Is “Where The Wild Things Are” a Jewish Book?

Wild ThingsMaurice Sendak, the author of Where the Wild Things Are, has been all over the news lately, as well he should be. I’m sure you’re aware that Sendak based the Wild Things on relatives from Europe, who his father rescued from the Holocaust. He has discussed this in Newsweek magazine, but in perhaps the most interesting interview, recorded on his 80th birthday and recently replayed on WBUR radio’s Here and Now, he described how most of his books have their roots in the Holocaust. It was a fascinating interview and I loved listening to him speak.  However, he didn’t specifically address the relative merits – Jewishly – of his time honored classic, Where the Wild Things Are, as much as I might have liked. Since finding Jewish values in secular books is one of my specialties, permit me to correct that oversight.

According to Judaism, each of us is born with a tendency toward immoral behavior or choices, known as the Yezter Hara, the evil inclination. In Jewish tradition, 13 years after we are born, we receive our Yetzer Tov, our good inclination, which enables us to have the free will to choose between our good and evil tendencies. It’s this concept – of the Yetzer Hara and the Yetzer Tov – that makes Where the Wild Things Are a Jewish book.

Max, wearing his wolf suit, is hammering nails into walls, chasing the dog and yelling at his mother. He has clearly allowed his Yetzer Hara to take control of him and he is enjoying every moment of it. His imagination runs wild as he creates a world filled with Wild Things who move at his command. “Let the wild rumpus start!” Max cries, and everyone howls at the moon, swings from the trees and dances in the forest. However, Max quickly learns that days and nights of debauchery can be very exhausting. He yearns for a warm, loving place.

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When IMG_3466he returns home, we see him beginning to remove his wolf skin and smiling to see “his supper waiting for him/ and it was still hot.” If you compare Max before he left his room for the Wild Things with Max upon his return, you will notice a few changes. Max looks a bit taller, a bit more mature. Could it be…is it possible…he is tapping into his Yetzer Tov.

As tradition teaches and the book reveals, it gets easier to choose the Yetzer Tov over the Yetzer Hara as we mature. Nonetheless, there is a wild thing (or two or three) in each one of us eager for a wild rumpus every now and then. Sometimes we need help taming them, as Max’s mom did by sending him to bed without his supper. Other times we sail across the sea to Wild Things Island and swing from the trees or howl at the moon, personally a brisk walk around the block, a little yoga and some journal writing tend to do the trick for me.  What’s important to know is that we have both tendencies – Hara and Tov – and the choice to use either. We would not be human otherwise. It is in learning how to choose between them, how to manage our Wild Things, and where to find our “still hot supper waiting for us” that moves us from childhood fantasy to adult reality.

So, is Where the Wild Things Are a Jewish book? Absolutely!

Happy Reading,

Kathy B.

The copy of Where the Wild Things Are that I reviewed was from my personal collection.

I am an Amazon Affiliate. If you click to Amazon from the book covers of books pictured in my blogs  and buy something, I receive a portion of the book price.

© Kathleen M. Bloomfield of forwordsbooks.com

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5 Responses to “Is “Where The Wild Things Are” a Jewish Book?”

  1. Josh says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Max is definitely a M.O.T.! And PS, the movie is DEFINITELY worth seeing if you grew up with the book. Yasher koach on the site, Kathy!

  2. Etta Gold says:

    Kathy, this is a beautiful and spirited view of this much-loved classic. How insightful of you to capture its Jewish essence!

  3. Heidi Estrin says:

    Kathy, this is great! I never thought of Where the Wild Things Are in these terms before, but the whole Yetzer Tov vs. Yetzer Hara concept completely makes sense!

  4. Kathy,

    What a wonderful perspective of a well-known and loved book! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Barbara B

  5. Helen Dennis says:

    Kathy. You’ve opened my eyes. I used to read the book to my daughters (now 40 and 43 years old)and never made the Jewish connection. Beautifully done. Thank you

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