Category Archives: holidays

Maggie Celebrates Ayyám-i-Há

This past December my daughter was getting ready for her school’s holiday music celebration when we decided to get a lesson on inclusion. Their music teacher was having them sing a variety of Christmas songs, but had failed to consider other faiths. Enter E, a very strong willed, opinionated, proud little Jewish girl. She decided that singing only Christmas songs wasn’t very inclusive since she doesn’t celebrate Christmas and asked that they also sing a Chanukah song.

So about a week before the performance, she comes home all excited about the new words to the end of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” – now the words have become “we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a Happy Chanukah, we wish you a loving Ayyám-i-Há and a Happy New Year.” Say what? I couldn’t really understand what she was saying, I thought it was more like a loving Yamaha, but that didn’t make much sense either, so I texted her friend’s mom. Turns out Ayyám-i-Há is a Bahá’í holiday celebrated in late February, but is a time of small gift giving and the closest thing to Christmas that they celebrate.

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According to Wikipedia, “during the Festival of Ayyám-i-Há, Bahá’ís are encouraged to celebrate God and his oneness by showing love, fellowship and unity. In many instances Bahá’ís give and accept gifts to demonstrate these attributes, and it is sometimes seen as a “Bahá’í Christmas”, but many Baha’is only exchange small gifts because gifts are not the main focus. It is also a time of charity and goodwill and Bahá’ís often participate in various projects of a humanitarian nature.”

I needed to find a book about it, so I asked my daughter’s friend for some help. They loaned me a wonderful book that I now share with you.

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In Patti Rae Tomarelli’s book, Maggie Celebrates Ayyám-i-Há, the sun is just starting to go down on February 25th and young Maggie hurries to a hill and uses a compass that her grandfather gave her so that she can face west. She takes in the amazing sunset and then cries in joy, “My God, my Fire and my Light! The days which Thou has named the Ayyám-i-Há in Thy Book have begun!”

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As the day progresses, Maggie find winds to do wonderful acts of kindness. She breaks open her piggy-bank to get at the money she has saved to purchase birdseed and make her own feeder. She bakes cookies with her brother and leaves them as gifts for two elderly friends. She leaves flowers and notes for her parents, brother, and teacher. Then she returns home to meditate.

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I think this holiday is absolutely wonderful. The book even includes information about the holiday, about what Maggie did each day and why, and shows children how to make the bird feeder that she makes as one of her gifts. It was really wonderful for my daughter to see that there are other minority religions out there as well and that we should all take pride in our beliefs and learn to share them with those around us.

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celebrating-around-the-worldWhile I believe that this particular book might be out of print, there is a brand new book that came out in January about the holiday – Celebrating Ayyam-i-Ha Around the World, by Melissa Lopez Charepoo. This book apparently shows a wide spectrum of families around the world celebrating this wonderful holiday.

I love that we learned something new this year and we continue to learn about their faith and experiences. For all of those who will begin celebrating Ayyám-i-Há this weekend, may you have a loving and joyous holiday!
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Counting our Hanukkah Blessings

Every year we look forward to taking out our Hanukkah decorations and big box of books. As with any other subject, picture books are one of the best ways to learn about a holiday, so grow, and to share that knowledge with others. Each year I not only read Hanukkah books with my girls, but I also go into classrooms at their schools to share a holiday that so many of their friends have little to now knowledge of.

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For anyone who isn’t aware of the background story of Hanukkah, here is a quick overview. About 200 years B.C.E. in Jerusalem, the Jews were under the rule of the Greek-Syrians. King Antiochus III allowed the Jews to practice their own religion. His son, King Antiochus IV, proved less kind and demanded that the Jews bow down to the Greek gods. His soldiers desecrated the holy temple and killed hundreds of people. HOWEVER, one Jewish leader and his 5 sons stood up to the Syrians. When Judah the Maccabee (the hammer) took control after his father died, the small Jewish army beat the Syrians through guerilla warfare. They cleaned the temple, rebuilt the altar, and had a celebration to rededicate it. One thing they needed, was to have the 7 candle menorah that adorned the alter be lit. As the story goes, there was only enough oil to light the menorah for one night, but it miraculously lasted for 8 days, enough time to make more oil. For that reason, we celebrate the rededication of the temple with a holiday where we light candles for 8 days and eat lots of foods fried in oil.

While Hanukkah has been seen by many as the Jewish Christmas, it really is nothing of the sort. It is a holiday celebrating the miracle of the weak overcoming the mighty. It is a holiday celebrating being allowed to practice your own religion, even when it isn’t what everyone else does. It is a holiday to simply celebrate being Jewish. Traditionally there are no gifts involved, but that has evolved over time in America to children often receiving one small gift each night.

There are a wealth of awesome Hanukkah books out there. I have tried to write about them over the years as seen herehere, and here. I am always on the lookout for new books, plus we get a book every year from the PJ Library. Here are some of our newest finds.

golem-cover Most children are familiar with the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Jewish folklore has a similar character in the form of the Golem, which in Hebrew literally means lump. In The Golem’s Latkes, Eric A. Kimmel mixes the story of the golem and his inability to stop himself with the traditions of Hanukkah. Rabbi Judah, in the story, had created the Golem to help him. On the day before the first Hanukkah candle has to be lit, Rabbi Judah had too much to do and not enough time. He instructed his housemaid, Basha, of all that needed to be done and allowed her to use the golem, but to never leave him alone. Basha was impressed by all that the golem could do and began to take advantage of him so that she could go visit with friends. However, when she instructed him to make latkes, she stayed at a friend’s house for too long and latkes soon took over the house. Rabbi Judah finally puts an end to the latke making, but now had enough to feed all of Prague, so they invited everyone to come and celebrate. A fun book to get into the holiday spirit and one that receives a big thumbs up from my 9 year old.

emanual-coverOn first look, Emanuel and the Hanukkah Rescue doesn’t seem to feel like much of a Hanukkah story, but by the end, all I could say was, “wow.” The story is set in New Bedford, MA at a time before electricity. New Bedford was a big whaling port and was also the home of a group of secret Jews had emigrated from Portugal due to religious persecution. The story tells of young Emanuel whose father sells supplies to the whalers. Emanuel doesn’t want to be a merchant, he wants the adventure of going to sea, but his father warns him of how dangerous a life that is. To Emanuel, his father was always afraid. One thing they were afraid of was letting anyone know that they were Jewish, a hold-over from the persecution they faced in Portugal. So when Hanukkah comes, Emanuel’s father and the other Jews don’t put the menorah in the window as is customary, his father won’t even light the Hanukkah lights. By the seventh night of Hanukkah, Emanuel can take no more and stows away on a whaler’s ship, yearning to be free, and hoping that one day his father can learn to be free as well. The ship struggles in a great storm and has trouble finding its way home. But by a great miracle, they see lights from the shore. The even bigger miracle was that the lights came from menorahs glowing in the windows of every Jewish home “proclaiming the last night of Hanukkah.” Emanuel’s father had realized that it was not good to be ruled by fear and instead wanted to embrace his Judaism.

ahanukkahwithmazelcover In A Hanukkah with Mazel, Joel Edward Stein has given us a very traditional feeling tale about the importance of commemorating Hanukkah even when life doesn’t feel very joyous. The painter, Misha, is struggling to make ends meet when a stray cat wanders into his barn. Misha doesn’t have much, but what he has he share with the cat, whom he names Mazel, which means luck. It is the first night of Hanukkah, and while Misha can’t afford candles for his menorah, he decides to paint a menorah and “light” each candle by painting their flames. On the final day of the holiday a merchant comes to his door. Misha admits that he has no money to purchase anything, but the merchant suggests that perhaps they can trade. Misha shows him his paintings and while he is looking at them, Mazel comes out. As luck would have it, Mazel is the merchant’s missing cat, Goldie. The merchant winds up purchasing Mischa’s paintings to sell and also asks Misha to take care of Mazel since he is on the road so much. This is a very sweet tale that happens to take place during Hanukkah, but is also reminds us to be kind to animals, the importance of tradition, and to never stop believing in the miracle of Hanukkah.

oskarOskar and the Eight Blessings utilizes Hanukkah as a way to bring up the Holocaust and the loss that it caused while reminding us all to look for the blessings and that “even in bad times, people can be good.” Young Oskar is sent to America to live with his aunt after Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, November 9, 1938. He arrived in New York on the 7th day of Hanukkah, which also happened to be Christmas Eve that year. He walked from Battery Park to 103rd street and found people performing random acts of kindness toward him. This is a book about hope, the thing that the ancient Jews had when they fought against Antiochus. We always need to have hope, even when things seem incredibly dark. While a simple story, this one is probably best for slightly older children as it has more opportunities for talking points than for telling the Hanukkah story.

gracieGracie’s Night, by Lynn Taylor Gordon, is less about Hanukkah and more about tzedakah, but wrapped up in a Hanukkah bow. The background is that it is holiday time in NYC and Gracie is taking in all of the beauty. She loves looking in the beautiful store windows, but she shops at The Second Chance Shop and is excited to find a pair or matching mittens. Gracie’s father is a bus driver and they are unable to pay all of their bills. But when Gracie manages to get a holiday job at Macy’s she is able to purchase her father 8 much needed gifts, like boots, a new coat, and a hat. When she leaves on a bitter-cold night, Gracie sees a homeless man huddled in a box. She realizes that while their life is tough, his was worse, and she wordlessly left him her father’s gifts. There weren’t many gifts that year for Hanukkah, but they lit the candles, ate latkes, spun the dreidle, and had warm feelings in their hearts. The book encourages all children, young and old, to “become someone’s miracle; be someone’s light! Give up just one gift on one Hannukah night.” This was a PJ Library selection and their note at theh end of the book talks about how many Jewish communities have started celebrating “The Fifth Night,” an annual event during which a night of Hanukkah gifts are donated to a children’s charity. I love this concept and think that this year would be the perfect year to start this tradition.

turtle-rock This summer I stumbled upon the book Tashlich at Turtle Rock, an amazing take on a ritual that has only recently gained popularity. So when I found that the authors wrote a Hanukkah book, I had to check it out. While not quite as powerful as the Tashlich book, Potatoes at Turtle Rock is still is an excellent way to approach Hanukkah in a different way. This family brings their Hanukkah celebration out to Turtle Rock on a snowy evening and young Annie has planned 4 stops. Each stop has a little lesson in history, astronomy, resourcefulness and togetherness. It is an unusual way to celebrate Hanukkah, but does encourage thinking about the things that are truly important.

only-one-club I first heard about The Only One Club while reading an article on Kveller. This isn’t a Hanukkah book, per se, but it is a great book to consider during the holidays when lots of people celebrate a variety of different festivals. Growing up, I was surrounded by lots of Jews, but now my daughters are growing up in an area where they could easily be the only Jewish person in their class. In this special book, Jennifer’s first grade class begins making Christmas decorations, but because she is Jewish, her teacher, Mrs. Matthews, allows her to make Hanukkah decorations instead. Jennifer enjoys the attention and creates “The Only One Club,” of which she is the sole member. When her classmates want to join, she is resistant until she realizes that each of her friends is also “the only one” at something. As she inducts them into her club she reveals the unique qualities that make each of her classmates extraordinary. Through this book, young children are encouraged to discover and treasure their own uniqueness and to actively look for special qualities in others beyond race or culture.

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Great Books about the High Holidays

It is once again time for the Jewish High Holiday season. I haven’t written about books that cover this ten day period of reflection and repentance in a few years, so I thought it was time to approach it again.collages17

The holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are important not only because they are the start of the new year, but because they are a time for people to think about their behaviors over the past year and how to approach the new year in a better way. It is time to cast off the sins and bad behaviors you might have had and to approach the year with a clean slate. Given the importance of these holidays for those in the Jewish faith, there are a number of truly excellent books to help younger children understand the complicated notion of Teshuva or returning to spiritual purity.

talia-and-rudeTalia and the Rude Vegetables – This fun book takes a misunderstanding of the term “root vegetables” and spins it into a parable of rude behaviors. Talia’s grandmother asks her to get seven different root vegetables from the garden for a Rosh Hashana stew, but she thinks she has been asked to get rude vegetables. “How can a vegetable be rude? Does it annoy its brothers and sisters? Does it talk back to its parents?” As she ponders these questions, she realizes that her own behavior over the past year hasn’t been perfect and that she must ask for forgiveness and do better.

Talia begins digging up vegetables. Since her grandmother requested rude vegetables, she places the beautiful ones into a separate basket. The “ornery onion” that doesn’t want to be pulled up, however, gets put into the pot for grandmother, as does the “garish garlic” who is just trying to show off.

Before bringing her grandmother the rude vegetables, Talia brings the good ones to the rabbi so that someone else can enjoy them. Without even meaning to, she performed the perfect mitzvah of helping feed others while also thinking about how to make her own behaviors better for the coming year. A great book for kids about thinking about their own actions while also doing good and caring for those around them.

gabriel-hornGabriel’s Horn – I think that Eric Kimmel might be one of my favorite authors when it comes to Jewish children’s books. This year he has a new book out called Gabriel’s horn. I have not gotten my hands on this book yet, but the little bits of preview and this information from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency show how wonderful it is.

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a young African-American soldier knocks on the door of the apartment where a young boy, Gabriel, lives with his parents, who are struggling to hang on to their small antiques shop. The solider explains he is going overseas and has no one to care for his special horn that once belonged to his grandpa, a musician, and brings good luck. Gabriel convinces his reluctant mom they can care for the horn. The name on the soldier’s uniform says Tishbi — the birthplace of the prophet Elijah, who is said to appear mysteriously on Earth, often disguised as a beggar who leaves behind him blessings of good fortune or health. Over the years Gabriel engages in tzedakah (acts of charity), and the horn magically brightens each time until its gleaming shine represents Gabriel’s family’s kindness and new prosperity.

This book will help children understand just how important tzedekah (helping those in need) is in the Jewish culture. When Gabriel and his family were blessed with what they needed, they then turned around and helped others in need. It will show children that people will often be blessed when they reach out to help and bless others, even when times look desperate.

Even Higher – There are actually two versions of this story available, but the basic story is the same as they are adapted from I.L Peretz’s “If Not Higher.”

even-higher-ungerIn Richard Unger’s version published in 2007, the boys of Nemirov are curious as to where their esteemed rabbi goes each year on the day before Rosh Hashanah. Rumor has it that he ascends to heaven to beg God to forgive the sins of the villagers, but Yossel, Menachem, and Reuven are skeptical and the bigger boys agree that Reuven should find out exactly what the rabbi is up to. He secretly follows him home, hides under his bed, and trails him the next day. Discovering that the man, disguised as a woodcutter, ventures into the forest to chop wood and deliver it to a poor widow, the boy reports back to his friends that not only does the rabbi ascend to heaven, but he ascends “even higher.”

even-higher-kimmelIn 2010, Eric Kimmel tells the same story from the viewpoint of a skeptical Litvak stranger, who does not believe in miracles. The villagers are certain their rabbi flies up to heaven to speak with God before the fate of every soul is decided for the coming year. But a skeptical Litvak scoffs at the villagers, claiming miracles cannot happen, and secretly follows the rabbi early one morning. What he witnesses–an enormous act of human compassion–changes his heart.  The bright mixed-media pictures in folk-art style show the rabbi’s hard work and joyful movements, a powerful, earthy contrast to the magic realism that the shtetl people imagine. Steeped in Yiddish idiom, the story sends an unforgettable message: the skeptic changes and sees that ordinary kindness is enough to save the world.

secret-shofarThe Secret Shofar of Barcelona – Many of the books about the High Holidays are aimed at a very young audience. This book really raises the bar being aimed at children grades 2-5. The first page of the book tells about a time in history when the rulers of Spain decreed that everyone must be Catholic. While most Jews sailed to other lands, many stayed in Spain and pretended to follow Catholic ways.

In the story, young Rafael’s father is the conductor of the Royal Orchestra of Barcelona. He convinces the Duke to hold a concert on Rosh Hashana so that Conversos could come together to celebrate the New Year being shielded by the celebration for the concert. Rafael thinks it would be special to add the call of the Shofar in with the other native instruments that his father has planned – hiding the shofar in plain sight.

The book explains the history of the shofar and the significance of the four different calls made yearly at Rosh Hashana. The Jews at the festival are touched by the sound they have longed to hear for so long and the Duke enjoys the music as well. A great way to bring an interesting part of Jewish history into the Rosh Hashana story.

Tashlich is an important ceremony that many people do as a part of their Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur observance. Usually it takes place on Rosh Hashana, however, in our little congregation we have Tashlich on the Sunday between the two holidays. The concept of Tashlich is to throw away the sins of the past year by throwing breadcrumbs into the water.

tashlich-turltle-rockTashlilch at Turtle Rock was co-written by Rabbi Susan Schnur and her daughter Anna Schnur-Fishman. What is wonderful about this book is that it is based on additional customs that their family have incorporated into Tashlich. Not only do they cast off their sins, they focus on the good things that have happened in the past year and a promise they would like to make for the coming year. In the story, young Annie leads them on a hiking path and they spend their time contemplating their year and changes they would like to see for the future. They share them all with each other except for the sins that they throw away with the breadcrumbs. They complete their hike at the old log where they share in apples and honey symbolizing the sweetness of the Jewish New Year. They also recite a special prayer that Annie’s mother has written:

“God, we have thrown out our mistakes and regrets. And we have picked the best things from the year to keep with us. Help us start over. Help us remember our vows and promises. And protect us this whole long year.” For that, may everyone say, Amen!

gershonGershon’s Monster – Another fabulous Eric Kimmel book to add to the list! In this tale, based on a Chasidic story, Kimmel brings in the importance not only of repenting for one’s sins or wrong-doings, but actually going about making changes. It is not enough to say you’ve done something bad, you must actually take the steps to amend your ways or your sins will come back to haunt you.

Gershon was not always the best person he could be. True, the mistakes he made were common, ordinary things: a broken promise, a temper lost for no reason, a little untruth told here and there. But unlike most people, Gershon never regretted what he did. He never apologized or asked anyone’s forgiveness. Rather than regret or atone for his everyday mistakes, baker Gershon simply sweeps them into his basement. At Rosh Hashana, he places all his sins and flaws, that hang on you like fringes with faces, from the cellar into a sack and take them down to the Black Sea. There in the Sea, he deposits them and forgets them. But do sins just disappear if true repentance is missing?

Of course, Gershon must discover sooner or later that his selfish acts cannot be disposed of so easily. In spite of a pointed warning from a rabbi, Gershon refuses to realize that his behavior will come back to haunt him someday. It’s only when he is faced with the monstrous bulk of his misdeeds that Gershon finally, truly repents.

shira-templeShira at the Temple – This summer at a Jewish educators conference I stumbled upon the Shira Series of books by Galia Sabbag. This series was inspired by Sabbag’s many years as a teacher herself and the students in her classes. Shira at the Temple is the story of a little girl trying to understand the holiday of Yom Kippur and how to pray to God. The story itself was inspired by a Chasidic folk tale that our rabbi actually used as his story for the children at this year’s Rosh Hashana service.

The first part of the book is about Yom Kippur itself – that it is the day of looking inward and asking if you were the best person you could be. It explains why adults fast and the importance of saying that you are sorry to people you may have hurt. I love the fact that the book is sprinkled with actual words in Hebrew, not just transliterated Hebrew.

As Shira goes sits at the temple on Yom Kippur listening to the Rabbi and cantor chanting prayers, mostly in Hebrew, she wants to pray, but doesn’t know how, especially since she cannot yet read Hebrew. While she couldn’t yet read Hebrew, she could recite her Hebrew alef-bet. She offers that up to God as her prayer so that God could take the letters and “make the most wonderful Yom Kippur prayer out of them.” The Rabbi hugged Shira and told her how special her prayer was simply because it was true and told from her heart. This is a series that I’m very glad to have found.

hardestwordThe Hardest Word – This is by far one of my favorite tales for the High Holidays and for every day. This story tells the tale of a mythical creature called the Ziz. He is a giant flying bird creature who happens to be something of a klutz. When flying through the air, he sometimes knocks into objects that have repercussions when they fall down to earth. He always tries to fix the problems before anyone notices, but one day he does some damage that he can’t figure out how to repair. The Ziz can’t figure it out on his own, so he goes to Mt. Sinai to have a talk with God. God tells him that he needs to search for “the hardest word.” He brings back a number of words and God keeps telling him that while the word might be hard to hear or hard for a child to say, it isn’t the hardest word. After bringing God more than 100 words, he hangs his head and tells God that he is sorry, but that he can’t find the hardest word. In that one instance, God tells him that he has finally found it – “sorry” is the hardest word. This really focuses on the truth behind teshuva – actually going up to the person that you have wronged and apologizing is a very difficult thing to do. The Mishnah says “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” We must do the hardest act and actually apologize to those that we have wronged. They may or may not accept that apology, but it is the only way to clear your soul. In a culture where we are so used to saying a blanket sorry for everything, it is good for children to learn that there is so much more to it.

These are all wonderful books to learn about the important time of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for Jewish families and to teach everyone a little bit about kindness and generosity.

 

 

 

 

 

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Celebrating all types of fathers

Dad’s don’t often find themselves front and center when it come to children’s books. There are many books that don’t include a parent at all, but when they do, they are typically mothers taking charge or fathers who are not actively involved. But that is not the case in real life and it isn’t always the case in literature. In honor of Father’s Day, here is a round-up of books with great dads.

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father's day coverFor an introduction on Father’s Day itself, Ann Heinrichs put together a wealth of information in her book “Father’s Day.” This book is part of a series from The Child’s World. Considering how commercialized the day has become, it is very interesting to see where the holiday actually came from. Children can learn the interesting story of how a little girl came up with the idea to honor fathers in church in 1910. The idea spread, but did not become a national holiday until 1972.

emperor's eggAnother non-fiction title that will easily grab the attention of young readers is “The Emperor’s Egg,” by Martin Jenkins. This beautifully done picture book depicts the interesting twist in the child birth process for emperor penguins. While the mother penguin lays the egg, it is the father’s responsibility to keep it warm for two months in the frigid arctic cold while the mom goes out to see to replenish her nutritional reserves. Fathers are the first caretakers for their young, even providing their first food until the mother returns.

best fatherMany of the books that feature fathers often feature animal fathers. In Peter Horn’s “The Best Father of All,” a young turtle tells his father how safe he feels when he is with him and in return his father explains that keeping him safe is his job. This starts an interesting conversation about what else fathers do. Each page is a journey through the animal kingdom showing how fathers support, nurture, and educate their children. A simple example of how all of the little things add up.

every fridayAnother book highlighting the mundane little things that really add up is “Every Friday,” by Dan Yaccarino. Turning the pages of this book makes you feel like you have taken a step back in time, yet it was written in 2007. The story is of a little boy who loves Fridays because that is the day that he and his father stroll through the city to a corner diner to share a breakfast of pancakes. Apparently, Yaccarino started this tradition with his own son when he turned three and with this wonderful story, he encourages every family to start a little tradition of their own.

dads don't grow upOne thing that we know is true is that dads come in all shapes and sizes, but dads also come with many different temperaments. “When Dad’s Don’t Grow Up,” by Marjorie Blain Parker, pays homage to the dads out there who have never lost the kid inside themselves and who truly enjoy playing with their kids. In addition to celebrating hands on dads, it also does a great job of showing a full spectrum of dads from various races and cultures. “They may look like grown-ups on the outside, but underneath they’re just like us….KIDS!”

night shiftNot only do dads come with different temperaments, but they also have all kinds of jobs to help support their families. In “Night Shift Daddy,” by Eileen Spinelli, Daddy works the night shift, so father and daughter share a special routine around bedtime. Every night, Daddy reads to the little girl, tucks her in, makes sure that she is cozy, and turns off the light. Unbeknownst to him, she also goes to the window and watches him leave for work. When the morning sun wakes her up, Daddy is there to share breakfast with her and then she tucks him into bed in the same way. This is a very touching book and a reminder that all dads work hard, but routines and special shared moments make all the difference.

HeroDadSome dads not only work hard for their family, but also for their country. The sunny story of “Hero Dad,” by Melinda Hardin, opens with the words, “My dad is a superhero.” The reader soon learns that while the boy’s dad might not be Superman with a capital S, he is an American hero – a soldier. This book wonderfully covers the way that a child might see the actions of their military fathers and what an amazing role he plays while protecting our country as well as at home protecting his own kids.

dadandpopFinally, “Dad and Pop: An Ode to Fathers and Stepfathers,” by Kelly Bernett, is a great tribute to blended families. In this story, a young girl compares the two fathers in her life by showing how the have different behaviors and enjoy different things. By the end, it comes back to the fact that even though Dad and Pop are very different, in one crucial way they are exactly the same – the both love her unconditionally.

No matter what special father you want to celebrate this year and every day, there are a wealth of great books out there that highlight the relationship between parent and child.

Light the Winter Candle for a multicultural holiday

winter candleIn the world of multicultural books, they often focus on one culture or group. The book, Winter Candle, by Jeron Ashford, does an extraordinary job of combining a wide variety of cultures while looking at winter traditions and the role of the candle.

The premise of the book, as written by Kirkus Reviews, is that on Thanksgiving, Nana Clover realizes that she doesn’t have a candle for her table and asks the super for one. Later, another family doesn’t have a special braided havdalah candle to mark the Jewish Sabbath’s end and borrows the half-used candle from Nana Clover. A few days later, the Ericksons find that one of the candles on their Saint Lucia st luciacrown is broken. They ask the Danzigers, and the same little candle continues its trip. The African-American family in 5A celebrating Kwanzaa needs the candle next, because the baby has eaten one of the seven candles for the kinara. Finally, a winter storm causes a power outage, and Nasreen and Faruq, who have just moved in, are concerned that their father won’t find the building. Their mom suggests borrowing a candle from their neighbors, and the stubby piece of wax lights their father’s way. Soon, all the neighbors join in to welcome the new family. The richly textured paintings highlight the glow of the small candle; the family portraits, too, glow with warmth.together candle

What is special is that all of these families live in the same apartment building and not only do they need to share the same lumpy candle when they run out of their normal ones, they consider themselves close enough to their neighbors to ask for assistance. Each time the family borrows the candle from whomever had it last, a child comments about how ugly and frumpy it is or how it isn’t their “normal” candle for the holiday. Even so, the candle always manages to burn a little brighter and seem a little bit more special than the rest of the candles.

This is a great little reminder that no matter what our differences are, we are actually all quite similar. It reminds us all that our lives are meant to be shared and enjoyed together.

An author’s note provides a brief overview of each celebration.

Turning Shabbat into a Group Event

Shabbat is a special part of the Jewish religion, similar to the Christian tradition of going to church on Sundays. Historically, Jews were expected to fully make it a day of rest to separate it from the normal work week. This means that no work should be done from sundown on Friday night to sundown on Saturday night. This was challenging back before technology started playing such a large role in our lives, but is even more complicated in today’s day and age. The idea though, is to spend the day with family and friends and in the study of Torah.

Since cooking is work, and therefore something that you are not allowed to do, the traditional food on Shabbat is cholent. Cholent is a mixture of ingredients that can withstand the long cooking time as it needs to be prepared on Friday and left to cook all day Saturday in a oven set on low or on a hotplate turned on before sundown. Typically it is beef, beans, potatoes and vegetables, but can also be made completely vegetarian. chik chak coverChik Chak Shabbat, by Mara Rockliff, takes the idea of cholent and adds in the beautiful aspect of how people of all cultures can come together.

In this story, the residents in an apartment building enjoy the wonderful smell of cholent wafting in from apartment 5A every Saturday. Each apartment represents a different culture, but every Shabbat they all come together to share a meal and each others’ company. Each family has a different idea about what makes the cholent taste so good – based on the foods that they eat in their own homes.

Goldie, the woman in apartment 5A, explains to her friends and neighbors why the cholent is so important to her. She has wonderful memories as a child of making Shabbat a special time, putting aside all of the things that make your week so busy and instead focusing your attention on the people around you. Rather than rushing around in a hurry, “chik chak,” you take things slowly. Something we all could use a weekly dose of.memoriesOne Saturday, the smells of cholent are missing from the apartment because Goldie had been too sick on Friday to start it. All of the other families wanted to make sure that Goldie still got to celebrate Shabbat and quickly made foods from their own cultures to share together representing the parts of her cholent that stood out the most to them. “We had to hurry, bring it right away, chik chak!” they explain to her, “[b]ut here we are together.” final pictureIt wasn’t Goldie’s normal cholent, but with a shining face, she told them all that “it tastes exactly like Shabbat!”

I was so shocked when I found this book in our local library, but it is such a beautiful book that shows how cultures can all share in events together. While we all have our own special traditions, we grow by sharing them together, learning from each other, and realizing that we are not all that different after all. With my love of showing that we are all a big multicultural world that should embrace our similarities and differences, it is no wonder that this book is one of my favorites.

Holiday books and a tradition of reading

As the winter holidays roll around, lots of families have a wide variety of traditions that make this time of year that much more special. Whether it be watching a classic movie, reading certain books, decorating the house, going to a parade, or making some sort of holiday treat in the kitchen, every family’s traditions are what create memories that last a lifetime.

The world of children’s literature has the art of holiday books down to a science. There are classics and new books abounding and many families keep these special stories in storage along with all of their holiday decorations that they pull out and enjoy on a yearly basis. We always like to add a book or two to our collection and books absolutely make great holiday gifts.

I have a monthly column in a local publication where I try to write about children’s literature and have been attempting to also make my piece go along with the monthly theme of the magazine. Of course December was about holiday traditions. This proves a little more challenging since my family’s traditions are so different from the rest of the community around us. But as I started to read some books with my girls, my eyes were really opened on just how similar we all are.

In October, J and I were reading Ray Bradbury’s “The Halloween Tree” for our book club. Early on, the boys in the book arrive at the house with the tree in the yard and find a knocker with the face of Jacob Marley. J didn’t know who Jacob Marley was and it made me realize that she also didn’t know the story of “A Christmas Carol.” I randomly came across an illustrated version of the story in our local library and we read it together one day when she was out of school. As we were reading it, the story made me realize what an absolutely wonderful message it holds and how it is something that every child should experience, regardless of their religion.

christmas carolThere are many versions of Dickens’s classic story in print and on film which tell the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. While on the surface this might be considered a story about Christmas, it is more about the holiday spirit that every person should live with on a daily basis – that family and love are the mightiest gifts of all. Through his visits with the three ghosts, Scrooge learns that living a life with kindness, generosity, and compassion can do more for any of us than focusing on money. There are many adaptions of the story appropriate for various age levels. New this year is a beautiful version by artist Yelena Brykenskova which would make a beautiful keepsake to be enjoyed by families for years to come.

night the lightsAnother newly published book that reminds us to treasure the simple things, but handled in a very comical manner, is Ellis Paul’s “The Night the Lights went out on Christmas.” Highlighting how our society has become so much more commercial and the unconscious desire many have to one-up their neighbors, this story uses the showy light displays that have become so common in recent years to make a point. When one light bulb becomes the final straw in what the power grid could hold, the lights go out on the entire world. In that time, people are actually able to look up and see the stars in the sky and are reminded of the star that guided the three kings so long ago. Inflatable decorations and crazy light shows can be fun, but they are not needed to remind us of the true spirit of the holiday.

trees dancing goatsLest we forget that Christmas is not the only holiday being celebrated at this time of year, a classic by Patricia Polacco reminds us with her consummate ability to produce books with beautiful meanings and compassionate characters. In “The Trees of the Dancing Goats,” a picture book aimed at older elementary school kids, a Jewish family realizes that the majority of their neighbors won’t be able to celebrate Christmas because they are all sick. The family finds that it is hard for them to fully celebrate Hanukkah when their friends are unable to enjoy their own holiday traditions. The solution that the family comes up with is to cut down and decorate Christmas trees with handmade trinkets and to deliver meals made with love. This story celebrates that we all have our own important traditions as well as the miracle of true friendship, something that people of every faith can understand.

simonA final addition that makes a wonderful gift for a young Jewish child but can be enjoyed by everyone is Eric Kimmel’s “Simon and the Bear.” Kimmel’s books are fabulously written and visually stunning. In this story, young Simon leaves his family to make a better life in America. His mother reminds him to celebrate Hanukkah during the voyage for “Who knows? You may need a miracle on your long journey.” Simon finds himself on the Titanic, so he actually needs a number of miracles. But Simon also looks out for others and performs an exceptionally good deed of giving up his space on a life-boat to a man who has family in America that needs him. This story takes the traditional story of the miracle of Hanukkah and changes it up so that young Simon learns that “miracles aren’t just for the Maccabees…They can happen to anyone, anywhere, even in the darkest of times. You just have to believe.”

Whatever your traditions might be, you can most likely find a great book at your local book store to share with a child and create memories. Books are one of the best gifts you can give a child any day of the year.

A Jewish look at Thanksgiving

My third grader came home yesterday talking about a book that her teacher was reading aloud to the class – Molly’s Pilgrim. Since Thanksgiving is two days away, it is good to be taking a look at different perspective when it comes to this holiday. I’m thrilled that her teacher shared this book with their class, especially with all that is currently going on in the world in terms of refugees.

mollys pilgrim coverMolly’s Pilgrim is about a young girl in the early 1900s whose family moved to America from Russia due to religious persecution. After a brief time living in New York City, her family moved to Winter Hill, MA where she finds herself sticking out as the lone Jew in her third grade class. Because she looks different and talks with an accent, she is often the subject of ridicule from her classmates.

As November rolls around, her class begins to read about Thanksgiving. Molly has never heard of the holiday, which of course prompts her classmates to laugh at her foreign ways. The subject came up, however, because her teacher is having them read the story of Thanksgiving, so Molly slowly begins to understand what Thanksgiving is all about.

Rather than focusing on the traditional pumpkins, turkeys and fall symbols often associated with Thanksgiving, her teacher gives the students an assignment to make Pilgrims and Indians for a class display. When Molly gets home and tries to explain the project to her mother, she has to find a way to explain Pilgrims to her as well, since Molly’s mother’s English is quite minimal.

“Pilgrims came to this country from the other side,” I said.
“Like us,” Mama said.
That was true. “They came for religious freedom,” I added. “They came so they could worship God as they pleased.”
Mama’s eyes lit up. She seemed to understand.

The reason that Mama could understand is that the early Pilgrims were just like Molly’s family – they had come to America to escape religious persecution. Mama makes a clothespin doll for Molly, but rather than looking like a traditional Pilgrim, Molly’s doll looks like someone of Russian or Polish descent. When Molly goes to class, this prompts taunts and jeers from her classmates, but Molly explained why her mother did it that way and her teacher agrees that the doll is a Pilgrim, just a modern one.

Molly’s teacher proceeds to explain to the class that the initial Thanksgiving feast was actually based on the Jewish holiday Sukkot that the Pilgrims had read about in the Bible.

Molly’s teacher thinks that her doll is wonderful and displays it on her desk to remind everyone that “Pilgrims are still coming to America.”

I managed to read a copy of this today and thought is was fabulous. I’m always impressed to find bits of Jewish history find their way into the classroom, especially since my daughter is the token Jew in her class (although there are 3 Jewish third graders at her school). It is also incredibly timely given the Syrian refugee issue going on right now across the world. In today’s day and age, the fact that there continues to be religious persecution requiring people to flee their homeland is heart-wrenching.

While the book comments about how the Thanksgiving feast was modeled on Sukkot, we were just discussing in Hebrew school this past weekend about the similarities between Thanksgiving and Passover. This year for Thanksgiving, my family will be following a Thanksgiving seder which will include telling the story of the Pilgrims and why they came to America. I love the idea of making this holiday a bit more meaningful and a reminder of all that we have to be thankful for.

Halloween Chapter Books

Keeping with my Halloween theme, I wanted to explore books that were not picture books, but that enticed young readers to get into the Halloween spirit. Part of this has to do with the fact that the book club that we have for our third graders attempted to pick a book for this month that had to do with Halloween somehow, so it got me thinking.

1-Recently Updated5The reality is, there are not a great number of books that really showcase Halloween for young readers who are past picture books. Part of this, I believe, has to do with the fact that books stop having particular holiday themes and just try to tell a good story. Except for classic ghost stories, which I will touch on, chapter books that do have a Halloween theme tend to be for much younger readers.

halloween treeOur book club picked Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree for this month’s selection. We are still figuring out the best way to encourage our readers to be enticed by a book club and so we incorporate a movie into the meeting. That can get challenging from time to time. A number of the boys in the group have really been enjoying The Halloween Tree, or so I’ve been told, but J and I really struggled to get through it. This is not the kind of book that a third grader can read on their own, even my advanced reader. Bradbury uses incredibly descriptive language and it can be difficult to follow. I will admit that J and I haven’t finished it, but I’m letting her watch the movie on Friday. The story focuses on 8 twelve-year-old boys who wind up on a journey through time and space learning about the history of Halloween as part of an attempt to save their 9th friend from the Grim Reaper. I love the concept of this book, but even I had a hard time following it. (Lexile 800)

For an easier books to digest that still have Halloween flair, some of the better series have books that touch on the Halloween theme. Here are four examples from popular series:

nate the greatNate the Great and the Halloween Hunt (Lexile 370) – It’s Halloween and Nate’s friend has lost her cat. Nate investigates and experiences lots of Halloween fun from cool costumes to an old house that might be haunted. Nate the Great books have been around for over 30 years and feature quirky characters and fun story lines. This is a great option for this time of year.

magic tree house hollowsThe Magic Treehouse – Haunted Castle on All Hallows Eve (Lexile 390) – Jack and Annie are whisked away to Camelot on All Hallows Eve. While this doesn’t deal specifically with Halloween, it is a mystery that has spooky elements of disappearing characters and menacing ravens. The Magic Tree House books are always a hit.

sleepy hollow sleepoverA-Z Mysteries – Sleepy Hollow Sleepover (Lexile 510) – Dink, Josh, and Ruth Rose are spending Halloween in Sleepy Hollow, home of the legendary Headless Horseman. They are going to sleep in an old cabin, take a haunted hayride, and check out the Old Dutch Church. That’s where some people say they’ve spotted the ghostly horseman. But strange things start happening that don’t seem to be part of the planned spooky fun. Is there a real Headless Horseman haunting Sleepy Hollow? These books are a great way to engage readers to look a little more closely at the original Washington Irving story.

trixieRainbow Magic – Trixie the Halloween Fairy (Lexile 700) – I have to admit, I’m a bit shocked by the Lexile of this book. I would have rated it lower, but I guess because this is one of the special editions in the series and it is longer, it got a higher rating. Years ago this was J’s favorite series and she even dressed up as Trixie for Halloween when she was in kindergarten. In this book, it’s Halloween and of course Jack Frost is up to his usual tricks If Rachel and Kirsty can’t find three missing pieces of magical candy, the holiday could be ruined forever! It is a fun way to look at Halloween traditions.

The fun part about Halloween and growing readers is the hope to use the holiday as a way to look at other aspects and times in history.

sleepy graphicAs mentioned, actually reading the Legend of Sleepy Hollow would be a great place to start. There is a graphic novel that was published which looks pretty true to the story and told in an accessible way. But the story is dark and it is aimed at fifth through eighth graders.

what were salem witchAnother interesting take would be to read about the Salem Witch Trials. While we are definitely not ready for The Crucible, I would love it if J were willing to read What Were the Salem Witch Trials? The What Was series is so excellently done that I might even have to buy this book just because I’m fascinated by it.

Hope you have a Happy Halloween!

Halloween Picture Books

Halloween is almost upon us. Costumes are purchased and all of our local schools are gearing up for Fall Fests and Trunk or Treats. J only gets one store-bought costume a year, so she is enjoying making costumes out of things we already have for all of the events that precede Halloween. For Fall Fest she dressed up as a student from Shiz. Shiz is a school from the musical Wicked, and her actual costume is dressing up as Elphaba (aka the Wicked Witch of the West). For her friend’s Trunk or Treat she is dressing up as a rock star and being mighty inventive by covering a pair of black tights and a black shirt with silvery duck tape and topping them with a skirt from her last tap recital.

Of course, schools are also incorporating great books and activities into their curriculums to encourage kids during this exciting, candy-filled, holiday. Since this is a book blog (even though you might have figured we disappeared after a tough few months with no posting), we felt that our readers deserved some Halloween titles. Here are a few picture books that we have enjoyed and we will follow up with some books for older readers.

halloween

room on the broomRoom on the Broom – We could read this book all year round, and we probably do! It is a great tale of friendship that just happens to feature a witch on her broom. When this witch flies through the air, she keeps losing things from her hair ribbon to her wand. Each item is something that she can’t part with and she lands to find it, only to have it found by an animal. Of course, each animal seems to want to join her and asks if there is room on her broom for them. The animals keep adding up until a frog jumps for joy and breaks the broom in two! Unfortunately for the witch, she lands in a witch eating dragon’s bog who wants to make her supper until her new animal friends find a way to save the day. This book makes me smile every time we read it and the section with the dragon lends itself way to some fun voices. A great addition at Halloween time.

wild thingsWhere the Wild Things Are – I never would have classified this one as a Halloween book, but my daughter’s 4 year old preschool class used it this past week to bring in monsters and dress-up. This was a great way to bring in a classic story, create awesome monster masks out of paper bags, and allow the kids to have a rumpus party. Considering that head-coverings and masks had long freaked out my daughter and now she is running around the house roaring at people, I think the project worked perfectly.

frankensteinFrankenstein: A Monstrous Parody – This book is a really fun parody of the classic Madeline. Instead of telling a story of 12 well behaved girls in two straight lines, this story focuses on 12 ugly monsters in two crooked lines, “the ugliest one was Frankenstein.” My 5 year old absolutely adores Madeline, so this is quite the cute concept as a story for Halloween or year round.

eat booksI want to Eat your Books – This brand new book is about a zombie who terrorizes a school by eating all of their books. It is aimed at the 3-6 year old crowd, which is pretty spot on as my 8 year old was bored by it.She is also mad that someone would not like books. The book is very silly, but told in a fun rhyme it allows kids to recognize the words and repeat the refrain, “I want to eat your books!” The hero of the story stops the zombie from eating the books by finding him a book about brains which completely excites him with its pictures and charts. When a mummy who is unwinding enters the library and starts to destroy the books to fix her bandages, the zombie saves the day by using tape from the first aid kit and then reads the mummy a book. Obviously, I’m a big fan of all books book related, so this was a fun twist on monster stories.

need monsterI Need My Monster – This is a truly funny story about having monsters under your bed. Young Ethan has a monster under his bed, but when he goes to look for him one night, he finds a note instead that tells him that his monster, Gabe, has “gone fishing.” While we usually think that little kids don’t want a monster under their bed, Ethan can’t sleep without his beloved monster and tries to get a substitute. He works his way through a few temps, but none of them will work. Finally Gabe comes back because fishing wasn’t nearly as challenging as trying to frighten Ethan. A wonderful romp with great illustrations.

five pumpkinsPete the Cat: Five Little Pumpkins – We have a strong affinity for Pete the Cat in our house. My 5 year old absolutely loves his books, partially because they are often read at her preschool. Last week, she came home and wanted to tell me a five finger tale, but we needed to be in the bathroom to hear it. Turns out it was this story, which she had learned to recite at school, and we needed the bathroom so that she could turn out the lights at a specific point. A great way to practice counting backwards from five and a fun Halloween rhyme.