I am revisiting my favorite books of childhood to analyze what was so appealing and see how they hold up for me. First up: All-of-a-Kind Famly by Sydney Taylor.
All-of-a-Kind Family (the book, that is) was born in 1951, just like me. It’s the first in a series of children’s chapter books about a Jewish family with five girls on the Lower East Side of NYC at the turn of the twentieth century.
When I first read it, the book made me gently envious and greatly nostalgic for an era and a life I had never experienced.
Reading it now, I see the book integrates the two worlds I navigated as a child in Canton, Ohio, in the fifties. My family and their acquaintances, high-strung or quietly depressed Jews, and Everybody Else (i.e. Christians), who I assumed in their homes were just like the people on fifties TV, calm with no problems that can’t be resolved in 30 minutes minus commercials.
Everybody Else was so short on issues they had to invent them. “Did you wash your hands before dinner? Did you scrub behind the ears?” Mom would say before dinner.
How the hell did these kids get so dirty while playing catch with Whitey or chatting on their neatly made beds?
It’s never “quit leaving dirty dishes in the sink“ or “quit fighting with your little brother” or “quit saying you are bored because I don’t want to hear it after I work all day.”
Everybody Else kids said, “May I be excused, Sir?” before leaving the dinner table. I, on the other hand, never called my father “sir” in my entire life. Nor did I ever ask to be excused.
Back to the story…
This chapter book was like the other family-oriented children’s books I read back then, for instance, the Bobbsey Twins. But there was one difference: this perfectly well-adjusted family was Jewish.
The stories could have happened to the Bobbseys if you switch out the Jewish holiday customs and celebrations for Christmas.
In one of the stories, Mama transforms dusting into a game. She takes 12 colorful buttons from her sewing box and hides them in the parlor. She challenges Sarah, the girl assigned with dusting that week, to find the buttons. Sarah plays the game by the rules, carefully dusting as she searches. It never even occurs to her to just search for the buttons, seeing that the room is dusted every week so there isn’t so much dirt to clean anyway.
But what is really striking is this idea of making chores fun. My mother never did it for me and I never did it for my kids. (Sorry, Faye, Herschel, and Eli. You can start your own family tradition.)
Nice, wholesome parents; nice, wholesome girls.
In my adult reading of the book, I am intrigued by the full-color art on the cover and the line illustrations inside.
Five adorable girls who hold hands while they skip home from the library. What is really striking is how they are dressed. They wear identical teal blue dresses with fresh white pinafores atop. No brisket-gravy stains on these girls!
Annie Hall meets the All-of-a-Kind Family
One of my favorite scenes in this old Woody Allen movie is when both Annie Hall’s and Alvy Singer’s families are shown on a split screen.
On the left, Annie’s Everybody Else family is sitting at the dinner table enjoying a low-key conversation about the pleasures of the day. Alvy’s family on the right all talk at once about people and their problems while shoveling food onto their plates. “HIS WIFE HAS DIABETES,” exclaims the mother in justifying someone’s shortfalls.
The All-of-a-Kinds are Jews who present as the Everybody Else family on the left. And by the way, Annie’s relatives turn out to have their own mishegoss (craziness).
Putting it all together, I grew up thinking only Jews are different from the people on TV. Turns out everyone is different from the people on TV.
Times have changed, thank God
At the end of the book, child number six is born.
A boy! Father is overjoyed that he will finally have his son. It was looking like he was shooting all girls, the family agreed, though not in such explicit terms.
No one, including none of the girls, is offended that he so clearly favors boys. But they are concerned that they will no longer be the all-of-a-kind family.
That’s OK, comforts Mama. “It means we’re all close and loving and loyal.”
They all agree. Baby boy yawns. End of story.
Note: If you are an All-of-a-Kind Family fan, there’s a free All-of-a-Kind Family Companion you’ll enjoy. It was published by The Association of Jewish Libraries in 2004, the 100th birthday of author Taylor. Lots of interesting information, including bios of all the children in Taylor’s family on whom the novel was based and a bibliography of other books Family enthusiasts will enjoy.
Type your email address in the box and click the "create subscription" button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.