“We were the ‘chosen people,’ chosen to be killed?” Maurice Sendak told the New York Times in 2008. Chosen to be killed. This criticism encapsulates Sendak’s post-Holocaust milieu and exemplifies his darkly irreverent—and quintessentially Jewish—voice.
Sendak, who died this week at age 83, lived out core paradoxes of American Jewish identity. A son of immigrants in Brooklyn, he longed for Manhattan, calling the shining spires of the city “America.” He held religiosity at arm’s length but based the images of his Wild Things on his Jewish relatives, the ones who threatened to pinch his cheeks and consume him with their love and their desperate longing for continuity on the shores of this new world: “We’ll eat you up!”
He lived in the shadow of the Holocaust—his father learned of his own father’s death on the morning of Sendak’s Bar Mitzvah—but extended our ways of fathoming that tragedy well beyond notions of Jewish uniqueness. A gay man who came of age when few public figures emerged from the proverbial closet, he generated an entire host of hardbound offspring while leaving behind no human children.
Thinking with Sendak can help us to queer notions of American Jewish families and American Jewish writing. Brundibar, his 2003 collaboration with Tony Kushner, was based on a Czech opera performed at Theresienstadt whose composer, librettist, and cast of children (most of them) perished at Auschwitz. While Sendak grew tired of questions about Where the Wild Things Are, he was tremendously fond of Brundibar, which he referred to as: “the closest thing to a perfect child I’ve ever had.”
Sendak did not usually express regret over his lack of children, though in one NPR interview he mentioned an imagined “dream daughter.” There have always been queer families, and they are becoming ever more commonplace, as Sendak reminded Stephen Colbert’s bombastic talking-head character during an instant-classic interview in January 2012. What’s interesting here is not Sendak’s own family (he had a partnership of a half-century and close friends who attended him in his final days). Rather, it is how Sendak’s work opens up new ways of considering Jewish families.
Chosenness in some renderings—including those of American Jews themselves during the nineteenth century—was a matter of essentialized, inherited identity; though this was debated and held in tension with more universalist models. In the post-Holocaust period, these notions were rejected by many Jews due to the traits it shared with Nazi ideology, yet in some spheres, biological definitions of Jewishness keep emerging. As an American Jewish writer without children, Sendak moves us past the continuity crises and panics that dominated American Jewish discussions in the 1990s.
Sendak did not love children, or rather, he did not love them in the same curmudgeonly way that he did not love adults. His response to the Holocaust was not material generativity, not the reproduction of Jewish children to spite Hitler; instead, it was a creative demand that we open up our humanity and transmit our imaginations through unsettling yet ravishing forms of media. The author whose illustrations first appeared in Atomics for the Millions forces us to rethink the imaginary “nuclear family.”
Though ever mindful of the Holocaust and his lost doppelgangers on the other side of the ocean, Sendak also refused to let it be understood as a uniquely Jewish event. Brundibar begins and ends in the home of two children and their sick Mommy. In the opening scene, a doctor, his coat emblazoned with a gold star, arrives to examine her. In the closing scene, the same cast of characters celebrates her newfound health, and we see a crucial new detail in the family’s home: there is a cross high on the mantel. While the doctor treating Mommy is Jewish, the family, and thus our chief protagonists, are Christian, and have been all along.
“Everybody assumes the hero and heroine are Jewish and the mother is Jewish,” Sendak told Bill Moyers in a 2004 interview. “They’re not. They’re not. That was my point. Those kids were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And all children were in the Holocaust. Everybody was in the Holocaust. So, I made sure my hero and heroine were not Jewish children. That was too easy.”
Sendak takes the cross, which for Jews has evoked exclusion and persecution, and renders it as a sign of inclusion: we are all in the Holocaust. Just as the cross incorporates believers into the body of Christ and into the community of the church, Sendak wants his sign of the cross to incorporate all readers into the body of Holocaust experience. This goes beyond a “fantasy of witnessing,” an uncanny desire to “feel the horror” of the Holocaust for ourselves. It is a fantasy of endless, radically empathetic capitulation to the otherness within. Sendak undoes “chosenness” by making all of us pass as Jewish, together.
Sendak famously hated e-books, Twitter, and Facebook, but this did not prevent collective mourning of his death on these same platforms. Many of my friends quoted from Wild Things: “Oh please don’t go—we’ll eat you up, we love you so!” Sendak implored us to choose holding and being held, to grasp tightly even when the embrace is painful. The New York Times’ obituary referred to his books as “Roundly praised, intermittently censored and occasionally eaten.” We should take that eating seriously. Food and notions of consumption dominated Sendak’s work, from the bread and milk of In the Night Kitchen to the plethora of goodies on offer at Brundibar’s market and that book’s refrain, “Milk for mommy!”
As a sickly child, Sendak spent a great deal of time in his mother’s kitchen, seeing and smelling her food preparation. Though his monsters were Jewish relatives, they were not always monstrous Jewish mothers who demanded that their children eat: ess, ess mein kind! Instead, he gave us a Jewish(ish) mother who, though visually absent, was a subtle and loving presence, a departure from most mid-twentieth century Jewish mother stereotypes.
Sendak’s own family relationships were fraught with tension. Yet, in the final two pages of Where the Wild Things Are, we see a rapprochement through food: the famous supper, the blank last page telling us “It was still hot.” Normatively gendered as that cooking might be, Max’s mother is groundbreaking precisely because she frees him out into imagination, but still holds him close enough to provide a slice of cake. She dwells on a fine line between stereotypes of clinging Old World parents and the very real pains and loves of Jewish immigrant families.
“I’m not the milk, and the milk’s not me!” declared Mickey of In the Night Kitchen. Later, he reverses this formulation: “I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me. God bless milk, and god bless me!” In Sendak’s fantastical worlds, identities are held in tension, and blessings happen even in the face of the darkest ovens. He nourished our minds and souls with his milk and bread, with his frightening blackbirds and raucous Wild Things. Perhaps we loved Sendak so much because he did not make us choose between pain and joy. Perhaps we loved him because he let us question chosenness itself.
In “Sarah’s Choice,” poet Eleanor Wilner, like Sendak, reimagines chosenness: “You can be chosen/or you can choose. Not both.” Sendak chose and was chosen. He chose to forego notions of Jewish exclusivity; he chose a love of music and literature that verged on religiosity. He was chosen, sometimes to his own chagrin and annoyance, by all of us.