Speak No Evil, Little Dudes

April 29, 2008 | ,

Going Global:
The Word-Wise Adventures of Yisrael and Meir: Book One

By Yitzchok Kronblau
Illustrated by Ruth Beifus
80 pages. Arscroll/Mesorah. $24.99.

Trekking Through Time:
The Word-Wise Adventures of Yisrael and Meir: Book Two

By Yitzchok Kronblau
Illustrated by Ruth Beifus
104 pages. Arscroll/Mesorah. $24.99.

Like many comic-book adventure series, The Word-Wise Adventures of Yisrael and Meir begins with a call to save the world. One morning, an Orthodox Jewish kid discovers a way to eliminate pain and suffering. According to a teaching of the Chofetz Chayim, a.k.a. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, “Every single day we wait for Mashiach to come, but—do you hear this—he is being held back because we are speaking loshon hora!” The Messiah, that is, won’t show up until Jews stop breaking the commandments related to improper speech.

The boy and his younger brother set out to make this happen, and though they haven’t been struck by radiation, or empowered by the rays of the sun, or descended from aliens, and though they don’t sport capes or unitards, these boys are clearly the author’s and publisher’s idea of Jewish superheroes. On the covers of the books, they zoom through the skies, Superman-like, riding on texts like magic carpets. Their names are Yisrael and Meir, meaning they’re contemporary instantiations of the Chofetz Chayim himself, who, more than any other Jewish sage, catalogued and analyzed the laws of Jewish speech.

Every day, the boys journey to another location, usually the home of a substantial Jewish community. They start out observing Rosh Hashana in Lakewood, New Jersey—”home to America’s largest yeshivah”—and by Succot they’ve already passed through San Francisco, Montreal, and Chicago, and arrived in Mexico City. Throughout the first volume, the boys cross continents, ranging as far as Australia and South Africa, while in the second, they traverse time as well as space, “arriving,” as Yisrael realizes, “at each community we decide to visit exactly at a time the Jews flourished there.” Prague in 1582, Lublin in 1930, Vilna in 1776: like a frum Bill and Ted, in each locale the boys bump into a major rabbi or his followers, and pick up a piece of wisdom on the subject of shmiras haloshon (proper speech habits) to take home.

Designed as a “daily learning adventure” in the spirit of Daf Yomi (i.e., with one lesson per day), the book’s elaborate format packs teachings into every square inch of its glossy, full-color two-page spreads. On each of these, a mitzvah or rule related to shmiras haloshon appears in the left-hand column, and an elaboration or application of that rule on the right, while in the central comic-style panels, Yisrael and Meir either witness or themselves commit a transgression of the rule, so as to lay out concretely for the reader what behavior, exactly, must be avoided.

On a flight, Yisrael whines that the senior citizen seated in front of him has reclined so far back that he’s blocking the aisle; the left-hand column quotes Leviticus 19:32 (“In the presence of an old person shall rise, and you shall the honor the presence of a sage”). Later, while the boys trek through the Alps, Meir turns to Yisrael and questions the integrity of a trader who sold them their packs and snowshoes; his brother reminds him that, as the daily lesson puts it, “You are not allowed to tell loshon hora to your relatives.” The two protagonists, on the whole, resemble Gallant more often than Goofus, but in every locale, a sinner always pop ups to stand corrected for the reader’s edification.

The first two handsome volumes of this projected trilogy, which resemble European hardcover comics albums, manifest a stunning attention to detail consistent with the excellence of Artscroll’s industry-leading siddurim and makhzorim. Design flourishes abound. Each day, the boys’ diary entries (color coded for clarity, Yisrael’s blue and Meir’s green) appear, through trompe l’oeil touches, as if they are attached to the page. In the present-day of Going Global, they affix their notebook sheets with paperclips, but in the second volume the paper stock and mode of attachment (pins, wax, or string) vary depending on the century in which the scene takes place. Meanwhile, Ruth Beifus illustrates Yisrael and Meir’s adventures in glossy color, with a precise style well-suited to capturing action and atmosphere. In the first book, Beifus’s layouts tend toward simplicity—one or two large panorama panels per page, usually—but in Trekking Through Time, she presents much more complex pages, employing Eisnerian techniques to maximize narrative and visual opportunities. Impressively, she also precisely reproduces architectural details of buildings in locales ranging from Bukhara and Baghdad to Bombay and Shanghai. Very occasionally, Beifus’s comics panels take over the entire pages, demonstrating that if freed from the complex constraints of these particular projects, she could produce truly extraordinary comics or graphic novels.

The books admirably insist on representing a diverse selection of Jews, who appear here with skin tones dark and light, wearing the traditional costumes of their homelands. (Stereotypical? Sure, but no worse than, say, Epcot Center.) Distressingly, though, in this wide world of Jews, not one single female character plays a role in the narrative or utters a word. And virtually no one—not a helicopter pilot, hot air balloon operator, or jeering tourist at Niagara Falls—appears without a modest head covering. The world that Yisrael and Meir trek through, in other words, is a radical Yiddishland: an interconnected world of Jews, and only Jews, magically purged of everything that could make an Orthodox Jew even slightly uncomfortable—including, say, a woman who speaks.

That’s one reason I can’t recommend these extremely impressive books, even to my Modern Orthodox friends with young children. To imply by exclusion, as these books do—in accordance with the exploitation of the Psalmist’s phrase, “Kol kavoda bat melekh penima” [“All glorious is the king’s daughter within the palace”], in traditionalist Orthodox communities—that Jewish girls should be neither seen nor heard, especially in a book about the ethics of speech, is simply unconscionable.

The other reason I cannot recommend The Word-Wise Adventures of Yisrael and Meir is less to do with the creators of this volume, and more with the distortion caused by compressing the teachings of the Chofetz Chayim into tiny soundbites for children. Glossing Deuteronomy 19:15, the book explains that because Judaism requires two witnesses to convict someone of a crime, “If you alone saw Mr. X stealing a candy bar, the beis din [rabbinical court] would not be allowed to hear your story. If you told the story to the beis din anyway, it would be loshon hora.” It is also, the book continues, “forbidden to tell your friends what you saw.” So if a child is the only witness to a crime, his responsibility, according to the teachings here, is to keep his mouth shut. In parentheses, the book reminds kids to “consult a rabbi when such a situation arises,” but how, especially at a moment when we are sensitive to the sexual abuse of children by religious leaders, can a book tell a child that it would be sin for him to report a crime?

The Chofetz Chayim likewise teaches, “You must try to think positively about what people do and say, even if it looks as if they are doing something wrong”: again, the authors qualify this rule with an asterisk, but couldn’t a faithful eight-year-old easily misunderstand this advice and “think positively” about the parent or teacher who is abusing him or the bully who has been stealing his lunch money? Other rules are less potentially pernicious, but make little obvious sense. For example, the book explains that Jews are not allowed “to praise anyone in front of a group” unless the person being praised is “a Torah leader of very high standing.” But how on earth can a person achieve “very high standing” if he or she is never praised in public?

Many of the Chofetz Chayim’s teachings, as conveyed here, are more clearly useful. Don’t tell lies about people, don’t badmouth the Jews, don’t repeat someone’s secrets: all reasonable advice. We would, of course, live in a more placid world if everyone—or even every Jew—followed such rules and thought more carefully about his or her own words before speaking. But more than anything else, The Word Wise Adventures of Yisrael and Meir offers a reminder of the loftiness—and perhaps unattainability—of this goal. Not to rain on Yisrael and Meir’s international, time-traveling parade, but it seems obvious that the Chofetz Chayim said that loshon hora is what keeps the Messiah from arriving precisely because he recognized how unimaginable a world without evil speech is. If no one spoke loshon hora, in other words, Messiah would already be here.

[Originally published on JBooks.com.]