Where the Vilde Chayas Are and other Sendak stories

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A few months after my first child was born, I went to buy a few books I thought needed to be on the bookshelf of my new baby’s nursery. Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” was one of them.

I knew the day would come when I would read the book, a childhood favorite of mine, to my son as part of our bedtime ritual. I immediately recalled that bookstore visit when I heard the news that Sendak had died May 8 from complications of a stroke. He was 83.

Much has been written about Sendak’s imagination and his uncanny ability to create characters to whom children can relate. Many of the characters in his books were developed based on the Torah stories that his father told him as a child. Sendak has said that he embellished those stories to make them more interesting for children.

Maurice Sendak

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I saw the Jewish flavor that peppers Sendak’s works.

The characters in his most well-known children’s story are based on his old Jewish relatives. In some of his stories, Yiddish words are interspersed with his poetic English.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is even based on the Yiddish term vilde chaya (wild beast), which Jewish parents for generations have used to describe rambunctious children.

Some of Sendak’s stories, including “In the Night Kitchen,” speak to his own fears of the Holocaust. His immigrant parents from Poland lost most of their family members in the Holocaust and reminded him that he would have had many more cousins were it not for the Nazis.

Leah Greenberg, who manages youth programs at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, reads from a Maurice Sendak book during an impromptu tribute to the author outside the San Francisco museum May 8. The tribute was suggested by one of the museum’s Twitter followers, then quickly promoted through social media. In 2010, the CJM hosted the popular “There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak” exhibit, which showcased more than 100 works by the author who died this week.

Having learned that Sendak was influenced by his father’s nightly bedtime stories drawn from the Torah, I have found real value and meaning in reading Sendak’s books to my children at bedtime. His stories — Sendak wrote and illustrated more than 50 children’s books — are my kids’ most requested bedtime books.

“Where the Wild Things Are” tells of a young boy, Max, who is sent to his room as punishment and imagines a make-believe land with a wild forest and creatures. The book has sold nearly 20 million copies worldwide and been made into a feature film.

Over the years, I’ve read “Where the Wild Things Are” to my children many times. In fact, I recently read it to them in Hebrew; just a week ago, my daughter brought home a Hebrew version of Sendak’s masterpiece. His brilliance comes through no matter the language.

Turning the pages of the Hebrew translation, I began to laugh as I recalled the author’s uproarious appearance on “The Colbert Report” earlier this year (www.colbertnation.com).

Even at 83, Sendak was still entertaining both children and their parents.

His memorable illustrations and ability to turn scary monsters into lovable friends will live on into future generations, and I look forward to the day when my own children will read the stories of Sendak’s wonderful imagination to my grandchildren.

Rabbi Jason Miller is  an entrepreneur, blogger and social media expert. He blogs at http://blog.rabbijason.com.