Monday, May 28, 2012

Maurice Sendak's Jewishness Defined His Work

With the death of  Maurice Sendak recently, adults who adored Max and his wild rumpus with big-eyed monsters, didn't just mourn the loss of the man. This was the artist who helped shape their childhoods.  On a personal note, my twins, Colin and Ian, adored In the Night Kitchen, and we read it to them countless times!

Since his death at age 83, Sendak has been referred to frequently as the most important children's author of the 20th century. His millions of fans crossed borders of age, race, gender, nationality and religion.

It's a measure of Sendak's imagination that his stories, infused with a very particular Jewishness, contain no evidence of Judaism on the surface.

Sendak's relationship to Judaism was perhaps most shaped by the Holocaust:

The Holocaust has run like a river of blood through all my books. Anything I did had to deal with that — with my family, the ruination of my childhood, the humiliation of being a victim.

Sendak, whose parents traveled to the U.S. from Poland in the 1920s, was often sick as a child in Depression-era Brooklyn. His later writing and illustrations borrowed from his memories of childhood's dark corners and the way children can tap into their imaginations to escape those corners.

"It is always amazing to me that children survive childhood, that they go on to have professional careers and run countries," Sendak said at a talk at Washington University's Graham Chapel in 1989. "I think it's due to their tremendous courage. They have to be very brave. And that loyalty and courage and bravery is the subtext of everything I have ever written."

Sendak based the monsters in "Where the Wild Things Are" on his aunts and uncles that his parents had managed to bring to Brooklyn from the old country.  "I hated them all," he said at Washington University's Graham Chapel. "They were grotesque, with their huge noses, their great cascades of hair, their bad teeth."

While Sendak's parents were able to bring his mothers' family out of Poland, his father's family was destroyed by the Nazis. As a teenager, Sendak studied the black-and-white photographs of his murdered relatives.

"His relationship to Judaism is a mostly secular one," Patrick Rodgers said. "He struggled growing up semi kosher. He didn't do much in the way of worship. He couldn't relate to the world his family came from, but he became really aware of it when that world was falling apart."

As absorbed as Sendak was with his Jewish roots, his God was not Abraham's God. In 2003, he told Terry Gross, host of NPR's "Fresh Air," that religion "made no sense to me.  You know who my gods are, who I believe in fervently?" Sendak asked. "Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson — she's probably the top — Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats. These are wonderful gods who have gotten me through the narrow straits of life."


  1. Hi Nancy,

    Powerful tribute! You've brought to light things I did not know about Mr. Sendak. Well done!

    All the best,

    1. Thanks so much, Donna, for your kind remarks. Until I did some research, I didn't know much of this either. Sendak seemed to be quite a complex gentleman--with good reason, I suspect.

      Thanks, again!