St. Louis synagogue’s new ‘Banned Book Club’ is open to all


By Bill Motchan, Special To The Jewish Light

Missouri is among a handful of states where book banning is most prevalent, according to the reading advocacy group PEN America.

On June 27, Congregation Shaare Emeth will launch a new “Banned Book Club” where participants will discuss important books that have been banned by some school districts in Missouri and across the country.

Michael Sherberg, a Washington University professor of romance languages and literatures and Congregation Shaare Emeth member, will lead the sessions. Sherberg, 66, shared with the Jewish Light his thoughts on book banning.

What are some of the dangers of preventing students from reading certain books?

Some of these books (like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye”) give young people a chance to recognize and articulate what is happening to them if they are being sexually abused. It gives them a means to recognize what is happening to them or to friends as a problem that needs to be addressed. In a culture that too often wants to look the other way about the sexual abuse of young people, you need to have vehicles, have these conversations because it’s a very disturbing problem.

You led a class of WashU undergrad students that was similar to the Shaare Emeth book club. What kind of feedback did you get from your students?

The 24 students were often stunned to learn that some of the books that I had chosen for them to read had been banned because they often seemed so innocuous. One of the books was “Of Mice and Men,” which is a terribly sad novel, but not one that presents any immediate reason for it to be banned.

Educators point out that one consequence of book banning is students with a narrow worldview. What impact could that have for a child?

Many of the books some people want to ban treat the experience of, say, Black people in the United States. The experience of minorities in the United States is often a tortured and painful experience. The other problem is that these books often test our own moral compass. If you want to insist that the world is a certain way, you don’t want to have to confront ways of thinking about the world.

Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” was banned twice last year in Missouri, in the Ritenour and Wentzville school districts. Do you see some irony in the fact that the Missouri legislature passed a Holocaust education bill in 2022?

Why school districts would ban a book like “Maus” is a mystery to me. Their reasons don’t stand up to any kind of interrogation. “Maus” is a beautiful account of not just a Holocaust survivor’s experience, but the effort of his son, Art Spiegelman, to learn about his father’s experience in the Holocaust. It’s a very painful book to read, but again, it’s a wonderful vehicle for young people to understand what happened during the Holocaust, and it belongs on library shelves.

What are some tools for parents to discuss banned books with their kids?

Parents need to remind their children that we enjoy certain freedom in the United States and one of those is the freedom to read, and no one can take that away from us. There’s also the question of the specific content of these books. Parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and older friends need to be ready to talk with young people about what they’re reading, particularly when they read something that they find troubling. That’s one of the things that we’re going to talk about as a group—what do we do when a child says, “I just read a book in which an-11-year-old girl was raped by her father.” How do we engage in a conversation on a topic like that?

The Congregation Shaare Emeth Banned Book Club will discuss Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” on June 27, Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” on July 5 and Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” on Aug. 16. Registration information is available here.