Rabbi Grossman's Reflections

Venturing Anywhere in the Universe With the Turn of a Page

The gift bag I received at the end of Esther's 9th birthday party did not contain the usual party favors, but rather a paperback edition of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Disappointed by the absence of the anticipated candy and other goodies, I opted to make the best of the sad situation by reading the book.

Disney had already produced a movie version of 20,000 Leagues in 1954, 25 years before The Black Hole.

I was enthralled by the adventures of Captain Nemo and his submarine, the Nautilus. The book had it all – an inscrutable and secretive seafarer, a cool ship, a mysterious backstory, all set on the backdrop of the vast and deep oceans and their swirling schools of strange creatures and foreign fish.

Fortuitously, Esther turned nine in 1979, the same year Walt Disney Studios released its first PG-rated film, The Black Hole. The space adventure capitalized on the excitement that had gripped audiences two years earlier with the release of Star Wars. But when Disney was developing the movie and sought out a script, it did not try to replicate George Lucas' galaxy far, far away, but turned instead to a story-line close to home: Verne's 1870 novel. By replacing ships at sea with ships in space, and Captain Nemo with the equally enigmatic commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt, Disney's filmmakers transported their audience from the depths of the ocean into the depths of outer-space.

Despite a great cast and award-winning spacecraft design,The Black Hole was neither a commercial nor critical success. There were multiple reasons for the film's failure, but I believe it was chiefly because 20,000 Leagues did not need an update. With the success of Star Trek, Star Wars, and the NASA Space program, in the mid-20th century there was a feeling that space was the "Final Frontier," and the future of exploration lay solely beyond earth's bounds.

While the world was looking to the heavens for inspiration and adventure, another explorer, the French naval officer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, sensed that the greatest mysteries of the universe still lay right here on earth, beneath the waves. Cousteau was the first aquanaut, a term that unites cosmic voyages with marine missions. Through his pioneering films and television series, Cousteau brought to the screen the world that Verne had brought to life in prose.

When I re-read 20,000 Leagues as an adult, I was surprised that the version I had read as a child had left out hundreds of pages detailing the extraordinary and alien creatures of the deep. It is hypothesized that after Cousteau televised his vivid pictures of underwater life, publishers began to leave out Jules Verne's verbose descriptions of fish and ichthyology; they paled by comparison to Cousteau's moving images. Verne had generated enthusiasm for the strange universe of the Seven Seas; Cousteau had forever changed the way we look at 70% of our planet.

The Ramaz Lower School Book Day is an opportunity for our youngest students to take a deep dive into a single piece of literature. The annual event occurred last Wednesday and was themed around Dan Yaccarino's charming volume, The Fantastic Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Yaccarino, whose television hit, The Backyardigans, our students know well, was at Ramaz to discuss the process of writing and illustrating his book on Cousteau and his other modern children's works. Yaccarino grew up, as I did, watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. On Sunday nights at 8:00 PM, our television would transform into a fish tank, and our family sank into the couch to join Jacques aboard his ship Calypso (celebrated in John Denver's eponymous song). Yaccarino wrote the book to introduce a new generation of children to Cousteau and his underwater world.

Ramaz went one step further and introduced our students to an actual Cousteau – Fabian Cousteau, the first grandson of Jacques. An aquanaut himself, Fabian kicked off Book Day with a talk on his adventures with his grandfather and his own explorations. Our deep gratitude goes to the LS librarian, Haviva Peters, for putting together such a remarkable program that included oceanographic art, music, sport and science. Even lunch and snack were themed to the book (French food, not fish! A tasty and tasteful decision). A special shout-out to the following individuals who worked with Haviva to develop in-house sessions in specialty areas:

  • Science teachers: Erika Brinzac and Naomi Reimer
  • Art teachers: Beverly Lermer and Stephen Halpern
  • Math teachers: Emily Viner and Temple Ary
  • Music teacher: Chaya Glaser
  • Instructional technology specialist: Monica Brandwein
  • Reading specialist: Emily Schottland
  • Judaic studies teachers: Galia Bilbool and Gil Ogen
  • Phys Ed teachers: Mladen Kandic and Justine Clifford-Stack, Andrea Slavin, and Joe Cervo

While our students enjoyed the croissants and quiche, it is the taste for books and the power of reading that will leave a strong impact after Book Day has ended. Through programs like Book Day, we instill in our students a love of literature, the vehicle to venture anywhere in the universe with the turn of a page.

The book I found in that swag bag has been part of my personal journey for over thirty years. By now I would have long forgotten about the candy.

Posted by webmaster on Monday March 27 at 07:29PM
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