PJ Library founder Harold Grinspoon reads to children who receive his free Jewish-themed books each month. For use with RNS-PJ-LIBRARY, transmitted on February 27, 2014, Photo courtesy of Harold Grinspoon Foundation

PJ Library founder Harold Grinspoon reads to children who receive his free Jewish-themed books each month. For use with RNS-PJ-LIBRARY, transmitted on February 27, 2014, Photo courtesy of Harold Grinspoon Foundation


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) More than 10 years ago, Harold Grinspoon learned that Dolly Parton, who grew up in a poor home with no books, gives away thousands of books each month as part of her “Imagination Library” literacy project.

Grinspoon, who made a fortune in real estate, signed on to help her, sending books to kids in western Massachusetts, where he lives.

Then he thought of other children — not necessarily ones without books in their homes, but children lacking the joys that Grinspoon finds in his Jewish heritage. He decided to start his own free book project, the PJ Library, for Jewish kids who might not know that Purim is a Jewish holiday or how they can prepare for a Shabbat dinner without the free Jewish-themed book arriving in their mailbox each month.

“I love the Jewish people,” said Grinspoon, 84, who worries about rising rates of intermarriage among Jews and other signs that young Jews are growing ever more disconnected from Jewish life.

“If I can bring something warm and fuzzy in the form of the PJ Library into Jewish homes, then that’s a good place for me to be,” he said. “I am the custodian of some Jewish money. I try to use it in effective ways.”

Now 9 years old, the PJ Library — which stands for “pajamas,” because many PJ books will be read at bedtime — recently gave out its 5 millionth book in North America. Grinspoon delivered “The Mystery Bear: A Purim Story,” himself, with a bouquet of balloons, to a 4-year-old named Jake in Natick, Mass.

That book is one of 130,000 PJ library books delivers to families across North America each month, for which the Harold Grinspoon Foundation pays approximately $4 million a year. Those funds are matched by local Jewish organizations in each community served by the PJ Library. These include cities with large numbers of Jews, such as New York, but also areas with tiny Jewish communities, such as Southern West Virginia.

Kara Freiden, 2, listens as her mother, Robyn, reads from one of the books the family received from the PJ Library program at their home in Leawood, Kan. on Monday (Feb. 24). RNS photo by Sally Morrow

Kara Freiden, 2, listens as her mother, Robyn, reads from one of the books the family received from the PJ Library program at their home in Leawood, Kan., on Monday (Feb. 24). RNS photo by Sally Morrow


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

A sister program operates in Israel, where free books are distributed in Hebrew to Jewish children through the Sifriyat Pijama program. Arabic-language books are also given to children through Maktabat al-Fanoos, or Lantern Library, in which the books are not Jewish-themed but culturally appropriate with plots that focus on “ethical issues and emotions children confront in their world,” according to the Grinspoon Foundation.

A Spanish version of the PJ library just started in Mexico. And Grinspoon wants to bring the PJ Library to Russia — a country with one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe, but where Jews can struggle to find Jewish culture. Worldwide, the PJ Library and its sister libraries have distributed more than 10 million books.

You don’t have to be Jewish to sign up for the PJ Library, though the vast majority of subscribers are. The sign-up form asks for little more than an address and the ages of the children in a household, so that the library can send them age-appropriate books.

Not all subscribers are exactly starving for Jewish culture and knowledge.

Robyn Freiden and her family belonged to a Conservative synagogue in Overland Park, Kan., well before they had ever heard of the PJ Library. But the mother of two says their collection of PJ Library books has enhanced Jewish learning and observance for her son, Dylan, 4, and daughter, Kara, 2.

“When Dylan sees the PJ Library package in the mail, he knows it’s for him and we have to read it right away. Then we read it at least three more times that day,” said Freiden, who added that the books often remind her of things she had learned as a child but has since forgotten.

Dylan Freiden, 4, listens as her mother, Robyn, reads from one of the books the family received from the PJ Library program at their home in Leawood, Kan. on Monday (Feb. 24). RNS photo by Sally Morrow

Dylan Freiden, 4, listens as his mother, Robyn, reads from one of the books the family received from the PJ Library program at their home in Leawood, Kan., on Monday (Feb. 24). RNS photo by Sally Morrow


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The PJ Library tries to take advantage of the do-it-yourself movement in Judaism, in which Jews are learning to craft rituals for themselves, often without the help of clergy or synagogues. Grinspoon notes that you don’t have to step into a Jewish institution to receive PJ Library books — there’s an online sign up. But simultaneously, it is also trying to connect Jews to Jewish institutions.

Marcie Greenfield Simons, the PJ Library’s director, said a new study commissioned by the Grinspoon Foundation of 20,000 American Jewish families shows that the free books are doing their job.

Nearly six in 10 (58 percent) said the program has moderately or greatly influenced their decisions “to build upon or add a Jewish tradition to their home life.” And more than six in 10 (62 percent) said it “increased their families’ positive feelings about being Jewish.”

That’s a result Grinspoon wants to spread to Jewish families the world over, said Simons.

“He won’t rest,” she said, “until every family who wants to have these books is able to have them.”

KRE/MG END MARKOE

12 Comments

      • @Lauren,

        Thank you for the story….but no, “Atheist Themed” books would not be disgraceful because you are talking about MOST of the Literature of the world.

        ‘Atheist-themed’ books (if such a thing could be defined)
        would not claim “There is No God”.
        The Atheist does not claim that God does not exist, only that we see no reason to believe in a God.

        “Atheist books” would discuss God
        as comparative religion or mythology.

        All of these might thus be “Atheist-themed” books:

        Star Trek – Gene Roddenberry
        Romeo and Juliet – Shakespeare
        Life and Death in the Coral Sea – Jacques Yves Cousteau
        Animal Farm – George Orwell
        The Cat in the Hat (everything by Dr. Seuss)
        Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak
        Voyage of the Kon Tiki – Thor Hyerdahl
        The Magic of Reality – Richard Dawkins

        You see what I mean?

        These would be also be examples of good books (atheist themed) which discuss religion and mythology comparatively:

        The Scarlet Letter
        Paradise Lost
        A Tale of Two Cities

        Almost all of literature is ‘Atheist-themed’

        Holy Books were the first Literature – so they do matter!
        But only as comparative mythology – otherwise they are marketing pamphlets.

        Pushing God on children as “true” and “absolute” is just brainwashing.

        It would be like reading a book about dwarves and telling children they must never question whether dwarves exist!

        Religion stifles a child’s mind, stifles thought and punishes critical thinking with threats of Hell. And there is no evidence that any of it is true.

        • My family has been a PJ Library subscriber since birth. I invite you to find a single PJ Library book that threatens children with hell — a concept foreign to Judaism — or pushes God as true or absolute. Somehow I think that someone who finds Dr. Seuss to be “atheist-themed” — in fact that somehow almost all literature is atheist-themed — will be unable to match my invitation much less understand this post.

          • @Garson,

            Promotion of Judaism to children is not benign.
            I can’t share your flippancy about Jewish stories which include placing little Isaac’s throat under his Dad’s sword, to ‘prove love of Yahweh’.
            Terrorizing children with such stories is abusive and primitive and it past the time to call it so.

            Yes, “The Cat in the Hat” is completely Atheist. As in, no God is needed to tell the story or preach the lessons within it.

        • Your continuing polemics do nothing to address my challenge: show me ONE PJ Library book that portrays the Akeidah (your latest straw man). And your definition of atheist is so broad as to make the term meaningless.

          • The PJ books are simply damaging. How many should I mention?

            “Bagels from Benny” – claims that God is the only one who deserves our thanks, not the people around us. It is all servility, authority and obedience. A terrible lesson for children.

            “Noah’s Swim-a-thon” – After reading this little book about being good to the needy a reader might be interested in searching for the Jewish story of Noah and the Ark: a wicked story that God (who we are to thank constantly) is the mass murderer of humanity who drowned all of creation in a petulant tantrum.

            The objective of all of these books is to co-opt the children, with a charming story and then sell them the invisible dictator who knows their thoughts and will punish them for not obeying Him.

            That is not a straw man. These stories are clever indoctrination into Bible stories and all their horrors.

            Yes. Atheism is broad. Non-theism and Atheism are virtually the same thing.
            If a story doesn’t preach a god – it is Atheism.

      • In short
        Bring on those “Atheist – themed” books,
        open ended as they would be to mythological questions.

        All good Literature encourages liberation of the mind.
        Bibles and other religious tracts DON’T. Bibles DENY the mind any liberation whatsoever. They are demands of servility to an unknowable, unaccountable supernatural dictator.

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