Put Down the Duckie

I’d like to mention 3 examples of where children’s literature, though it seems very innocuous, can contain meanings below the surface. Of course, there’s all kinds of stuff out there psychoanalyzing ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ or whatever, and sometimes there nursery rhymes reflect historical memories, like ‘Ring Around the Rosie’. These are three examples that I really like, find interesting, or have a good, Jewish lesson. I’m probably the only yutz in the world who ‘learns’ bedtime stories with his kids. Sheesh. No wonder they can’t fall asleep.

a) Sesame Street aired a song a long time ago called “Put Down the Duckie”. As with many, many Sesame songs, the lyrics are outstanding. In this skit, Mr. Hoots is trying to teach Ernie how to play the saxophone, put since Ernie insists on clutching his little yellow friend, there’s an inevitable squeak which accompanies each chord. Thus, the refrain, “Put down the ducky if you wanna play the saxophone”.

Wise Hoots is pointing to a valuable lesson about human maturity. Intellectual maturity is not an incremental process. Often, it entails jettisoning earlier, preconceived notions about a whole variety of things, some of which can be very dear. Remaining in a very secure but ultimately childish zone can be the most comfortable path, but is also the least rewarding and fulfilling. Indeed, you gotta put down the ducky if you wanna play the saxophone.

b) There’s an old Yiddish song entitled “Hob ich mir a Mantle” (I had an Overcoat). It’s been turned into 2 different children’s books, one called “Something from Nothing” and the other called “Joseph had a Little Overcoat”. I own a copy of the latter, and it’s really well done, especially if you pay attention to the illustrations and newspaper clippings embedded on each page.

The story is about a fellow who has an overcoat which gets worn out, so he turns it into a short jacket, then a vest, a tie, a handkerchief, a bowtie, and finally a button which wears out, leaving the poor schlamazal with nothing at all. So he writes a song about it, proving that you can always make something from nothing. At each phase, the song/story describes the character as doing some activity – visiting his sister in the city, dancing at a wedding, drinking a glass of tea with lemon, etc.

The story is really about modernization, urbanization, and assimilation of traditional East European Jewry into Western Europe/ America. Each successive retrofitting of the original coat (and, of course, a ‘mantle’ has connotations which simply don’t translate into the word ‘overcoat’) describes a weakening of traditions grip on the Jewish people, until all that’s left is a sense of nostalgia. In the version that I own, the artistry really reflects this process. Though the book is upbeat, I find it very painful to read.

c) The last example was brought to my attention a number of years ago by Rabbi Yehuda Rock, now Rosh Kollel in Boca Raton, but who is a far better ‘AddeRabbi’ than I – a true contrarian and creative genius in the reading of texts. My kids know and sing this song now, so I was reminded of this point. It’s about the well-known Israeli nursery rhyme “Nadnedah” – the ‘See-Saw’ song. The composer of this rhyme is none other than the great Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, who, as I’ve posted before (almost a year ago. Wow), doesn’t get the credit he deserves as someone who really struggled mightily with questions of religion and whose insight and poetic creativity in describing his own struggle with matters of faith are truly beautiful and heart-wrenching.

It turns out, Bialik is describing the ‘see-saw’ of his own mind when it comes to faith in God. This translation of the brief rhyme doesn’t do justice to the original, but it captures how it can be read as a description of a crisis of faith:

See-saw, see-saw
Descend, ascend, ascend, and descend
What’s above? What’s below?
Just me.
Me and You.
We are both balanced in the scales
Between the Earth and the Heaven

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