I was so young when my aunt gave me a set of four Roald Dahl books that I misspelled my own name on the box. My dad read them to me and I loved them so much that I then repeatedly devoured them on my own, until they were completely dog-eared.
And yet, now that my kids are the perfect age for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I balk. I send my children to my old summer camp, take them to my old cottage and hope they will participate in the same Israel programs as me, but when it comes to the most delightfully formative books of my childhood, I just can’t bring myself to expose my kids to them.
I can’t because Dahl was a self-described anti-Semite. The idea of cuddling up next to my daughters and reading them a bedtime story by him is not just a bridge too far, but one I have no interest in crossing.
There is a contrary view, of course. Many argue that art always stands on its own; that Dahl’s stories, for instance, can be enjoyed for their own sake, without making a connection to their author.
This view has some merit and it also explains why six-year-old me loved his books. But 46-year-old me just can’t separate wonderful Charlie from terrible Dahl.
This is because art is experienced personally. We relate to books, paintings, movies and such on an emotional level. Art is fundamentally about how something creative makes us feel.
Some of us can experience a work of art without relating to its artist, some can’t. Most of us are somewhere in between, making it up as we go.
By contrast, compare art to science. Isaac Newton was vindictive, vicious and violent. Yet no one feels badly about the laws of gravity, despite their association with a scientist who was also a jerk.
But it’s different with artists. Michael Jackson’s 1980s hits, for instance, were as common at the bar mitzvah parties of my youth as pickled herring at the kiddushes. In the ’90s, we began to learn that he “liked little boys.” More recently, changing attitudes and a documentary film altered how many of us relate to the King of Pop. Jackson’s music hasn’t changed, but how we feel about him has. Bopping my head to Thriller no longer feels right.
And yet, I recently watched a movie by Harvey Weinstein, who, like Jackson, is accused of serial sex crimes. Though his logo flashed across the screen at the beginning, not seeing Weinstein’s face nor hearing his voice somehow made the difference for me. I enjoyed the movie, even though, for others, his films are a bridge too far.
The list has no end and one size never fits all. I once loved Woody Allen, but am creeped out by him now. And yet, some of his movies are so good that I sometimes find myself re-watching them. When my girls sing Am Yisra’el Chai, I beam, even if Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who wrote its melody, mistreated (but also championed) women. In university, I loved T.S. Eliot’s poetry, but my feelings changed when I found out that he hated Jews.
Maybe it is the anti-Semitism that sets me off. I can’t explain it. It’s art, so it largely depends on how you feel.
And yet, this winter in Winnipeg, after a long day of tobogganing, my girls and my nephews curled up with hot cocoa and watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with my dad, some 40 years after he first read it to me. It was a precious, perfect night of cousins bonding with each other and with their zayde, and no one, not even me, thought twice.
Back in Toronto, that Roald Dahl boxset, which has gone unread for decades, still sits on my bookshelf. For some reason, I can’t imagine giving it up. Despite it all, it just wouldn’t feel right.