Sydney Taylor: A Centenary Celebration

Within the last few years, Julia Child died at the age of ninety-one; Katharine Hepburn at ninety-six; Bob Hope at one hundred. As we watched the retrospectives of their lives promulgated through media tributes, we also saw histories of the twentieth century. Each of these famous Americans offered a life story that is also a story of a particular slice of America. Each of the public mournings for Child, Hepburn, and Hope provided a particular lens through which to view unfolding eras across the century.

Sydney Taylor, author of the All-of-a-Kind Family books, was born in 1904, and many honored the centenary of her birth on October 30, 2004. While not a celebrity, Taylor influenced generations of Americans with her semiautobiographical depictions of a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side and later the Bronx during the 1910s and early 1920s.

Today, children still read the five books that make up the series, and many adults have fond memories of them. First, people inevitably utter the words, “Oh, I loved those books.” And then, usually without prompting, they tell me memories of specific incidents that occurred in the stories of the five sisters—Ella, Henny, Sarah (Sydney Taylor’s literary counterpart), Charlotte, and Gertie — and their little brother, Charlie. “I remember the girls searching for buttons while they dusted.” Or, “I remember when Henny got lost at Coney Island.” Or, “I remember when Sarah lost the library book and how nice the library lady was.” Or, “I remember when they all got sick during Passover.”

Remembering Taylor’s books is a delightful experience, as these readers’ smiles and rush of talk display. But almost none of them knows anything about Taylor herself. (Some even wonder if Sydney was a man, due to the androgyny of the name.) Most people do not know that she was the daughter of immigrants, and that her life in many ways reflected the American Jewish experience of the twentieth century.

Her story is representative of hundreds of thousands of Jews who came (or whose parents came) from Eastern Europe, sometimes fleeing persecution, always looking for opportunity and better lives. Sydney’s parents, Morris and Cecilia Brenner, came from Europe, settled on the Lower East Side, and set up an observant Jewish household. The Brenner family — as well as their fictional counterpart — was typical of immigrant families of that era, whose members, especially the younger ones, quickly began to assimilate. While the many chapters in the All-of-a-Kind Family books that depict the observance and celebration of Jewish holidays are based on what really happened in the Brenner household, Sydney was not herself a particularly religiously observant young woman. She went to parties at clubs on Friday nights and worked on Saturdays (despite the Jewish Sabbath), ate in non-kosher restaurants, and could not remember the names of some of the Jewish holidays.

In the early 1920s, at the same time as many American Jews were looking to socialism for answers to social inequalities, Sydney joined the Young People’s Socialist League. She met the man she would later marry at a YPSL meeting. As a mother, Sydney sent her daughter Joanne to the famously progressive Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village in the 1940s. Today, Joanne, who shortened her name to Jo in honor of another literary heroine, remembers that for most of her childhood, her parents had a picture of Eugene Debs hanging on the wall. Later, Sydney and her husband Ralph Taylor tempered some of their leftist views after Ralph became the president of the pharmaceutical and cosmetics company Caswell-Massey. This softening of strong socialist principles is representative of many second-generation Jewish immigrants.

While the Taylors kept almost none of the religious observances their parents taught them, they both maintained a strong sense of Jewish identity. Beginning in the early 1940s, Sydney worked at the summer camp run by the Central Jewish Institute, Camp Cejwin, in Port Jervis, New York. For over thirty years, she was the drama and dance director of Camp Cejwin, and she wrote, choreographed, and directed the plays the children performed each summer. Although the settings of the plays vary, from ancient Israel to contemporary America, with some stops at magical fairylands, the vast majority of them contain Jewish content of one kind of another. For the Taylors, Judaism became a source of ethnic pride and cultural identity rather than a religious or spiritual foundation. In this way, the Taylors represented the experience of many American Jews from the fifties through the end of the century.

Taylor’s first book, All-of-a-Kind Family, was published in 1951, when it was both exhilarating and difficult to be an American Jew. In the wake of the revelation of the atrocities of the Holocaust and of the establishment of Israel, American anti-Semitism began to weaken in some quarters. But as the specter of the Communist scare and McCarthyism began to rise, some people reviled Jews anew, connecting them to the socialism of their early-century past. In a move considered daring at the time, C. W. Follett decided to publish Taylor’s manuscript, which had been sent to them, unbeknownst to her, by her husband as an entry in Follett’s second annual contest for “distinguished contribution to children’s literature.” Taylor’s editor, Esther Meeks, expressed excitement but also anxiety about her company’s investment in publishing one of the first books to depict American Jewish children. Although she praised Taylor’s inclusion of the details of Jewish life and observance, she first encouraged, and then ordered, Taylor to include some scenes of the Fourth of July holiday so that the family would “seem more like Americans.” Corresponding with Taylor just a few months after the Rosenbergs’ arrest in 1950, Meeks declared adamantly, “I do think it important, too, particularly today, that this family show some signs of being American as well as Jewish.”

According to the late Ethel Brenner, the widow of Sydney’s brother Irving (“Charlie” in the series), Meeks also demanded that Taylor change the name Irving to Charlie because Irving sounded “too Jewish.” Despite the overt Americanizing insisted on by Meeks, and the more subtle Americanizing Taylor built into the narrative, the family in the series was indisputably, undeniably Jewish. Many mid-century readers recall Taylor’s books as the first they ever encountered that featured Jewish children. As Taylor published the subsequent four books in the series through the 1950s and up until the 1970s, she participated in the awakening and growing American recognition of ethnic difference and pride. We can call Taylor one of the first writers of multicultural literature for children.

Ethnic pride was certainly not the only issue in the books, however. We see the fruition of Taylor’s early progressive politics in her chapters that concerned helping a social worker, or that depicted Henny, the charismatic second sister, running for class representative—the first girl in her school to do so. Writing during the civil rights movement and while the daughters of socialists became the feminists of the 1960s, Taylor made one era of the twentieth century relevant to another. Considering the reach of the novels, through sales and library lendings, one could argue that Taylor was instrumental in shaping a postwar American Jewish identity.

Taylor’s last book in the series, Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family, was published in 1978, a few years after Taylor died; all five books are currently in print and selling well. Taylor is honored every year when the Association of Jewish Libraries gives out their annual awards for Jewish children’s literature in her name. A few years ago, New York University historian Hasia R. Diner discussed Taylor at length in her book Lower East Side Memories, claiming that Taylor was the first to re-create the Lower East Side as a site of nostalgia and ethnic pride for postwar American Jews. The production company Sunshine Films (a division of Killer Films) is currently making the first movie based on Taylor’s books. And I am writing the first biography of this author.

I’m pleased that the combined efforts of the Association of Jewish Libraries, scholars, publishing companies, and film producers are all ensuring that Taylor’s legacy extends well beyond the twentieth century. But most important to this legacy are Taylor’s readers, a new crop of which is born every year. Soon, if not already, Taylor’s youngest readers won’t be children of the twentieth century at all. But Sarah and her sisters will forever represent to them and to the rest of us, through the particular circumstances of the Jewish immigration and assimilation experience, a twentieth-century American identity.

From the March/April 2005 Horn Book Magazine.

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About June Cummins

June Cummins is associate professor in the department of English and comparative literature at San Diego University. She is at work on a biography of Sydney Taylor.

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