In the Night Kitchen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Maurice Sendak, author of the children's book, Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak was instrumental in the creation of Sesame Street, and attended Lesser's curriculum seminars in 1968. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My girls were always a lot more fond of "Goodnight, Moon" than "Where the Wild Things Are," but it still was regular bedtime reading. And, even if it came in second, that doesn't make me appreciate any less the artistry of Maurice Sendak, or the influence of his Jewishness on his work. There is little doubt that Sendak's work reflected his Jewish heritage. He said so himself.
In a series of interviews with NPR, Sendak, who passed away at 83 on May 8, related the impact of the Holocaust on his youth, as the child of Polish immigrants. "If I came up late for dinner, I'd hear about Leo and Benjamin and the other children who were my age who could never come home for supper and were good to their mothers but now they were dead, and I was lucky," he said in a 2003 NPR interview.
Asked about who was the inspiration for the famous monsters in "Wild Things," Sendak said, "I went back into my head as to who were the monsters in my life," he reflected. "Well, they were my uncles and aunts." He said the spikes in the hair of his monsters came from the memories of his relatives.
Though he was upfront about his Jewishness, he said, "I am not a religious person, nor do I have any regrets... the war took care of that for me. You know, I was brought up strictly kosher, but I -- it made sense to me what was happening. So nothing of it means anything to me. Nothing. Except these few little trivial things that are related to being Jewish... You know who my gods are, who I believe in fervently? Herman Milville, Emily Dickinson -- she's probably the top -- Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats. These are wonderful gods who have gotten me through the narrow straits of life."
Taken by itself, Sendak was a beloved artist, whose work has fascinated children for generations and will continue to entertain and delight them for generations to come, long after others have forgotten the artistic importance of his Jewish identity. Still, his work was enriched by that identity and, in turn, he enriched the lives of all of us, regardless of our ethnic heritage.