(JTA) – Mara Rockliff’s “Chik Chak Shabbat” has become a standard for Jewish children since its 2014 publication. The picture book intended for young readers tells a whimsical story about a group of diverse neighbors who help an observant Jewish woman make her cholent — a stew traditionally served on the Sabbath — when they realize she doesn’t feel well enough to cook it herself.
So why did a school district in Jacksonville, Florida, purchase copies of the book only to keep it from students for 15 months?
That’s what happened at Duval County Public Schools. The district initially ordered Rockliff’s book for its students in July 2021 as part of a larger diversity-themed collection of books called “Essential Voices,” which is offered to educators by Iowa-based educational company Perfection Learning.
The books were delivered last winter, but remained “under review” as of September, when the literary free-speech activist group PEN America published a report on banned books in the United States. PEN’s report alleged Duval County had “effectively banned” Roclkiff’s and other books.
One month later, the district released many of them, including “Chik Chak Shabbat,” to students. At least one book with Jewish themes, “The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher” by Jewish author Dana Alison Levy, remains “under review.”
“We retrieved 179 titles from the Essential Voices collection for further review at the district level,” Duval County Public Schools spokesperson Tracy Pierce told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an email this week. “Of those 179, we determined that 106 meet statutory guidelines and are useful toward our reading goals. Those were distributed to classrooms in October.”
School reading materials are under increasing scrutiny amid conservative parent groups’ pressure to remove material they define as “critical race theory” and “gender ideology.” In an increasing number of places, books about Jews have gotten caught in the dragnet, including at a Tennessee district that removed “Maus” from its curriculum earlier this year; a Texas district that briefly removed an adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary; and a Missouri district that briefly removed history books about the Holocaust.
Florida in particular has become a major rallying spot for challenging material in public schools, with its Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, a likely presidential hopeful, signing the “Stop WOKE Act” earlier this year restricting how race and gender concepts are taught in schools. DeSantis-endorsed school board candidates who are so-called parental rights advocates — conservatives pushing for an end to “critical race theory” and materials dealing with gender and sexuality in the classroom — currently hold a majority on Duval County’s board. Elsewhere in the state, the picture book “The Purim Superhero,” which features gay Jewish parents, was removed from a Panhandle-area district in April amid a larger purge of books with LGBTQ+ and gender-identity themes.
Pierce defended the length of time the district took to review the material: “The district will always take the time necessary to make sure the resources we provide for our students are appropriate for each grade level and meet the requirements of state statute.”
The district said 47 titles from the collection were returned to Perfection Learning, while another 26 remain under review. Among those still under review is Levy’s “Family Fletcher,” about a multicultural family that celebrates Jewish holidays. The family has two dads.
The district said Levy’s book was under review “while we await guidance from the state.” Levy did not return a JTA request for comment.
Unlike “Maus,” “The Purim Superhero” and “Family Fletcher,” “Chik Chak Shabbat” does not mention the Holocaust, feature any LGBTQ+ characters or contain any imagery that could be construed as sexual. The book’s most defining characteristic is that it’s about Jews.
Indeed, the book’s depiction of observant Judaism has made it a frequent favorite of the Jewish Book Council and of PJ Library, the literary nonprofit that distributes free Jewish-themed books to children nationwide. The group has distributed a parents’ reading guide to the book, noting, “After reading this story, you and your child may be inspired to make cholent together.” PJ Library declined to comment to JTA for this story.
Rockliff did not return a JTA request for comment, but told the Forward last week, “I doubt that anybody at this school district found [“Chik Chak Shabbat”] objectionable, or even read it.” (The book’s illustrations are by Kyrsten Brooker.)
A customer service representative for Perfection Learning, the company that distributes the Essential Voices collection, promised to forward a request for comment to the company’s CEO, but no comment was provided to JTA.
The district did not broadly communicate that most of the Essential Voices books had been released to students. Last week, apparently under the impression that none of the books had yet been released, several authors (including Jewish writer Ami Polonsky, author of the trans-themed young adult novel “Gracefully Grayson”) spoke out against the review policy at a school board meeting and signed an open letter circulated by PEN America and We Need Diverse Books.
Other Jewish-themed books in the collection include Ruth Behar’s “Lucky Broken Girl,” a coming-of-age autobiographical novel about a Cuban Jewish girl who experiences a car accident while adapting to her new life in New York; that book was also returned to Duval County students in October, Pierce said.
“As an author and a cultural anthropologist, I think young readers should have the freedom to read widely about the human condition to develop empathy and compassion and tolerance,” Behar, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan who also signed the petition circulated by PEN America and We Need Diverse Books, told JTA. She added that she has not heard of any schools or individuals objecting to the book’s content.
The Essential Voices collection also includes a book by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o; an entry from the “Berenstain Bears” series; books about Abraham Lincoln and Jackie Robinson; and a book supporting interfaith dialogue called “Celebrating Different Beliefs.”
The district’s reasoning for its review process was insufficient in the eyes of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, an activist group in the state that pushes for increased student access to books. The group has filed Freedom Of Information Act requests in an effort to get the district to disclose its reasoning for reviewing the books.
“We argue there was never a reason to remove the entire collection of books,” the group’s founders told JTA. “No one in the community complained about what their child was reading in their K-5 classroom.
“If there were only a few titles of concern because they were popping up on challenge lists in the state, they could have reduced the amount of time needed to complete a thorough review by reviewing only those titles while the entire collection remained in the classrooms. Instead, they pulled the entire collection and questioned the professional expertise of those that created it.”
Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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