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A Love Letter to Marilyn

This isn’t a column. It’s a love letter. The object of my affections is Marilyn (she wants me to keep her last name our little secret), a grandmother from a small New England town.

Last Chanukah, like all good grandmothers, Marilyn went to Toys R Us to scout out the goodies, when her eye fell upon an impressive collection of encyclopedias for children published by a British firm called Dempsey-Parr. As she flipped through the slick pages, she came upon the section on the Middle East. To her surprise, one flag was missing.

The Israeli flag.

On checking the map, she noted that the country of Israel was missing as well. Well, thought Marilyn. Let’s see. She  looked up Jerusalem in the book and was told “it was a holy city for Muslims, the followers of Islam, as well as for Jews and Christians. The Dome of the Rock is the city’s most holy Muslim temple.”

In The Children’s First Encyclopedia, under Crisis in the Middle East, the Six Day War is described in one line: “Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula.”

Of Golda Meir, the book tells its young readers: “She always hoped to solve the problems of Israel and Palestine through peaceful means, but under her leadership Israel was involved in the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War.”

Well, well, thought Marilyn. There’s a pattern here. She checked on the children’s book section in Best Buy stores and came across some more “educational” books from Demsey-Parr: Pocket Atlas didn’t list the Israeli flag. First Atlas didn’t list the country of Israel, nor did The Illustrated Encyclopedia. The Children’s Illustrated Dictionary lists all world languages, except Hebrew. Question and Answer Encyclopedia lists page 59 as having information on Jerusalem, but doesn’t actually have any. Children’s First Book of People and Places has more of the same.

Marilyn was appalled, like anyone would be who thinks children deserve books that inculcate knowledge, not misinformation and hate. (Now, this is the point in my story where it veers from information to the adulation that is the mainstay of all good love letters.) But unlike most of us, Marilyn decided it wasn’t enough for her not to purchase Dempsey-Parr Poison for Children’s Minds. She decided to get these dangerous books out of the stores.

Her first set of letters were sent out to apprise Toys R Us and Levy Home Entertainment, Best Buys’ book distributor, that there was a problem. Toys R Us’s Ronda Senior wrote her back a carefully worded letter disclaiming responsibility. They weren’t, she said, “actively” buying Dempsey-Parr books. She helpfully suggested that perhaps the problem was the “lack of adequate information on Jerusalem,” available to the authors.

This, of course, made Marilyn mad. She wrote back, politely suggesting that this was offensive and that “there are many hazards that can befall a child, not the least of which are those that poison the mind. These books are dismally edited and at their worst they are instruments of bigotry. They should be removed from your shelves. You state that Toys R Us is a company who believes in children and their education. Your ultimate actions will prove or disprove the seriousness with which you take that responsibility.”

The reaction of Levy Home Entertainment, on the other hand, was wonderful. Barbara Levy Kipper, its head, notified Paragon Publishers in England, (parent company of Dempsey-Parr and packagers of these notorious mind-poisoners) that they were pulling the books in question from Levy-supplied stores nationwide. Paragon Publishers was summoned to explain itself to Levy’s Board of Directors.

Barbara Levy and Howard Reese, CEO, both called Marilyn to offer apologies and to thank her for uncovering the insidious pattern of Dempsey-Parr books. They were also instrumental in getting Paragon – Dempsey-Parr to notify Toys R Us of problems with the books. Marilyn received a letter from Toys R Us saying that all Dempsey-Parr books would be recalled from their stores as well.

Marilyn’s battle was a lonely one. Although she contacted B’nai Brith, the American Jewish Community Council, and different branches of rabbinical associations, their silence left her hanging alone in the wind. No doubt their time was taken up with much more important things, like fundraising to cover enormous salaries.

The Anti-Defamation League wrote a long letter to Paragon Publishing full of helpful suggestions on editing the books, but failed to call for their immediate removal from the stores.

No. Only Marilyn thought to do that. And many private individuals from nearby synagogues and on the internet helped spread the word. Which is why she is my hero. And which is why I am writing her this love letter.

Dearest Marilyn, the people of Israel, who have been wiped off the map, and maligned, thank you for noticing and for feeling outrage, and most of all, for taking the time and trouble to do something about it.

Why did she persist? In her own words:

“It is not only CNN and their ilk that spread misinformation, apparently the world’s publishers (particularly the British) seem to feel that when it comes to hate, one can never start too young. Perhaps Dempsey-Parr thought that if they ignored our existence and/or disseminated lies early enough in a child’s education, they could recruit more innocents into their veil of hate. Maybe they thought that no one would notice or care. They were wrong on both counts.”

Marilyn, I love you! I’m inspired by what you’ve taught us: One person can make a difference. And the next time we are tempted to let a shoddy piece of propaganda in the guise of children’s tales or news reports or editorial commentary pass us by without picking up a pen (or mouse) to protest, I hope your example will not let us rest. As another little Jew taught us, a well placed rock from a single slingshot can bring down giants.

Our sages taught us that we don’t need to finish the task, just to begin it. Please, everyone, do your little part in helping us part the seas of hatred that are engulfing our people. I know it doesn’t seem like much, to write a letter, or annoy one of CNN’s sponsors. But little drops on a stone carve out mountains in the end.

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