My Account Sign up for eNews

"Writing" a Jewish Children's Bible: Challenges and Opportunities

September 17, 2009

When I was growing up, no one told me the difference between the Bible and midrash. So like many other Jews, I thought that the Bible included the legends of Lilith, Abraham smashing his father’s idols, and Elijah’s visits to my seder table. It wasn’t until much later that I learned what was in and out of the sacred text.

My chief aim in writing the JPS Illustrated Children’s Bible is to teach children this important distinction, to present the Hebrew Bible on its own terms, without interpretation or embellishment. I also wanted to reproduce the unique texture and rhythm of biblical language, using as my guide the 1985 JPS English Translation (NJPS), which itself tried to capture the idiomatic nuances of biblical Hebrew. The stories in my book are abridged but not improved or modernized. I want readers and listeners to appreciate the simple narrative style of the Bible: sentences anchored in active subjects and verbs, few adjectives or adverbs, only rare editorializing by the narrator. All the familiar techniques of good storytelling—suspense, dramatic irony, repetition, word play, stock characters, etc.—are present in these stories, but the specific ways that these techniques play out are unique to the Hebrew Bible. So, too, are the names of people and places, of holy days and sacred acts.

I selected 53 stories to include in this book. My choices were guided mainly by my sense of what makes a good story for children. Some stories I excluded as being inappropriate for young readers. But I felt I had to include a few troubling stories, such as “The Binding of Isaac” and “David and Bathsheba,” because they are pivotal to understanding the Jewish national story. They will undoubtedly challenge a young person’s sensibilities and sense of justice. I’ve also included a few scenes of graphic violence, especially in the Book of Judges, because their moral consequences still resonate with us today.

As I worked, I made many judgment calls—about vocabulary, translation, editorial intervention, censorship, and gendered language. I tried to be mindful of young readers’ reading level, cultural literacy, and developmental maturity. But I also wanted to give children a feel for the special language that characterizes sacred texts, which generally avoid street language and slang, as well as trendy idioms. In some cases, I needed to steer clear of certain common words, because they have become double entendres in modern colloquial English. For instance, young children almost always titter when the Bible speaks of sacrificing kids. So I substituted “young goat” for kid. Similarly, I used synonyms for certain words that carry sexual connotations in modern English (e.g., “rod,” “ass,” and “bosom”), which may embarrass some young readers.

I tried not to get in the Bible’s way. By and large, I let the Bible to speak for itself. However, the Bible is an ancient document. In order to sharpen its sound so that it speaks clearly to the children of the 21st century, I occasionally exercised my editorial hand, which I hope proves both helpful and unobtrusive.

The Bible emerged out of a culture radically different from our own. To be fair to the Bible, we cannot impose upon it our contemporary values. But to be fair to ourselves, we cannot simply sweep aside the contradictions between the Bible’s world and our own. I believe that it’s good for children to begin struggling with these tensions, which are so vividly embodied in these ancient tales. Rather than censor such difficult material (as has been done for centuries in most children’s Bibles), I hope that parents, teachers and rabbis will talk with young readers about these stories, and encourage them to continue wrestling with these difficult texts throughout their lives—with the help of classical rabbinic commentaries, modern scholarship, members of their communities, and their own conscience.

The Bible remains the cornerstone of Jewish culture, the home to which Jews return in every generation to connect to their past, their collective unconscious, and their shared traditions. In the English language, too, the Bible remains an essential source for literature and the performing arts, politics and protest. To understand Shakespeare, Robert Frost, popular music, and today’s newspaper, you have to know the Bible. It is quite simply the greatest story ever told.