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Association of Jewish Libraries
South Florida Chapter

Harry Potter's Adventures Teach Jewish Values

This article appeared in the Jewish Star Times on November 14, 2001. It quotes SF AJL President Heidi Estrin several times.


There's nothing Jewish about Elian Gonzalez, The Sopranos or Harry Potter, but chances are, if it's current, the Jewish community will be all over it.

With the long-awaited movie version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone coming to theaters Nov. 16, the bespectacled boy wizard -- adored by children and adults everywhere -- is all the buzz again.

The bestseller's greatest value, say parents and teachers, is that it offers fantasy-filled entertainment that gets kids excited about reading and learning. In addition, some Jewish educators say there is a Jewish connection.

``It's a classic story of good and evil, which naturally ties into derech eretz -- doing the right thing,'' said Heidi Estrin, librarian at Congregation B'nai Israel's Feldman Children's Library in Boca Raton. ``Harry has to choose between right and wrong; to choose to be a mensch. Harry is a good example of derech eretz. He uses his judgment and doesn't follow rules blindly. He looks at the situation and decides what is right. Even when he is breaking the rules, he doesn't do it just to break the rules. He puts thought into it.''

While there is nothing particularly Jewish about Harry donning an invisibility cloak, attending Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, or playing quidditch (sort of a polo game that uses broomsticks instead of ponies), many of the boy's actions reflect Jewish teachings.

The universal messages are not exclusively Jewish, but the book does include Jewish principles, such as the importance of social justice and honoring one's parents; subplots that relate to Torah parshat; and survival in the face of evil.

As Mark Baranek, director of education and youth of Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach, talks about Harry Potter, he -- like Estrin -- can't help but use Jewish references to describe the young hero and his relationships. He playfully calls Harry's value system ``Pirkei Potter,'' which refers to Pirkei Avot, a tractate of the Talmud, which is generally translated as ``ethics of our fathers.''

``The friendship between Harry and Ron teaches kids about havarim (friends) and what qualities make a friend -- trust, loyalty, understanding,'' said Baranek, who attended this summer's annual Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education, where educators discussed using the Harry Potter books to teach Judaic values.

Last week, Baranek challenged students to relate the story to Judaism when he initiated a discussion among children and their parents.

``Harry's act of courage teach ometz lev -- courage or bravery of the heart. You must live your life not only courageously, but courageously within,'' Baranek said.

Marion Pincus, a teacher and librarian at David Posnack Hebrew Day School in Davie, hopes Harry -- whether in book or movie form -- will be a positive influence on kids and inspire them to want to read more. She organized a Harry Potter Club, where elementary-age students discuss the story and its author, J.K. Rowling. They also listen to the audio-book while playing Harry Potter card games, sharing magic tricks and coloring scenes from the story.

``Kids also learn Jewish values by seeing the way not to act,'' said Pincus, who plans to take club members to see the Harry Potter movie as a group. ``You can't treat people the way the Dursleys treat Harry.''

After the death of his parents, Harry's Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon Dursley reluctantly take their nephew in and treat him with less dignity and affection than a family pet. While the couple spoil their own son, Harry is denied simple things such as birthday gifts (he gets only discarded and broken hand-me-downs) or a decent place to sleep.

In contrast, Baranek cited the Torah portion in which Abraham and Sarah welcome into their tent three wanderers who turn out to be angels.

``We talked about honoring one another, ohev zeh et zeh and what makes people love one another. What's makes Harry love and honor his mother, even though she is not there. I asked them, `How do you show love? How do you act?' . . . . Using Harry Potter to teach Jewish values is a great example of what's current that kids can relate to.''

A year and a half ago, Emily Rosenstein of Miami Beach started reading Harry Potter with her two older children, Mitchell, 9, and Erica, 11. Now she has read all four books.

``There are good values in the story that can be applied to anything,'' Rosenstein said. ``They are not Jewish values per se. It sends the message that when you do a mitzvah, good things happen. When you are bad and dishonest, it doesn't matter how much money you make, bad things will happen. It reinforces the values you would expect to find in any good moral person. Just because Harry's aunt and uncle adopt him, it's not a mitzvah because they aren't doing it with their hearts. A mitzvah can be tiny or big, but it must be done with heart.''

For the first 10 years of his life, Harry accepts his misery. Once he begins to stand up for his rights, everything else falls into place. It's another religious message, she said.

``God will only help you if you do something to help yourself. Until Harry starts fighting for himself, nothing good happens to him. If you sit back and say, `God will save me,' it will never happen,'' she said.

Because of its use of witchcraft, Harry Potter has been called controversial. In Duval County, a parent asked that the book be removed from school libraries. This month, a committee of teachers, librarians and parents recommended to the North Florida county's superintendent of schools that Harry Potter remain on school library bookshelves. Until a decision is made, children in Jacksonville and surrounding cities must get permission from their parents before checking out the book.

B'nai Israel's Estrin, who used to work in the Broward County public library system, has read all four books in J.K. Rowling's Harry series. She is not surprised by the attempt to censor the book, but believes it is an ignorant response.

``A lot of the best works of literature create controversy. Stirring literature is not all sugar and tea parties. I wonder if those complaining have actually read the book. If you really read it, you will see that Harry uses magic for good. The story contains bad wizards and witches who use witchcraft for evil, but they are clearly presented as bad guys. The good guys only use magic in positive ways and don't want to hurt anyway. Anyone who says the book is teaching children witchcraft is missing the point of the story,'' she said.

While Rowling's characters possess supernatural abilities, Rabbi Yonason Goldson said the book does not advocate the use of witchcraft.

``Universal, ethical values are portrayed beautifully throughout the series,'' said Goldson, a St. Louis rabbi, teacher and fan of the Harry series. ``Most of the values that we take for granted today are based in Judaism.''

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This page created and maintained by Heidi Estrin, Last updated November 15, 2001.