FROM SARAH TO SYDNEY
The Woman Behind All-of-a-Kind Family
By June Cummins with Alexandra Dunietz
I was in second grade the first time one of my classmates accused me of killing Jesus. Bewildered, I said that I hadn’t killed anyone. My classmate considered, shrugged, and said, “Maybe it was your parents.”
That kind of anti-Semitism wasn’t unusual back then, in 1970s Connecticut. Plenty of well-regarded fiction for adults was written by Jews and featured Jewish characters, but children’s books, from “Little Women” to “Anne of Green Gables” and the Betsy-Tacy books to the Bobbsey Twins, largely featured kids who were Christian.
Sydney Taylor, author of the immensely popular All-of-a-Kind Family books (published between the 1950s and the 1970s), provided one notable exception. Although she’s never been acknowledged as a great American novelist, or even an especially important one, she’s now the subject of a thoughtful, timely and comprehensive biography, “From Sarah to Sydney,” in which the late June Cummins, who was a professor of English and comparative literature at San Diego State University, gives this significant writer her due.
“Taylor was a transformational figure not only in American children’s literature but in American Jewish life as well,” Cummins writes. “When All-of-a-Kind Family debuted in 1951, it was perceived as groundbreaking, the first book from a mainstream publisher to feature Jewish children and reach a sizable general audience. Immediately praised and highly successful, the book and its four sequels, published over the next 25 years, introduced millions of Americans to Judaism, forging a bridge through literature that moved Jewish characters and themes from the margins of children’s book publishing — and American culture at large — into the national arena, enlarging the public’s understanding and increasing its acceptance of American Jews.”
I first encountered the All-of-a-Kind Family books in my Hebrew school library, and was enchanted by the stories of five sisters growing up on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century.
The books are rich with details of their specific time and place. The sisters buy pickles from street vendors; they sneak a bag of broken crackers into bed, to savor in the dark. Henny runs for student council, Sarah loses a library book, Ella goes on her first date. Their father’s junk shop is a warm, exotic refuge; Mama is a serene, almost saintly presence, endlessly patient and clever. When the girls balk at dusting, Mama hides buttons in the parlor, and challenges the girls to find them all as they clean. It’s easy to imagine many children — no matter their religion — seeing themselves in the characters and plots.
It’s not until a third of the way through the first book, and its loving description of a Shabbat celebration, that we discover that this charming, relatable family is different. They are Jews.
To be Jewish, in Taylor’s world, meant prizing the rituals of religion, as well as cleanliness, charity, hard work and academic success. It also meant patriotism: The girls observe the Fourth of July in addition to holidays like Purim and Sukkot. The books showed a generation of young readers that Jews weren’t monstrous, or greedy, or loyal to some other country, or fundamentally different from Christians. Jews — they’re just like us!
Taylor, born Sarah Brenner, grew up on the Lower East Side in a family of five sisters, and mined her own life for fiction — a life that was more complicated and more shaded with sorrow than the sunny stories of her books.
Far from being delighted by her large family, Cummins writes, Sarah’s mother, Cilly Brenner, was plunged into depression with each new pregnancy — and in a world without birth control, those were almost yearly occurrences. Cummins describes a failed abortion and a suicide attempt, illness and the death of a son barely out of babyhood. Sarah, who renamed herself Sydney, was determined to forge a different path. She left high school after two years, and joined the Young People’s Socialist League and Martha Graham’s dance troupe. She spent 40 summers teaching dance and drama at a Jewish summer camp, Camp Cejwin, in Port Jervis, N.Y. Along the way she became a wife, a mother and — eventually, after her husband entered her manuscript in a contest — a published author.
Cummins has a book-worthy story of her own. Suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), she completed the book by typing with an eye-tracking communication device — and, her husband, Jonathan Lewis, writes in the acknowledgments, with the assistance of Alexandra Dunietz, “a scholar and a friend” who moved “from typist to research assistant and then collaborator.” Cummins completed a draft of the book before her death in 2018, but did not live to see its publication.
Her portrait of Sarah, who became Sydney, a Jewish girl who became a modern American woman, is thorough and engrossing, and at times I wished for a less dry, less academic voice to go along with the juicy subject. But this is, after all, a work of scholarship, with the serious goal of establishing Taylor as an author who both reflected and shaped ideas of what it meant to be Jewish in America. By that metric, Cummins more than succeeds.