The Essential “Jewish-ness” of Judy Blume

The new Amazon Prime documentary “Judy Blume Forever”
may not focus on the author’s Jewish identity,
but as an interfaith teen, it helped me feel seen.

    My first memory of reading a Judy Blume book is “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret?” I remember it so vividly not for the frank discussions of bodies or periods, but because of the main character’s interfaith family. It was long before this phrase took over as common parlance, but I felt seen.
    I was a voracious reader, but didn’t come across many books with Jewish characters in them. I went to a Jewish day school, but seeing Jewish representation in books felt important, even if I couldn’t articulate it at the time. And this book wasn’t just Jewish rep—it was interfaith rep. I was the only one in my class with an interfaith family. When I talked about going to my paternal grandparents’ house for Christmas, I was met with derision or sneers at school. I was told that Jews don’t do that. One of my teachers even wrote a piece for a local Jewish newspaper at one point, including the line—which yes, I remember to this day—“Intermarriage is finishing Hitler’s job.”
    I knew where I stood at school, and even in our synagogue, which was not so welcoming of interfaith families at the time, and so reading about Margaret felt like, wow, there are other interfaith families out there! Sure, our situations were different—I was being raised Jewish, while she was tasked with choosing one of her parents’ religions without really being raised in either—but seeing this representation wasn’t nothing.
    Throughout many of Blume’s books, there is Jewish representation, no matter how casual. There’s a line in “Deenie” about kosher meat. Rachel Robinson is Jewish in “It’s Not the End of the World” and “Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson.” Jewishness is more prominent in “Starring Sally J Freedman As Herself.” And in “Blubber,” characters attend a bar mitzvah. In most of the stories, they aren’t major plot points, just details about the characters’ lives that felt fresh and authentic.
    Blume herself has talked about her Jewishness over the years. While not describing herself as religious, she does describe herself as culturally and spiritually Jewish, and is a lifetime member of Hadassah, telling the magazine in 2015 that Jewish readers “enjoy finding books that are not about Jews in the Holocaust or other hard times, but focus instead on characters who are like themselves and about families that sound like their own.”
    I wholeheartedly agree, which is why I was pretty surprised when the new documentary streaming on Amazon Prime, “Judy Blume Forever,” manages to mostly ignore her Jewishness and that of her characters.
    Don’t get me wrong: It’s a very good documentary, one that explores what Blume’s writing has meant to teens, and especially in our current climate, how her books have been banned for decades because she dared tell the truth about developing bodies and sexuality. But I had to wonder, watching a clip from the ‘80s of Blume and Pat Buchanan—whom the ADL has described as an “unrepentant bigot” who “demonizes Jews”—whether her Jewishness was also a factor in some of the controversy that has surrounded her, especially considering that one of the reasons “Are You There God” has been challenged and banned is because of its supposed “anti-Christian” content. But the documentary goes into none of that. 
    Blume does mention in the documentary that when she was growing up, she saw newsreels of the Holocaust and realized this was done because they were Jewish, and how she was reassured by her parents that it couldn’t happen here—but this is used more as a transition into talking about how she felt like adults were keeping secrets from kids, and less about how her Jewish identity eventually played into her career.
    There are many different writers and adults in the documentary who talk about Blume’s books and what they meant to them growing up. None of them discuss the importance of Jewish representation or what it was like seeing kids with a similar background in these popular books. (Chelsea Handler would have been a great person to have in the documentary to talk about this, but alas). Jason Reynolds and Alex Gino talk about how looking at whose books are currently being banned, you can see what issues are prevalent in the U.S., which would have been a perfect segue into talking about Blume’s Jewishness and her Jewish characters.
    But nope.
    Why does this matter? I’ve seen people in Jewish writing groups post about how they’ve been told by their agent or editor that the market isn’t really there for Jewish-themed books, that the target audience will be too small. It matters because Jewish writers are often talking amongst ourselves about whether to write about Jewish themes or have Jewish characters because we know how hard it can be to sell books like that. It matters because antisemitism will find a Jewish author, even if they’re not religious or they don’t write about explicitly Jewish themes—Becky Albertalli had a great Instagram post about coded antisemitic tropes and dog whistles in a Goodreads review of her book. It matters because even Jewish picture books like “Chik Chak Shabbat” have been removed from shelves last year in Florida (and then eventually returned to the shelves, while at least one other Jewish-themed book was still being reviewed) and “The Diary of Anne Frank” is being removed from various classrooms and libraries around the country. It matters because antisemitism is continuing to rise, and reading about someone like you matters.
    Judy Blume’s lasting success as an author is due to the universal themes she explores in her stories about growing up. But there is a specific Jewish world to be found within that universality, one that is especially meaningful to her Jewish readers. Blume’s Jewish characters were important to me, reading her books in the 1980s and returning to them now, and to have a documentary about Blume all but ignore her Jewishness and the importance of the Jewish representation in her books feels like a big erasure.
    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go read “Starring Sally J Freedman as Herself,” one of Blume’s very Jewish books. 

Jaime Herndon is a contributing writer to Kveller and Kiddish magazine.


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