Maurice Sendak celebrated life, but not through rose-colored glasses. And in a world increasingly occupied by naïve idealists and cold-hearted cynics, his was a remarkable capacity. Maybe that's why he loved writing for kids -- readers who have not yet embraced a chosen path or identity but simply prefer that which speaks to them as most true to the full range of their own felt emotions.
Maurice Sendak appreciated that life was good -- mostly, but not always. He knew that life was about joy, but not always joyous. Maurice Sendak knew that life was beautiful, but could also be quite ugly.
He embraced life in all of its rich complexity, acknowledging that all those things were in each of us and therefore a part of life. And with all that, life was truly worth of celebrating. Call that what you want, but I call it deeply heroic and deeply Jewish. No, not exclusively Jewish, but Jewish nonetheless -- especially as Sendak was Jewish and Jewish experience shaped his life rather profoundly.
Like classical Jewish tradition which has consistently acknowledged the sacredness of the possible, not only of the ideal, and the holiness of that which is human, even with all of our imperfections, Sendak embraced life even though he repeatedly described how the Holocaust shaped his entire childhood.
Born in 1928 and raised in Brooklyn, Sendak said he remembered the tears shed by his Jewish-Polish immigrant parents as they'd get news of atrocities and the deaths of relatives and friends. "My childhood was about thinking about the kids over there (in Europe). My burden is living for those who didn't," he told the AP.
Marice Sendak had every reason to be bitter, but he wasn't. Dark? He often was, but typically with a light at the end of the tunnel, and a refusal to tie up all the loose ends in order to get to that light. Think the Hebrew Bible -- a book filled with every possible beauty and ugliness, and many of them performed by the same characters! Through it all, life develops, hope is nurtured and faith is deepened. No need to forget or forgo the ugliness in order to trust that goodness is real and redemption/resolution really do come.
His most famous work, "Where The Wild Things Are," is a wonderful example of his willingness to confront the rage that exists within all of us at one time or another -- it's part of what makes us human. And while the book's protagonist, Max, does do his fair share of rampaging in the book, he also finds his way home, eventually, where his dinner is waiting on the table.
We need that dinner on the table, and we need to believe that it will be there for us, even after we have rampaged or worse, been the innocent victims of those who have.
Sendack knew that we should never pretend about the potential danger of human rampaging, but neither should we lose hope about the possibility of returning home. We don't, as Reb Maurice teaches, escape to a better place, as much as we return to where we came from; better off than we had been before we left.
Maurice Sendak, like the biblical narrative and subsequent rabbinic tradition, didn't give up on the possibility of that dinner being there, even as he wrestled with the darkness that inhabits our minds and often infects the world. That is a powerful teaching about the kind of realistic hopefulness, or hopeful realism, which we all need.
May his memory be a blessing.
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