Having been an enthusiastic reader of the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries as a child, Andrew Silow-Carroll sometimes imagined what a Jewish version of the once-popular children’s books would be like. He recently discovered such a thing indeed exists, thanks to a collection of essays tilted Artifacts of Orthodox Childhoods, edited by the scholar Dainy Bernstein:
Gemarakup (roughly, “talmudic brain”) is a children’s book series created for the ḥaredi, or fervently Orthodox, market. Its hero, according to Volume 2, loves “solving mysteries, almost as much as he love[s] studying Torah” (note that “almost”).
Artifacts of Orthodox Childhood . . . is an introduction to a world that a non-Orthodox Jew like me may only have glimpsed through the window of a Borough Park Judaica store. Its titular artifacts are an alternative universe of pop culture: Lego-like sets featuring tiny rabbis in their studies and modestly dressed moms making challah; children’s songs that rework secular genres to teach sexual restraint and the power of prayer; a coloring book in which even Adam and Eve are fully dressed in the clothing of ḥasidic Jews.
The books, toys and songs are meant to reinforce values many of the authors find stifling, including strict gender segregation, narrowly prescribed roles for boys and girls, and distrust of outsiders. . . . Examples include The B.Y. Times, a haredi version of The Babysitters Club books (“sans boyfriends,” as contributor Meira Levinson points out) and the Devora Doresh mystery series, a cross between Nancy Drew and, yes, Encyclopedia Brown.
And yet, as Levinson explains in her essay on the Devora Doresh books, (gently) subversive messages can slip past the gatekeepers: created by Carol Korb Hubner, the books “feature an Orthodox Jewish girl having adventures of the kind that were otherwise normally limited either to Orthodox Jewish boys or non-Jewish girls.”