The True True Story
Wed, 08/26/2009
Special To The Jewish Week

The two penguins, singing Hebrew songs, watched in awe as their magic sukkah took off from the zoo, flying high over the city and the countryside, their long journey to Israel interrupted by a quick stop at the ruins of Macchu Picchu....

My kids interrupt me. Lior, who is 4, asks me: “Are the penguins magic?” Aviv, my 7-year-old, waves off this old, tired question. Despite his inquisitive innocence, he goes for the ontological jugular: “Who told you the story? And how do you know it’s true?”

Who knew bedtime stories could be a metaphysical high-wire act?

Of course children’s stories — whether literary masterpieces like “Charlotte’s Web,” or oral improvisations like mine — have long evoked the same literary and philosophical complexities as adult literature. Seth Lerer’s new book “Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter,” which recently won the National Book Critics Circle Award, argues that children’s literature is not a “rack of hats: didactic, useful books that keep us warm or guard us against weather.” Instead, he finds the genre to be closer to “a world of snakes: seductive things that live in undergrowths and that may take us whole.” Who among us hasn’t been eaten — or at least disoriented — by the work of Maurice Sendak, author of the classic “Where the Wild Things Are” as well as many other seductive and disturbing books, which promise entertainment, and include for the same price a disorienting stew of history, philosophy and memoir?

In truth the questions my kids ask me about flying penguin stories — Are they true? How do I know? — are the same questions adults ask their rabbis about the Bible, or ask their best storytellers about the world.

Jewish tradition has a complex relationship with the conjunction of truth and story. This complicated view might be best represented by the work of Louis Ginzberg, the Talmud professor and early legal authority at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who also wrote/compiled the definitive work of Jewish storytelling, “Legends of the Jews.”

On the one hand, as Ginzberg reports in his book “On Jewish Law and Lore,” he was so deeply rational that even as a child he was disturbed that the Talmud (in Tractate Baba Bathra) contained an obviously outlandish description of a goose, so large that “the waters of the sea reached only to its ankles and its head split the heavens.” On the other, he spent decades researching and writing a multi-volume collection of Jewish stories, many of them in this very same vein.

In Aleksandar Hemon’s brilliant new novel “The Lazarus Project,” the narrator Brik is constantly asking a friend if his extraordinary and dangerous adventures during the siege of Sarajevo really happened. This friend, an uncanny collector of (possibly true) tales, whose unlikely survival suggests a kind of omnipotence, can’t believe the naïveté of the questions. The narrator, like a child hearing a story, is told to figure it out for himself.

There is something deeply moving about this adult narrator, broken apart by the cruelty in his native Bosnia, searching for truth and succor in the outlandish stories of his immoral gambler of a companion. The narrator’s naïve stance is at odds with most of today’s literature, which thrives on the breakdown of myths and on the postmodern digression. (“The Lazarus Project” is not without its postmodern sophistication).

Seth Lerer, in “Children’s Literature,” explores how kid lit has weathered in our ironic, myth-breaking era. “It used to be said that children had no sense of irony, that what distinguished children from adults was their sincerity, their acceptance, their openness,” he writes. Today, however, “children live in communities of false belief and mistrust ... appearance and reality are no longer clearly demarcated.”

A strange combination of feelings accompanies my creation of magic penguin stories: joy at the leisure to compose and tell them; a sense of omnipotence in creating stories that carry the weight of reality; and a vague disorientation, in an era of easy manipulation and difficult trust, in propagating narratives — however well-intentioned — I know to be false.

Ultimately, of course, I have to trust my children to figure a lot out on their own. The best answer I can come up with when they interrogate my stories is that “The stories are true to themselves.”

On a recent evening, my son Lior was looking at a picture of Macchu Picchu from our recent trip there. He pointed to a large patch of grass at the center of the ruins and announced, “That’s where the magic sukkah landed.”

Aviv looked on bemused, not entirely sure whether to lean toward the innocent power of his little brother’s belief, or his growing suspicion that the magic sukkah stories were not just factually suspect, but purely my own invention. In the end he said nothing. But that night, like clockwork, they both asked for another story.

Daniel Schifrin is writer-in-residence, and director of public programs, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

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