Family & Friends · Lifestyle

Bible Stories for Atheist Babysitters

3242998988_45acc88c9a_nWhat the 5-year-old I babysit for wanted to do yesterday was torture his Barbies.  

“Why would you want to do that?” I asked.

“Because we’re bad guys!” said Hanina. 

“Can’t we be good guys?”

“Not today. Today we’re bad guys.” 

You may wonder what a 5-year-old boy is doing with Barbies in the first place. They belonged to his mom. She’d hung onto them, no doubt hoping to pass them along to a daughter.  But Hanina is her third son and last child, so they ended up his.  

Hanina doesn’t dress them up and send them out on dates with Ken. Their fashionable outfits are long gone. Hanina’s naked Barbies participate in the same activities as his other toys. They explore. They fight battles. They act out Torah stories. (Hanina is an Orthodox Jew.)  

We searched Hanina’s room but could find only one Barbie. We carried her to the kitchen table and Hanina got out the Play-Doh. He popped off Barbie’s head, then stuck a glob of bright orange Doh where her head had been. 

He seemed pleased with the result.

“Can we be good guys now?” I asked.

“Not yet,“ he said, encasing Headless Barbie’s arms and legs in strips of green and blue Play-Doh. 

As a feminist, I can’t say I was crazy about this game. But as a creative person, I could appreciate it as a form of self-expression. 

I’d seen works of art similar to Headless Barbie Immobilized in Play-Doh at MOMA.

As the daughter of a psychoanalyst, I’m all in favor of working through a little boy’s perfectly normal sadistic impulses in a safe and harmless way.  Much better to pop the head off Mom’s hand-me-down Barbie than pop a real schoolmate in the nose.   

Once Headless Barbie was mummified in blue and green, Hanina lost interest. “Can we read Bible Stories for Jewish Children?” he asked.  He snuggled up next to me on the living room sofa and I read to him.      

I was raised by secular atheist Jews. Caring for Hanina has meant, among other things, actually getting to know what’s in the Torah.  

We both got a kick out of the fact that when God commands Moses to confront Pharoah and demand that he free the Jewish People, Moses tries very hard to get out of the gig. But he rises to the occasion and ends up doing a pretty good job.  

Reading about Samson and Delilah, I learned something I hadn’t been aware of.  The book, calling Samson “a  champion of the Jewish People,” described several of the things he did, even as a youth, to torment the Philistines. One was setting fire to the tails of a thousand foxes, then turning them loose in the Philistines’ fields, burning all their crops. 

“That’s not very nice,” I said. 

“The Philistines were the enemy of the Jewish People,” Hanina reminded me.   

“I get that,“ I said. “But what did those poor foxes ever do to the Jews?“ 

What I was thinking about (although I didn’t share this with Hanina) was the so-called “triad of sociopathy,” three signs that a child might grow up to be a psychopath. These are: animal cruelty, fire setting, and persistent bedwetting. The young Samson seems to have killed two of these birds with one stone. (In fact, he’d killed way more than two birds. The kid had killed a thousand foxes!) 

This was a role model?

On the other hand, it put any qualms I might have had about Barbie abuse in perspective. 

“Can we just keep reading?” Hanina asked. 

We returned to the narrative. Samson grows up and falls for Delilah. She betrays him. He brings down the temple on his enemies, killing himself in the process. The full-page illustration was of the bearded Samson lying with his head in Delilah’s lap, as she signals to a soldier to sneak over and cut off his hair. 

At Hanina’s age, I was reading The Cat in the Hat and Little House on the Prairie.  Nobody ever sat down and read me Torah stories. This is what I’d missed.  Adult content! Seduction and betrayal! You don’t find a lot of  that in Dr. Seuss.

When we were done reading, we moved on to a game Hanina improvised in which we pretend to be mother and father birds, caring for our babies. The living room sofa became a nest.  “We’ve brought you some yummy worms!” we announced to our young.  “Who’s hungry?”  

Being kind and nurturing is more in line with Hanina’s essential nature than being cruel and sadistic. I was happy that, at least for now, he’d gotten that out of his system. But I remained troubled by Samson’s treatment of those foxes. As I was leaving at afternoon’s end, I mentioned this to Hanina’s father, a Torah scholar. 

“Samson was a thug,” he agreed cheerfully.

Not exactly the response I’d expected. 

“He could have used a good therapist,” I volunteered. 

Of course, if Samson had had a good therapist, he might have refrained from tormenting the Philistines. Or  falling for Delilah, who, clearly, was a Very Bad Choice. 

And then where would the Jewish People be?

Hanina’s father told me that one eminent Jewish scholar had recently  published an article concluding that Samson was a thug.

“A lot of people weren’t happy about that,” he said.  

Maybe not. But I am. And I’m even happier to know that my favorite 5-year-old is being raised by an abba who is willing to call a thug a thug, even if he is a hero of the Jewish people.

As for poor headless Barbie, knowing Hanina, it’s likely that when I turn up next she’ll have her head back and some clothes on, ready to perform the role of Moses’s mom in our “story of Passover” play. 

But if she’s still encased in Play-Doh, I’m sending her to MOMA.

Image by kashara via  Flickr.


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  • Andrew D.E. March 21, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    The bible, the torah, the koran…they’re all filled with insanely violent stories. Religious folk think nothing of pumping them full of this craziness though, yet atheists are the ones who are supposed to be lacking a moral compass.

  • Ruth Nathan March 18, 2013 at 9:31 am

    I second Mark Lowe. Wonderful!!

  • Emily Kelting March 18, 2013 at 7:33 am

    Loved this story! My mother didn’t like–or tolerate–negative emotions, thoughts, and certainly not acting out “bad guy” dramas. (Then again, I was the oldest of three girls.) I’m glad young Hanina gets a chance to express himself fully in “play”, and that Roz, in seeing a side of him that is violent–at least to Barbies–can just watch him without being judgmental. (Even if she does ask herself what is going on with him). I also loved that his father admitted that Samson was a “thug”.
    In one short piece, I learned both about the triad of sociopathy, a glimpse into the life of this Orthodox Jewish boy and his family, and Hanina’s relationship with Roz. Great writing!

  • Kelly March 17, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    It’s always interesting to watch young kids play out themes of violence. I think that kids are working through things they see and experience and that they have to try out all the roles to really figure everything out. Sometimes they have to play the bad guys.

    As for my barbie years, I always was very focused on saving things (I still am), so one of my barbies would always get into some sort of trouble so that another one could go and save him or her.

  • Just One Boomer (Suzanne) March 16, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    Grimm’s Fairy Tales obviously have nothing on Torah Stories for Children as inappropriate literature for bedtime for children.

  • Toni Myers March 16, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    Roz, I am in awe of your unique gift of combining real information with outrageous hilarity. My favorite tale involving Barbies ever. A MOMA show with unique Barbie situations and uses would be widely acclaimed. Think of the education center activities!
    Thanks. Will send it on to all parents of young children.

  • Richard March 16, 2013 at 11:44 am

    The more cultures who admit that their heroes are thugs, the better. Classical literature is a parade of murders, variegated by promiscuity. All babysitters should have your psychoanalytic wisdom.

  • Roz Warren March 16, 2013 at 11:35 am

    Liza one thing I’ve learned from taking care of the children of Religious families is that each family is unique. There are obviously many things they all have in common, but seeing how living by the Torah plays out in each family has been a real education for me. All I know for certain is that the result is wonderful children.

  • Mark Lowe March 16, 2013 at 11:23 am


  • Liza March 16, 2013 at 10:59 am

    Interesting piece, Roz–makes you think. What I wonder is why a Orthodox Jewish woman had all those Barbies in the first place? Was the mom raised Orthodox, and do Orthodox Jews allow that kind of thing in the home? Clearly this family does, but I am curious.