Who is Harold Grinspoon and why should we care about him?

by Patricia Goldblatt March 1, 2019


rhett-playing-the-tzedakah-card-gameFor readers, especially early readers and toddlers who love to snuggle close to their parents, a book is so much more than words on a page. Incredibly, more than 200,000 books that focus on Jewish life, holidays and relationships are mailed monthly in the United States and Canada, with a total of 12,306,738 books.

The Harold Grinspoon Foundation PJ Library was created 25 years ago through partnerships with philanthropists and local Jewish organizations, welcoming all Jewish families, whatever background, knowledge, family make-up, or observance and is free to subscribers. These charmingly illustrated, well told missives represent a wide spectrum of Jewish families. A great deal of thought goes into which books will arrive every month, some even having won prestigious awards such as the Caldecott Medal and the Sydney Taylor Book Award, others as finalists for the National Jewish Book Award. As well, the foundation is also open to new writers.

Focused on children between six months and eight years of age, the committee responsible for the book selection is guided by some of the following questions:

-Does the book contain a message of strong Jewish values?

-Will children want to return to this book again and again?
-Does the book reflect historical Jewish life, contemporary Jewish life or some valuable aspect of the Jewish experience?
-Will this book prompt family discussions about Jewish topics and lead families to consider making Jewish choices?

The books purport to positive and life-affirming messages and concepts, avoiding issues of the Holocaust, death and grieving with a focus on the joy of being Jewish. With the intent of stimulating conversations and piquing interest, PJ Library books aspire to embed Jewish practices and ideas that resonate with their young readers’ daily lives.

For example, “First Rain” tells the story of Abby who has moved to Israel. In spite of eating delicious falafel and floating in the Dead Sea, she longs for her grandmother, particularly how they enjoyed splash- ing together in puddles on rainy days. In “All Kinds of Strong,” Sadie Rose tackles an incident in her tight-knit immigrant community. Throughout these tales, a shared literary canon, an insight into how a mensch behaves is communicated to children the world over as each home receives the same title and a common understanding has been forged.

My niece, who has been receiving the books for her children for two years, picked up on the theme of cherished intergenerational dynamics by commenting, “on the nice emphasis concerning the grandparent-grandchild relationship … ‘Bubbie’s Got the Beat’ was really good because you don’t always see a whole lot [of that kind of bonding] in modern children’s literature. My son is really close with his bubbie and zaydie, and we like to foster that relationship so those books are close to our hearts.” She continued, “I’ve also noticed that the people in a good number of the books aren’t all just the usual presentation of Jewish people as uniformly Caucasian. We received one called ‘Jewish Faces’ that shows people of diverse backgrounds celebrating Jewish holidays and events. So, too, there are a few pictures of children of East Asian descent lighting Shabbos candles.” Pensively, she reflected, “Other [PJ Library] books also show kids with disabilities participat- ing in Jewish activities… as someone who used to teach kids with disabilities, I think [that portrayal] is good.”

My own daughter described her children’s reactions. “Remy’s favorite book is called ‘Say Hello, Lily!’ about a shy little girl who visits a nursing home with her mother and gets to know the residents there. She loves them so much she decides to celebrate her birthday party with them. Remy just loves it I think because she can see herself in Lily. Another favorite of Remy’s is ‘Purim Masks.’ That one she keeps beside her bed and she loves reading about the Purim characters.”

All of the stories are very relatable to children. There’s one story about Kayla and her dog, Kugel, who causes all kinds of trouble at Passover; and Rhett, (Remy’s older brother), loves that one. The stories have colorful pictures and they keep the kids’ attention spans.”

In this way, Jewish holidays become not merely rich settings for valued exchanges, but in themselves special treasures of traditions and a meaningful way to highlight diverse ways Jews live in our con- temporary world. With humorous touches such as a dog named Kugel and lively drawings, these books become mainstays in their owners’ homes and hearts. Books from PJ Library are written in Spanish, Russian, Hebrew and English and are sent worldwide, finding new homes in Singapore, Uruguay, South Africa, Spain, Russia, Saskatoon – wherever there are Jews anxious to participate in a reading community and willing to educate their children about the values of living a good Jewish life.

Inspired by Dolly Parton and her program to give books away to children ages 0-5, Grinspoon discovered that the U.S. government allowed his foundation to mail one pound, the books typically weighing about half of that. His aim was to offer a great story with great Jewish content. In addition to the books, Tzedakah boxes accompany a deck of ‘kindness’ cards that teach children about the idea of Tzedakah (charity).

My daughter further explains how the cards have impacted her son, Rhett. “I have to say it was really nice to teach them about the importance of Tzedakah and ways we can be kind to and help others. Then too, The Kindness Card games really reinforce suggestions for honoring elders, being a friend, being kind to animals, etc.”

Although even very young children today receive immediate gratification on their iPads, there is something very special about the anticipation of a gift that arrives through the mail: an offering excitedly anticipated by families, particularly children once a month. A second niece of mine expands on that idea in her comment, “Yes, the kids get PJ Library books. They really enjoy them. Of course the surprise factor of ripping open a package to find something new inside is part of it.”

She continues, “Some of the books have become favorites. There is one, ‘Something From Nothing,’ which is modeled on a classic Jewish folktale, which both kids are addicted to!” Here too, Jewish legends, bubamisces, Hasidic tales, bits, songs, Bible stories, lessons, and tales from our history and literature is retold or reimagined, hinted at or embedded into the narrative. So past and present are aligned, demonstrating to readers that Judaism offers an enduring dynamic presence in their everyday world.

In The Forward in 2017, Jake Romm interviewed Grinspoon, who grew up in the throes of anti-Semitism, hassled and bullied by his peers at public school. He recalls, “I started out as a very poor boy in a two-family house. I always knew that if I ever made any money, I would give it away ‘Jewishly.’ My thinking was affected by the fact that one third of the Jewish people were annihilated by Hitler. My father left Ukraine in 1908 at eight years old, and I think in some way, this project is a memorial to all those Jews who died from anti-Semitic persecution … That creativity and development that contributed to my success wasn’t just happening overnight, it happened over centuries of scholarship and learning.”

Grinspoon, an entrepreneur, knows the importance of implanting books into the Jewish communal experience and has invested over $200 million in Jewish philanthropic causes. He has even signed Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates’ “Giving Pledge,” a commitment to dedicate at least half of one’s wealth to philanthropy. Grin- spoon’s foundation’s other main direction is awarding money to local college students with strong entrepreneurship initiatives – not to fund just a specific project or idea, necessarily, but to recognize ambitions, curiosity and creativity and help start them on the path to leader- ship. Over the last 15 years, the foundation has given more than 825 awards and $630,000 directly to students.

Environmental incentives are also integral to Grinspoon’s vision. He donates heavily to a number of new initiatives that include the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, to seed day schools and the Birthright Israel Foundation, underwriting trips for young Jewish adults. He and his wife, Diane Troderman, a former Brook- line High School teacher, have established programs to aid Hebrew teachers, defray costs for Jewish camp and school tuition and match charitable contributions teenagers make from their bar and bat mitz- vah money.

PJ Library (PJ stands for pyjamas) had its origins in a family Pass- over seder, when Grinspoon observed his grandchildren delight in the kind of Jewish books the 88-year-old philanthropist never had grow- ing up poor in Newton, Maine.

“When you start a family, that is the moment when a lot of people stop and think: ‘What traditions and values am I passing on to the next generation?’” observed Sandler Grinspoon, Harold’s daughter- in-law, to the Boston Globe.

The comments of my daughter and nieces, all tech-savvy in their professions and homes, address the enduring importance of books, especially books with Jewish content, in their children’s growth and development as future citizens in our world today. How wonderful that there are people like Harold Grinspoon willing to tackle the challenge of ensuring Jewish children find themselves in books.


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