96 – Bambi by Felix Salten

Bambi: A Life in the Woods was published in 1923 as a warning to Jewish people. Its author Felix Salten accurately foresaw the coming danger during the buildup to World War II, and wrote a novel that somehow mixes an anxious call for self-preservation with stirring love for the natural world and respect for the preciousness of life.

As a Bildungsroman, or coming of age story, Bambi is the perfect book to give to teenagers, who will be engrossed not just by its surface level story of animals learning to survive in a dangerous world, but also its moving parable about the plight of European Jews in the 1920’s.

Activity: Habituation

Have students research the phenomenon of how animals become habituated to humans. They should understand how animals lose their natural fear of humans, why this is dangerous for both humans and animals, and what negative consequences result from this problem. There are many reliable sources of information about animal habituation, such as this page from the US National Park Service about animal habituation in the Grand Canyon.

After studying habituation, have students write an essay or engage in a discussion about how the character of Gobo in Bambi: A Life in the Woods had become habituated, and why this lead to his early death.

Activity: Salten’s Warning to Jews

While teaching students about the rise in anti-Semitism during the buildup to World War II, have students read Bambi: A Life in the Woods. Ask students to reflect upon the mixed feelings that this book can produce. It can seem fatalistic and depressing in some moments, but also hopeful and happy in others. The character of Gobo provides the starkest warning to Jews, serving as a symbol of those who do not take the threat of anti-semitism seriously. Have students write an essay that breaks down the symbolism of Gobo’s character and experiences, and ask students to consider whether anything realistically could have been done to save him.

Music in this Episode

Melodies from Das Lied von der Erde by Gustav Mahler

74 – The Jewish Roots of Holes

Holes by Louis Sachar has remained a favorite book of mine for years. Its author drew heavily on Ashkenazi Jewish folklore when writing this story, reinterpreting Eastern European storytelling traditions to help them fit in a new American home. The ending of Holes has just a touch of Texas justice to it, showing how this style of storytelling changed when it came to a new country.

Activity: The Folklore of Ashkenaz

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research has an excellent online course about Ashkenazi Jewish folklore that I found very helpful when preparing for this episode. In learning more details about the songs, stories, and even superstitions of Yiddish folk culture, I was able to recognize how these traditions had influenced Louis Sachar when he was writing Holes. Some portions may work for younger children, but most of the course is at an academic level better suited for teens and adults.

You can find this free online course at yivo.org/Folklore-of-Ashkenaz.

If you haven’t got time for the entire course, a selection of short videos featured during the classes can be found in this playlist. The videos entitled “What is Jewish about Jewish folklore?” are most relevant to the storytelling style in Holes and can be useful to parents and teachers presenting this book to children.

Activity: Dig a Hole

The title of Holes could be interpreted as symbolic, but mostly it is not. This is literally a book about digging holes in the ground. So why not take your students out and dig one? Kids can learn a lot about themselves and what they can accomplish by doing something physically challenging with hand tools. Find somewhere appropriate to dig a hole and dig one! Compare students’ experiences with those of Stanley Yelnats as he improves in strength and technique over the course of the novel.