Move over, Wilbur. Step to the side, Freddy. Make room for a new pig on the bookshelf – Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher, a new children’s book by my friend Laurel Snyder. And yes, it’s about a pig. Who wants to be kosher. But really, it’s about what’s at the heart of Judaism – what matters, what doesn’t, and who is welcome at our tables and in our homes. Because Baxter isn’t really about wanting to be kosher at all – it’s about wanting to experience the joy of shabbat, and one pig’s comic misunderstanding of what it might take to secure an invitation.
I spoke to Laurel yesterday about the birth of Baxter, her first Jewish children’s book. (Fortunately for us, there are more to come.) “For a long time I’d wanted to write something about intermarriage. I had written a couple of very, very bad manuscripts. My little girl self (Laurel is the child of an interfaith marriage) spoke through me, and all the stories were about little girls who were either defiantly proud or insecure….. Baxter popped into my head as a silly character and turned into a book that isn’t really about intermarriage, but about outsiderness. I didn’t intend a message. If I had, it probably wouldn’t have worked.”
Baxter is very much a product of Laurel’s experiences in and out of the Jewish world. As a parent with, you know, taste, she was dissatisfied with the majority of Jewish books available to her own children. (Check out “Where the Wild Things Aren’t”, her critique of the genre, at Tablet
.) Challenged by some movers and shakers in the Jewish kid lit world, (yes, that’s you Natalie and Heidi) she dared to imagine what Jewish children’s books might look like. The answers she came up with surprised her. “Once I realized how many ideas I had, I couldn’t go back.”
Laurel’s experience as a Hillel professional introduced her to the beauty of shabbat, a central theme of Baxter. The book is dedicated to Jerry Sorokin, the Hillel director who hired Laurel for her first job in the Jewish professional world. “The experience of being invited into the ‘real’ Jewish world – to not only be invited to Shabbat dinner – but to make it and cook it and lead the blessings – the beauty of that was so strong and powerful.” As Baxter learns about the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim
(welcoming guests), basks in the light of the Shabbat candles, joins in the Shabbat songs, and digs into his kugel (and boy, can he dig), many readers will find themselves counting the days until their own shabbat dinner, or seeking an invite from the nearest Jewish family.
Nu, a pig as a spokesman for shabbat … is it good for the Jews? If you ask me, or Laurel, the answer is yes. Laurel and I chatted about the fact that pig is something of a final frontier for many Jews. They might eat shrimp, or McDonald’s cheeseburgers, but they won’t touch bacon. Or, as Laurel pointed out, they don’t feel comfortable reading about Green Eggs and Ham. And this distinction is really meaningless (and misguided. My words, not hers.) Having the main character of a shabbat story be a pig is a terrifically clever reminder that many of our ideas about what is trayf are really narishkeit
. While some of the first readers of Laurel’s manuscript were afraid Baxter would offend Jews (indeed, the title was changed from the original, “Baxter the Kosher Pig”, to mitigate any perceived disrespect to dietary laws), the book is actually quite respectful of halacha. If there’s offense to be taken in the traditional community, it’s more likely to hinge on the woman rabbi reading aloud from the Talmud than the pig who dines at a shabbat table.
I’m very curious to see how the rest of the Jewish world receives Baxter. I can tell you that he’s welcome at our Shabbat table any time he wants – but at our house he’ll have to use a fork for the kugel.