December 28, 2020 — Chicago
This piece originally appeared in Chicago Tribune.
By Manya Brachear Pashman
As a mother of two young children, I’m in that season of life when the prospect of enjoying a rich novel or scintillating memoir seems remote.
Empty nesters warn that the joy of reading will return sooner than I may want. Instead of embracing the thrill of Erik Larson’s narrative nonfiction, I’ll find myself wallowing in Eric Carle board books when no one is looking.
As my son enters the world of chapter books, I’ve watched him begin to process characters’ emotions and decipher difficult topics like death, misogyny and racism, all of which stayed at a safe altitude above his head in kindergarten.
Introducing chapter books means revisiting novels and characters that inspired, entertained and broke my heart. Topping the list are Matilda Wormwood, the BFG and Willy Wonka — products of Roald Dahl’s wild imagination.
I love those whoppsy-whiffling characters just as much as I did more than 30 years ago. I can’t say the same for the author. Dahl was a proud antisemite. He spoke with disdain and disgust about the bias and influence of Jewish bankers and Jewish publishers.
“There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews,” he told The New Statesman in 1983. “I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”
Eight months before his death in 1990, he reiterated his hatred: “I’m certainly anti-Israel and I’ve become antisemitic inasmuch as that you get a Jewish person in another country like England strongly supporting Zionism.”
So it was with some trepidation that I brought the mad genius of Dahl into our home. I now read his fantastic novels with a cautious eye, combing for anti-Jewish sentiments or dog whistles. I also ask myself: Should I be sharing these novels with my children or should I find other authors who aren’t such stinkers, as Dahl would say?
My childhood would not have been the same without Willy Wonka or the title characters of “James James and the Giant Peach” and “Matilda.” With my nose constantly buried in books, Matilda Wormwood was a kindred spirit. Willy Wonka assured me that the greedy Augustus Gloops of the world do eventually get their due. The giant in “The BFG” taught me to never judge someone based on appearances.
If only Dahl had heeded the morals of his own stories.
Recently, Dahl’s family added another chapter. They apologized “for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by some of Roald Dahl’s statements. Those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories, which have positively impacted young people for generations.”
“We hope that, just as he did at his best, at his absolute worst, Roald Dahl can help remind us of the lasting impact of words.”
The apology comes at a time of national reckoning with antisemitism across Britain. Former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn stepped down this year amid allegations of rampant antisemitism under his leadership. An investigation found that the party had failed dismally to rein in verbal attacks on Jewish politicians veiled as opposition to Israel.
For some, this backdrop cast doubt on the apology’s sincerity. Some said the expression of regret 30 years after Dahl’s death was too little, too late. Some questioned why it was done so quietly without even consulting or notifying Jewish organizations. Some simply accused the Roald Dahl Story Co. of trying to save face and sell more books. I chose to accept the apology and keep reading.
No apology is perfect. It rarely if ever comes soon enough. But when it arrives, it’s worth pausing and considering the possibility that it’s sincere. When pushed for an explanation about the timing, the company said, “Apologizing for the words of a much-loved grandparent is a challenging thing to do but made more difficult when the words are so hurtful to an entire community.”
“These comments do not reflect what we see in his work — a desire for the acceptance of everyone equally — and were entirely unacceptable,” the company added. “We are truly sorry.”
Antisemitism wasn’t Dahl’s only sin. According to his biography, he was a serial philanderer with a sharp tongue and self-righteous demeanor that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. His original version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” depicted Oompa-Loompas as African pygmies. Public outrage led him to begrudgingly recast them in later editions as fictional creatures from Loompaland.
But here’s the thing. As much as books shaped and inspired me, I never thought about the lives or beliefs of their creators until I was an adult. I read the books, not the authors. Kids don’t care. But these days, amid an unbridled cancel culture, I see little wrong with an effort to protect a literary legacy. What matters is what we do with that legacy and how we grow. It’s too late for Dahl, who died in 1990. But it’s not too late for us.
We can take a lesson from the Dahl family on how to confront the sins of our ancestors and how to reconcile with the complicated legacies and dark sides of those we have loved. We also can adapt literature to reflect the values we cherish.
After reading “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” my children and I sat down to watch the 1971 adaptation starring Gene Wilder of Blessed Memory, who yes, was Jewish. Dahl reportedly detested that film, which kind of made me love it even more.
But here’s what he really would have hated. Earlier this year, Netflix announced yet another version, by Jewish director Taika Waititi of “JoJo Rabbit” fame. Savor the splendiferous prospect of Waititi taking artistic liberties with Dahl’s work. It preserves and honors what matters — the living breathing words and ideas, not necessarily the author.
Waititi will present Dahl’s frothbuggling ideas in the proper context, which is what I decided my family will do as we continue to read, eventually discussing the very flawed and complicated man behind the words.
Childhood wouldn’t be the same without a few everlasting gobstoppers, fizzy lifting drinks or Whipple Scrumptious Fudge Mallow Delights in the canon. I’m not about to let an antisemite snatch their golden ticket and ruin that fantastic journey for my kids.
Manya Brachear Pashman is co-host of “People of the Pod,” an American Jewish Committee podcast about global affairs through a Jewish lens. She covered religion for the Chicago Tribune between 2003 and 2018.