First published in 1951, Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family depicts the life of a bustling Jewish family—two parents and five children—living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The book and its sequels were popular when they first appeared, and remain so today. Reviewing a new biography of Taylor, Rebecca Klempner writes:
When Sydney Taylor wrote the semiautobiographical All-of-a-Kind Family, it was the first mass-market children’s book to focus on Jewish characters and their lives. Her older peer Sadie Rose Weilerstein had published books with Jewish presses for Jewish audiences, but Taylor’s books also found many eager non-Jewish readers despite their casual Jewish references—“You’ll have to make up with her when Yom Kippur [Day of Atonement] comes,” Ella reminds her sister—and stories of sitting around the Sabbath table.
The Follett Publishing Company accepted Taylor’s very Jewish manuscript, with its all-American immigrant kids who relished their mother’s gefilte fish and spoke in Yiddish to the butcher, but they also had some suggestions. Taylor struggled to get her editor, Esther Meeks, to stop expecting Jewish customs to mimic Christian ones. To a woman used to the solemnity of church, for example, the raucous celebration of Purim or Simḥat Torah seemed impossible. Meeks also urged Taylor to add more non-Jewish characters to her books. So Taylor created the kind, elegant “library lady,” from whom the children check out their books every Friday afternoon, and Charlie, the peddler who hangs out at Papa’s junk shop down by the East River but “was different from the others, . . . handsome, blond, and blue-eyed, and a good deal younger than most of the peddlers.”
Meeks also encouraged Taylor to work in elements that made the Americanness of her characters indisputable, including a chapter about Independence Day in the first volume of the series. Moreover, Meeks insisted that Taylor play down Judaism in her press appearances. This queasiness about being “too Jewish” is, of course, part of the story of midcentury American popular culture, but the success of the All-of-a-Kind Family books is also part of the story of the postwar acceptance of Jews into the American mainstream.