THE RABBI UNDER JK ROWLING’S SPELL
While scrolling through my Twitter feed recently I stumbled across an interesting fact. According to the American Library Association some of the most banned books in American schools, libraries and churches are the Harry Potter series. In fact in the early 2000s there were at least six book burnings of Harry Potter works and several lawsuits against institutions that allowed it. The source of this anti-Potter vitriol is primarily from ultra-conservative evangelical Christian groups who justify their actions because the Bible forbids witchcraft and so books that glorify magic might encourage children to study the occult.
I am blessed to be a parent and step-parent to a total of ten wonderful children, all under the age of 14. Parenting children in a generation defined by technology is not easy. But we do our best to limit our reliance on electronic media for entertainment, especially as many of the messages children hear through TV, movies and online often conflict with our Jewish values. In addition, the addictive nature of such technology and its negative impact on behaviour and social development are well documented in both children and adults.
We therefore rely on books, games, outdoor activities and good old talking to one another to keep us occupied. It requires much more effort, but we find it is also more rewarding.
We are a long way from perfect, but we try to get the balance right and all of our older kids are delightful little bookworms.
But it wasn’t always this way. One of my older boys has Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and while he is very bright and high functioning for a child with autism, he simply didn’t enjoy reading. As is often the case with children with ASD, the allure of TV, movies and video games was all the more intense. We encouraged him to start with comics, but nothing really excited him and while his siblings were regularly immersed in a book, he lacked the motivation to read anything. Until he met Harry Potter. Suddenly his world changed. He fell in love with the stories, the characters, the plot (and, yes, the merchandise as well). But most importantly, he fell in love with reading. JK Rowling’s enchanting world was the gateway to building his confidence and discovering the pleasure of books. He quickly graduated to other series including Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon (he now tries to converse with me in Dragonese) and Ali Sparkes’ Shapeshifter series.
Many parents want to fashion their children in their own image, but children express the need for autonomy from a very early age. Our parental instinct is to prohibit anything that could negatively influence our children or undermine the ambitions we have for them. Yet helping children to make informed choices and speaking with them honestly about the messages they see and hear is an important part of parenting. While it is unwise to be overly permissive, being overly restrictive can be just as damaging. The higher one builds the walls, the more the child wants to see what lies on the other side. Forbidden fruits are always the most seductive.
If parents can strike the right balance, they will win the trust of their children and so be able to guide them through the realities of the world outside of our protective family bubble. As they mature, each child will then have a hope of self-regulating and managing these challenges when they inevitably face them later in adulthood.
It’s true that the Torah forbids magic, sorcery and contacting the dead (see Deuteronomy 18:10), but I’m not sure that trying to “stupefy” your older brother with a wooden spoon for a wand, or pretending your duvet is an invisibility cloak quite reaches the mark.
More than that, the reason for Harry’s special powers is the crux of his story. As the legend goes, when Harry was a baby, the evil Lord Voldemort tried to murder him using the most powerful Dark Magic.
Harry’s mother sacrificed herself to protect Harry, an act of selfless love so miraculous that Harry was known to be the only person to have survived such a spell, even though it left him an orphan.
Understood correctly, the foundation on which Harry’s story rests is profound, inspiring and persuasive. But most of all, to every child, it is deeply reassuring for it enlightens our children to the idea that no matter what, a parent’s eternal love for their child is more powerful and more potent than all the magic in the world.
Rabbi Dr Moshe Freedman is rabbi of New West End synagogue. The latest Potter film, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is released next week
Harry Potter: sparking a love of reading