading more religion into his actions than was actually there.

  • Jerry

    I’m going to disagree a bit with sari because I have that same background with Jewish parents who left “the old country”. I’m not disagreeing with the basic analysis but think it’s taken a bit too far. My parents were atheists and did not attend shul except for marriages and funerals. We did not celebrate Passover etc although my relatives did.

    Sendak might or might have been somewhat/slightly religious. I don’t have any strong opinion. So I consider it an open question worth exploring.

    But it is true that religious themes and stories resonate even with secular people and those connections and themes are worth exploring.

  • Julia

    I have a friend who has lost his belief in God, but continues to direct a Catholic choir b/c he loves the music and the wonderful stories.

    It may not be true any more, but at one time Americans breathed in the wonderful stories of the Bible whether you were religious or not. They are epic, particularly the ones in the Old Testament, and really stick with you throughout life, defining a world view and permeating our literature, movies, operas, etc. It’s one of the glues that used to bind our culture.

    Yesterday I saw a YouTube of 10,000 people in Japan singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy soon after the tsunami did its worst. I’m sure very few of them were either Jewish or Christian, but the wish for brotherhood and a loving God up amongst the millions of stars speaks to everyone, even when listening to a composer steeped in a foreign scripture.

    Sendak’s books about adventuresome wild boys sure spoke to my wild three sons when young, but I don’t think they could articulate today why they loved/love that book so.

  • Beate

    Julia, perhaps despite his crankiness, Sendak did have an ideal – unconditional love. “And it was still hot,” was the absolute favorite line of most of the kids I taught years ago and it certainly resonates with me and my own kids today. Much better than nightmares about Hans Guck-in-die-Luft ;-)

  • sari

    You make a good point, Julia. Biblical stories, along with Greek and Roman myth and legend, permeated the culture. Had Sendak used Mishnah, Gemarah, or even Midrash as a springboard, we could have assumed a deeper religious base, but Bible stories tell us nothing. Had he spoken of more than the people–Jewish relatives and his immediate family, he might have implied religiosity, but he didn’t. Whatever religion ghosts remain are there because he chose not to discuss how religious thought informed his views, Reporters must work with the information they have, not extrapolate from non-data.

    In his own words:

    “I am not a religious person, nor do I have any regrets. The war took care of that for me. You know, I was brought up strictly kosher, but I — it made no sense to me. It made no sense to me what was happening. So nothing of it means anything to me. Nothing. Except these few little trivial things that are related to being Jewish. … You know who my gods are, who I believe in fervently? Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson — she’s probably the top — Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats. These are wonderful gods who have gotten me through the narrow straits of life.”

  • Robert King

    Hemant Mehta (“The Friendly Atheist”) claims Sendak for the non-believing crew, based on a 2003 Fresh Air interview. He offers an interesting comment on the “gods” he “believes in”.

    Seems there are plenty of subtle religious angles to his life, though I’m generally reticent to start labeling people post mortem with causes they didn’t go out of their way to advocate during their time on earth.