June 15, 2000
A Tale of Two Women
It's only fitting that Abigail Yasgur and Johanna Cooper met at Temple Beth Am, home of the Library Minyan. Both Yasgur and Cooper champion Jewish literature - Yasgur as director of Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles and Cooper as producer of NPR's "Jewish Short Stories From the Old World to the New," a radio anthology collecting Jewish-themed tales read by celebrities.
Now Yasgur and Cooper are uniting to promote the Summer Jewish Literacy Program.Over the years, Yasgur has instituted a local summer reading program, an extension of her services at the Jewish Community Library. Recalling a conversation with Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), Yasgur says, "Gil and I were walking down the hall, and he said, 'Let's go after Jewish literacy.' I went back in my office and I thought about it a while and realized that it was a good idea as long as the program went younger and a little deeper."
The library director enlisted more than 200 libraries and institutions "from Boca Raton, Florida, to Portland, Oregon," as Yasgur puts it, sending them "full-color brochures that will entice children and families to read Jewish literature." She hopes that her syllabus of Jewish literature will encourage families to read, share and appreciate Jewish literature.
Yasgur and Cooper are not alone with their cause ce-libe. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, children's author Erica Silverman, University of Judaism rabbinic school dean Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, and the Jewish Education Service of North America are among the program's proponents. Locally, the program has been sponsored by the BJE and the Metro West Region and Valley Alliance arms of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; nationally by the Ahmanson Foundation, the David Geffen Foundation, the Lear Family Foundation, and the Winnick Family Foundation.
Thematically linked with the Jewish Summer Literacy Program is Cooper and Yasgur's pet project, "One People, Many Stories," a radio series set to debut on KCSN in September that will unspool Jewish stories from all over the world. Actresses Mili Avital and Sandra Bernhard are already confirmed narrators.Yasgur and Cooper observe that many people have this set-in-stone image of Jews as Eastern European Ashkenazi with Yiddish roots, a stereotype they hope to dispel by introducing tales from Mizrahi, Ethiopian, and Sephardic communities. Cooper says, "We not only intend to provide an education for our Jewish children on what makes up our own community, but we'd like to show other communities that hey, this is not a monolithic culture!"
Yasgur sees both projects as interrelated opportunities for "reaching out, building bridges.""We also see the series as a template to work with other communities," adds Cooper, "to work on series tracing the heritage of other ethnicities." They plan eventually to utilize CDs and the Internet.Cooper, who has been intrigued with folk tales since her childhood fascination with the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, says, "Fairy tales are important to work out our fears." In fact, she laments the Disneyfication of our current culture.
"We tend to sanitize things as a society," says Cooper. "The original Little Mermaid - she dies at the end."
But don't misread Cooper: she does not condone the way life's dark side is portrayed in popular culture. "It's not about feelings," she says. "It's about violence as entertainment."
Cooper tells of a conversation she had with her son en route to school: "My son picked up a Highlights and said, 'Mom, this story is just like 'Fool's Gold,'" referring to an Eastern European Jewish folk tale. Cooper was excited that he was able to recognize a Jewish story, and she hopes, like Yasgur, that many other Jewish kids will soon be able to identify - and identify with - these vital links to tradition and heritage."These stories bridge a religious gap," says Cooper. "They give a child who doesn't have a religious background a spiritual and moral foundation."
For more information on the Jewish Summer Literacy Program, contact Abigail Yasgur at (323) 761-8648; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; or go to www.jclla.org.