I don’t know about your family, but when I was growing up, my grandmothers, who were very dear friends, played an ongoing game of “did you know?” — as in, “Did you know that Christopher Columbus was Jewish?” This could go on for hours, and I always wondered why it was so important to them. I guess I’m getting to be more like my grandmothers, because I had an experience this weekend that brought this old game to mind.
My husband and I visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., over the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. One of the current exhibits is devoted to the authors of the beloved Curious George children’s books.
Well, I had no idea that H.A. and Margret Rey were Jewish — nor that they had escaped Paris in 1940 (by bicycle, no less!) as it fell into Nazi hands. In fact, the exhibit explains in great detail how their treacherous journey came to inform the near-disasters and miraculous escapes that are told and retold in the Curious George books. The exhibit is suitable for children and adults — who doesn’t love Curious George? — and I urge you to see it if you are visiting the Berkshires.
There is more to see in the exhibit, however. The Reys wrote a number of children’s books, including two about overcoming prejudice, Zebrology and Spotty the Bunny. I never read Zebrology, which is about how zebras got their stripes — black zebras and white zebras eventually produce striped zebras — which sounds a little advanced, unless you intend to be having “the conversation” before your child learns the facts of life from someone other than you. But I remember Spotty. Born into a family of plain rabbits, in a world of plain rabbits, he is an outcast until he runs away and finds a world of spotted bunnies with one plain bunny. In the end, all the bunnies, plain and spotted, come together. The book was actually used by the United States Army in combating prejudice.
Standing in the Norman Rockwell Museum, it is very easy to be proud of all of the good things the United States stands for. In the center of the museum are Rockwell’s famous “Four Freedoms” paintings — Freedom from Fear, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, and Freedom from Want. Not on view right now, but ever present in my mind’s eye, is “The Problem We All Live With,” Rockwell’s tribute to Ruby Bridges, as she encountered taunts and racial epithets on her first day at a previously all-white elementary school in New Orleans.
Certainly, on a weekend when we celebrate the life of a man who did so much in such a short time to help improve our country, we can be proud that the United States was there to take in H.A. and Margret Rey. We can be proud that so many Jewish Americans were there to march with Dr. King. And we can know that there is yet much work to be done.
I came home from the Berkshires to find a YouTube video by Andrew Lustig circulating on Facebook. I didn’t have time to look at it until today, when I was, umm, procrastinating on the internet while preparing this blog post. And, lo and behold, it comes around to what my Nana and Grandma were really talking about — being proud to be Jewish. I like to think that they would have enjoyed this and would have been very proud of Andrew.