Children’s books get a bad rap. Fairytale endings, good guys in white hats and bad guys in black, can’t we all just get along—as our reading level surpasses Clifford the Big Red Dog, our heroes become multidimensional and the plots begin to twist and thicken. We sneer at our favorites of yesteryear, the pat formulas, the stock characters. What many adults miss, however, is that children’s books are so straightforward precisely because they serve the same purpose as those written for adults: books open up new worlds. Jaded adults, with their decades of experiences both lived and literary, need fresh infusions of underbellies and upper echelons in order to explore new corners of their world. Children, though, need only the smallest of shifts, a tiny window into the life of another person—any other person—to discover something utterly new and fascinating. It’s Hard to Be a Filipino in Hebrew by Lavie Tidhar has the noble aim of telling a new and hidden story to broaden the reader’s worldview, but its lack of focus and fun keep it from finding its way into the reader’s heart.
It’s Hard to Be a Filipino in Hebrew tells the story of Charlie, the son of a Filipina immigrant to Israel. Charlie’s mom works for an Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem, but she and Charlie live in Tel Aviv, where Charlie plays on Levinsky Street and attends school with “the other Filipino children, and also the kids of Somali refugees, and some of the Jewish kids too, the poor ones.” Pretending to be a superhero, Charlie soars over streets lined with peep shows and shawarma joints. Earthbound once more, he and his friend Eran share a snack while a motley crew of secular and religious Jews brandish signs saying, “go back to Africa” and, in Hebrew, “return Sudanese to Sudan.”
It’s not all grim: Charlie likes to run through the laundry his mother’s friends hang to dry in the courtyard of their Jaffa apartment. They kick soccer balls and take selfies, “have a barbecue on the beach and sing songs.” Adi Elkin’s illustrations, overwhelmingly gray through most of the book despite their comic strip aesthetic, adopt a warmer palette for these scenes of immigrant camaraderie. But these friends, too, are outsiders, and they speak of sending money “home” to the Philippines. For Charlie, Israel is home, and he finds it all “very confusing.”
In this sense, the author and illustrator capture a vital childhood experience: that of disorientation. Anthropologists consider children to be outsider-insider observers of their cultures precisely because so much of what adults do is utterly inexplicable. The process of acculturation, traumatic for an adult immigrant, is the default state for a child: raise your hand to speak at school, don’t play on certain streets (here, the ones strewn with circulars for female companionship), wear a paper candle on your head for the Hannukah lesson. Charlie’s world is a disjointed series of images: kneeling in the street to trace his transliterated name in wet cement, a Filipina aide spoon-feeding a woman using a wheelchair, a Maccabee hero rejoicing after killing the wrong elephant. That last is a particularly disturbing image, especially when presented as the core of the Hannukah story, but perhaps that is the point: Charlie, told by his Israeli best friend that he cannot be a general in the army because he is a Filipino, has access to so little of the context of his own story that it is impossible for him to find his place in the world, to make sense of it all.
Charlie’s story is an important one, especially given how virulent the debates over non-Jewish immigration to Israel have become. The problem with this story, though, is that it’s no fun. I read the book to a group of ten-year-olds, all of whom politely expressed appreciation for learning about Filipino immigrants and their families in Israel. (They also recoiled from the illustration of the bloody, slaughtered elephant, and said that “little kids definitely shouldn’t be allowed to see that because they’ll have nightmares and hate Hannukah.”) But, they asked, couldn’t we have seen more about Charlie’s inner life? The cover shows Charlie perched on top of a Tel Aviv skyscraper, scarlet cape billowing in the wind as he glares down at the city. “I thought that we’d get to know more about him being a superhero, but all we saw was him feeling invisible, and that’s not really a superpower,” complained one listener. If Charlie has so much fun playing in that Jaffa courtyard, why is he standing still in the picture, casting an annoyed glance at a cat rather than gleefully whipping past drying sheets and towels? And, worst of all, “Why didn’t his friend apologize for being racist? He didn’t know it was wrong, but Charlie just forgave him after the fight. We should at least get to see him become a general after all.”
Stories shouldn’t always be easy to swallow, and I’m not arguing for sugarcoating and sentiment. If It’s Hard to Be a Filipino in Hebrew is meant to motivate adults to increase their charitable giving to immigrant rights organizations in Israel, perhaps the book serves its purpose. Indeed, it is peppered with little in-jokes (is it wrong to call them Easter eggs in such a Jewish book?) for Hebrew speakers and adult readers. (I would hate to be the parent having to explain that illustration of a red-light district, though, and I’d definitely just skip the dead elephant pages entirely.) But as a story, as a narrative, it fails to achieve the most basic goal of engaging the reader. We are told that Charlie is lonely, or confused, or angry, but we aren’t given a reason to root for him. He is as two-dimensional as the comic book illustrations he inhabits, and nearly as colorless as the concrete expanse of his schoolyard. “I want to see Charlie grow up and become a pilot,” said one student, “so maybe there will be a sequel and it will be better?”
Meggie Kwait teaches middle school and embarrasses her students in New York City.