We are traveling to America for a month-long visit to our parents, whom we haven’t seen in nearly two years on account of the pandemic. Daniel was insistent that we pack lightly. We wanted to take the bus to the train to the airport, and so we could only carry as many suitcases as we had kids to push them. But that meant a limit on books. I would have to choose selectively.
Once most of our clothes were packed, I examined our suitcases to see how much space remained. I stuffed a pile of paperback Hebrew historical novels for the kids–in case they strike and refuse to read in English–in between between balls of socks and my daughters’ assorted bathing suit tops and bottoms that I hope matched closely enough. But then I noticed that half the suitcase was taken up by Yitzvi’s soft blue furry blanket. It’s thick and warm, but he sleeps with it year-round, regardless of the weather. At night he tells us he is tired by tugging out the blanket from in between the wooden bars of his crib, folding it onto the floor into a bundle, and laying down on top like Harry the Dirty Dog curled atop his mattress. But the blanket is thick and bulky and I know we’re tight on space. Why does it make it into the suitcase when so much else does not?
I held up the blanket to Daniel, raising my eyebrows questioningly. “We really need this?” I asked him.
“So that Yitzvi will have something familiar with him, even though he’ll be sleeping in so many strange places – on the airplane. In the airport. In my mom’s house. In your parents’ house. This way, wherever he goes, he’ll have his blanket.”
I understood Daniel’s point. Yitzvi has never been attached to a doll or a stuffed animal – his security blanket is quite literally a blanket. There was no sense, now two days before our trip, in trying to help him grow attached to something that would take up less luggage space. But I was pretty sure I had a better idea.
Yitzvi has three books that we read almost every night before bed. I proposed to Daniel that we pack those instead. “This way, he’ll have something familiar, something that reminds him of home.” Daniel raised his eyebrows quizzically. “Don’t you think my mom has Good Night Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar? Bringing those books to America is like, well, carrying coals to Newcastle.”
“Bringing straw to Ofarim, you mean.” I’m convinced every language has a version of that phrase. The medieval commentator Rashi (Menachot 85a) contends that when Moshe demonstrated various signs and wonders to Pharaoh in an attempt to convince him that he was sent by God, Pharaoh responded dismissively, telling Moshe that bringing magic to Egypt was like bringing straw to Ofarim. Egypt was famous for its magic; it didn’t need foreign imports. Ofarim was apparently as famous for its straw as Newcastle was for its coal.
“Anyway, it’s not like that,” I insisted. “I mean, we could find these books in America, but we couldn’t find our copies.” I held up Goodnight Moon, with the missing spine and the waterlogged pages. This is actually the second copy we’ve owned – we had one for the first three kids, but at some point it split in half, and in spite of several attempts to cover the spine in masking tape and re-bind the first and second parts, the book continued to split, and inevitably I’d be rushing to get Shalvi into bed, unable to locate one of the halves, until finally I bought a new copy. We’ve kept the broken copy too, as a back-up, just in case we can’t locate its replacement. The rabbis of the Talmud teach that after Moshe shattered the first set of the Ten Commandments, they were placed in the ark alongside the new set. So many of our memories are bound up in our brokenness, like the stories with which we caption each of our bruises and scars.
Daniel consented to let me take Goodnight Moon, along with The Very Hungry Caterpillar and a Hebrew classic children’s book entitled A Tale of Five Balloons, by Miriam Roth. As I placed them in the suitcase, I was reminded of my favorite part of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, famous as a novel about a nineteenth-century scientist—the titular character—who creates a hideous monster and then flees from his creation. The monster leaves the laboratory and makes a home for himself in an abandoned structure in the wilderness. There he teaches himself to read using a satchel of books he stumbles upon. The books teach the monster not just how to read, but how to read the world: how to understand human emotions, and the human mind, and the complexity of the world he has been created into. Shelley—being a writer’s writer—tells us which books they are, and it’s clear she has selected them deliberately, with great care. They constitute her sense of a complete education, or the most complete education one could get from three works of literature alone.
Frankenstein’s monster reads Paradise Lost, the Sorrows of Young Werther, and Plutarch’s Lives. They are not books I could ever read to Yitzvi, not for at least another fifteen years, and I doubt I ever will. But in a sense each book I packed for Yitzvi has its equivalent in one of the books stumbled upon by Frankenstein’s Monster – they are, in a sense, the board book version.
Goodnight Moon is a Paradise Lost of sorts, an affecting poetic description of a fallen world. Unlike Milton, Margaret Wise Brown is not retelling the story of the creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and their subsequent fall from grace. Hers is a repetitive bedtime story of a rabbit falling asleep in a large furnished bedroom with a window looking out to the starry sky. But when refracted through the Talmudic imagination, Goodnight Moon becomes a version of Paradise Lost. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 8a) teaches that when Adam saw that the days were growing shorter with the approach of the world’s first winter, he grew terribly frightened: “Perhaps because I sinned, the world is growing dark all around me, and will return to a state of chaos and disorder?” Adam, never having experienced winter, assumed that the whole world was an extension of himself and was being punished on his account. It was a sort of pathetic fallacy, a literary term for the attribution of human qualities to things found in nature that are not in fact human. With each shorter day, time seemed to be closing in on him, as if the newly-created world were soon to cease. Was the onset of darkness a sign that the world was coming to an end?
For a baby, every nightfall is a paradise lost. It marks the end of a wondrous Edenic daytime spent playing with abandon, delighting in one new discovery after another, and frolicking in an illuminated world. When night falls, the child is placed in a room, sometimes even all alone by himself; even if the little old lady whispering hush is in her rocking chair, she will not be there all night; she vanishes on the book’s final darkened page. The window is illuminated by moonlight and twinkling stars, but after the child takes its leave from all the items that are so delightful in daytime—the kittens and mittens, the toyhouse and mouse, the bears and the chairs—the lamp ceases to cast its glow. The baby falling asleep at night, like Adam in the antediluvian world, has not seen enough sunsets to understand that this just the way of the world, and that darkness will inevitably be followed by dawn. No wonder babies wail at night – how terrifying to fall asleep when it seems the world is drawing to a dark and frightful close.
Yitzvi can identify nearly every item in Goodnight Moon, though unlike Frankenstein’s monster, his three books are unlikely to teach him to read. He points to the comb and the brush, and even to nobody, and the mush. The only objects he confuses are the moon and the red balloon, which don’t look all that different – both are round, and they’re about the same size. The balloon is like a moon closer to home, still high above but accessible with the tug of a string. In spite of the disappointments of nightfall—the lost paradise of sunlight and daytime—at least the balloon in Goodnight Moon never pops. The same cannot be said for the other balloon book I read him every night.
A Tale of Five Balloons by Miriam Roth is arguably one of the most famous Israeli children’s books of all time. The five balloons—green, yellow, purple, blue, red—are the only color illustrations in the otherwise black-and-white pages. When the book opens, Ruti’s mother brings a present – five balloons, one for each delighted child. But joy is followed by a series of disappointments. Uri runs and jumps with his green balloon until it suddenly falls on a thornbush and is punctured. Ron’s yellow balloon is blown up so large that it pops. Sigalit’s balloon is torn apart by a cat’s claws. Ruti hugs her blue balloon so tightly that it rips and pops. “Don’t be sad,” each child is told in sing-song Hebrew rhyme. “That’s the fate of all balloons.” And yet each child is crushed by the loss. Uri places his head in his hands, Ron clings to his father’s legs for comfort, Sigalit leans down sorrowfully to pick up the broken pieces, Ruti peers upwards with lips pursed in grief and lamentation. This may be the fate of all balloons, but it doesn’t make it easier when it’s your balloon that pops.
A Tale of Five Balloons teaches that disappointment is an inevitable part of life, and that love carries with it the risk of loss. This is also the lesson of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe’s eighteenth-century German classic about a passionate young man devastated by his unrequited love for Charlotte, who is engaged to another man. Werther cannot keep away from Charlotte and every encounter with the woman forbidden to him further deflates him, until ultimately he writes a note saying that he is going away on a journey, and takes his own life in desperation.
Instead of popping like all the others, the fifth balloon in Miriam Roth’s children’s book, the red one, goes on a journey. A strong wind suddenly blows it up, up to the clouds, as all the children watch and wave goodbye. For the first time, they are able to take their leave from one of the balloon, whose departure is less sudden than all the others. Loss is often deeply painful, and yet sometimes it is easier when we have the chance to say goodbye. The children do not relinquish the last balloon on their own terms, and yet this loss feels less like something that happens to them, and more like something they can take part in – analogous, perhaps, to young Werther’s decision to take his own life after he is unable to cope with all the disappointments that have befallen him.
“That’s the fate of all balloons,” the refrain in Miriam Roth’s balloon tale, is also the universal human refrain – we are all born, and at some point we all die. That’s the fate of all humanity, as dictated by God in the garden of Eden. Werther’s sorrows, like the punctured balloons, are all corollaries of a lost paradise.
In this sense, perhaps, the third book that Frankenstein’s monster reads to learn about the world is the opposite of the other two. Plutarch’s Lives is a series of biographies of famous Greek and Roman men, showcasing their virtues and their capacity for transformation. It is less a book about death than about how various great individuals embraced life at particular moments in history. I don’t read Yitzvi any biographies, but he does hear the story of a life transformed each time I read The Very Hungry Caterpillar – in which the little egg laying on the leaf eats more and more every day until he simply can’t eat anymore, and he builds himself a cocoon, from which he emerges transformed. Eating is an affirmation of life, and eating to grow larger and stronger is in large part the job of a baby or small child. “You have to eat so you can grow big and strong and do great things,” we tell Yitzvi. We want him to know that if he embraces life he will be able to transform himself, like a caterpillar turned into a butterfly, or a laboratory experiment turned into a sentient being.
Shelley writes that Frankenstein’s monster discovers the three books in a leathern portmanteau, which is essentially a large suitcase. I pack Yitzvi’s three books at the very top of our suitcase, so we can retrieve them as soon as we land in the evening and I try—in spite of the jet lag—to get him to bed. I hope that with each subsequent rereading, he internalizes their messages: Inevitably night falls, but it’s not the end of the world. All life is marked by disappointment. But if we embrace the time and opportunities we have been given, our lives can be as majestic and dazzling as the multi-colored butterfly whose wings span the final two pages. I hope that Yitzvi will learn these lessons from more sophisticated works of literature someday—from Milton, or Goethe, or Plutarch, perhaps. For the time being, though, I’m content to populate his imagination with colorful balloons, an egg on a leaf, and quiet old lady whose wisdom reverberates beneath the whisper of her hush.