Category Archives: Jewish

Sukkot – the Fall Harvest Festival

Every fall, Jews around the world come together to celebrate Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, also known as the High Holidays. Five days after Yom Kippur is over, another holiday starts again, this time, it is the wonderful holiday of Sukkot.

Picture Booksabout Sukkot

Sukkot celebrates the fall harvest and the exodus from Egypt. Many families build their own sukkahs  or have one at their synagogue. A sukkah is a temporary hut topped with branches and decorated with autumnal, harvest, or Judaic themes. One mitzvah of sukkot is to share a meal in the sukkah. Another is to shake a lulav and etrog and rejoice before God. The lulav is actually made up of branches from palm (lulav), willow (aravot), and myrtle (hadassim) trees and the etrog is a citron fruit. The four items are meant to represent the various personalities that make up the community of Israel, whose intrinsic unity is emphasized on Sukkot. More than anything, sukkot is a holiday of coming together.

Since Sukkot is a holiday of community, it is a great time to come together and read a book to understand the many meanings of the holiday. Continue reading →

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Picture Books about the Holocaust

At the end of April, Jews across the world will take a special moment to pause and reflect about the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Passover, another Jewish holiday that started Monday night, is also a time where we often focus on commemorating and retelling the tragedy of the Holocaust and the amazing efforts that many Jews took to escape the Nazis and start a new life.

There are many truly amazing books for younger readers about the Holocaust. While a number of them are what you might consider middle grade fiction, and sometimes non-fiction, there are also some picture books that tell the story very well. It is a difficult topic to touch on, so all good books have to tread somewhat lightly and focus on the resilience and perseverance of a nation of people rather than on the tragedy itself. Here are a few of the books we have managed to read.

Picture Booksabout the Holocaust.png Continue reading →

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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Yosef’s Dream – A story about Ethiopian Jews

The Jewish people have a long history of being spread all over the world. Many forget, however, that for many years there was a large contingent of Jews living in Ethiopia. They lived in isolation, not realizing that there were other Jews in the world and often oppressed by their Ethiopian “hosts.”

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In Yosef’s Dream, (Sept 1st by Apples and Honey Press)  by Sylvia Rouss with assistance from Ambassador Asher Naim, the stories of “Operation Solomon” and the biblical tale of Joseph and his dreams are combined to remind us all in the power of believing.

Those with hope in God will renew their strength,
they will soar aloft as with eagle’s wings (Isaiah 40:31)

This story starts in Israel, but quickly cuts back to Yosef’s memories of his time in Ethiopia. He loved his homeland with it’s “tall mountains, flowing rivers and wide plains,” but even though his people had lived their for thousands of years, they were “still seen as strangers, for we were Jewish…and different.”

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Yosef goes through his morning and readers can get a sense of what his daily life is like in Ethiopia. His sister bakes injera bread (so delicious if you’ve never tried it!) and also weaves the baskets and makes the pottery that their family sells at the market. They rely on the land for farming and water and Yosef carries food to his father and brother working in the fields.yosef 2

One day, Yosef accidentally falls into a deep hole and cannot climb out. In a folkloric turn, Gazelle comes to him in a dream, encourages him to hold onto her horns, be pulled out, and travel to see far-off places. Hyena interrupts and says that together they will “hide in the shadows and feed off of the scrapes of others.” Suddenly, a giant Eagle sweeps in and tells Yosef to pull himself out. “You can do it if you try. Catch hold of my wings and we will fly to your new home far, far away.” Suddenly, his brother has found him, but Yosef still manages to climb out of the hole himself.yosef 3

Yosef runs to school where he had been told a special visitor would be coming that day. It is Ambassador Asher Naim from Israel. He has come to over them all a home, to a return to the Promised Land. An older boy says that legends tell them one day they will return to Israel on the wings of eagles and Yosef says, “Just like my dream!” This time everyone listens to him and they are reminded of Joseph, the young Hebrew boy who saw the future in his dreams.yosef 4

There are fears that the Ethiopian government will never let them go. Yosef’s family also fears their ability to go as his mother is very pregnant. But over the next weeks, the villagers prepare for the big trip in hopes that it will happen soon. When the word comes that Ethiopia will allow them to leave, it is much like Pharoah allowing the Jews to leave Egypt, “it must be TODAY!”yosef 5

Thirteen years later, the family is in Israel celebrating his younger brother Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah. Jacob mentions Yosef’s dream in his speech – “Yosef’s dream was about making a choice. If we had gone with Gazelle, my family could have traveled to other countries, never settling anywhere. Had we stayed with Hyena, we would still be living as outcasts in Ethiopia. But we chose to fly with Eagle, and after nearly 3000 years of exile we have returned to Israel, our true home.”

I found this book incredibly powerful. There are very few stories that talk about Ethiopian Jews who lived in the diaspora. We don’t think about them as much as a part of the larger Jewish history or general world history. So while this book isn’t technically a non-fiction picture book, I believe that it has an important place in the classroom and home to tell a story that needs to be told. The story is told in an incredibly accessible way and Tamar Blumenfeld’s illustrations hold the whole thing together.

The Jews in Ethiopia were often oppressed by their Ethiopian hosts, called “falashas,” which means strangers, and were blamed for droughts, famines, and illness. Operation Solomon. The Author’s Note at the end tells about the work that Ambassador Naim did in 1991 to fly nearly 14,000 Jews out of Ethiopia and to Israel within a 36 hour period. During the fights, seven children were born, just like Yosef’s brother Jacob.

nfpb16So, as I mentioned, while not technically a non-fiction title, I am including it in the link-up of non-fiction picture books hosted each week by Kid Lit Frenzy. Check out the other books reviewed by the marvelous book blogging community!

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher while at a conference, but all opinions are completely my own. The book will be released September 1st by Apples and Honey Press.

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.

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.

Passover Books for Older Kids

passover older-001

As you saw with my last post, I have a deep love for all things Passover and so we have a wealth of materials in our house. It is not only my favorite holiday, but my older daughter’s as well. With that said, we of course wanted to present books that are more appropriate for older kids, especially those still in elementary school.

toby belferFor a perfect explanation of the Passover seder, look no further. Toby Belfer’s Seder by Gloria Pushker was written as a Passover primer for everyone. As the opening page explains, “The idea for this story was suggested by non-Jewish friends who wanted to know the meaning of Passover.” With that in mind, it is the story of two best friends who happen to be different religions. Toby invites Donna to her family’s seder but Donna isn’t quite sure what she should wear and what she is supposed to do. Throughout the lovely story, items of Passover are explained, with key terms in bold. The basic story of Passover is also included as well as transliterations of key blessings. This is an awesome book for Jewish and non-Jewish children.

penny

While the main concept of Penny and the Four Questions by Nancy Krulick is the questions and the fact that the youngest child at the table gets to read them, it is also a lesson in friendship and understanding. Penny is super excited to get to read the four questions for the first time. When her mother tells her that a new family from Russia will be at their seder and that their daughter is actually younger and has been practicing the questions, Penny is crushed. She mopes around until she actually gets to meet Natasha. As the girls get to know each other, Penny realizes how difficult life had been for them in Russia, what fleeing meant, and generally how much easier she has had it. This is Natasha’s first seder because they were not allowed to celebrate in Russia. Penny realizes that tonight is more special for Natasha and that she should in fact get to ask the questions.

We love this book partially because of my older daughter’s obsession with asking the four questions, but also because it is a lesson in humility. In the end, the girls wind up asking the questions together – supporting each other as best friends do.

miriam's cupMiriam’s Cup, by Fran Manushkin, tells an important part of the Passover story that is often left out of seders. We all know of the prophet Elijah. In this book, young Miriam’s mother decides to tell her daughter the story of the “other” passover prophet – Miriam. Miriam was Moses’s sister who had tremendous amounts of faith and courage. She knew of the coming of Moses, watched over him in the bulrushes, and made it possible for their mother, Joheved, to be his nursemaid. Miriam praised God with her song, specifically when they crossed the red sea, and He remembered her by creating a well of water that traveled with the Jews through the 40 years in the dessert. We should all remember and honor Miriam. I feel that this book is especially important in homes with strong Jewish women.

passover parrotThe Passover Parrot is a very silly story by Evelyn Zusman that tells the importance of the four questions and the hunt for the afikomen. Right before Passover Leba is given a parrot. When she needs to practice the four questions, the parrot is the only one that will listen to her and, of course, he started to squawk the questions too. At the seder the children steal the afikomen from their father so the can ransom it to him later. Leba hides it in her room. She winds up having to also bring the parrot upstairs when he wants to ask the four questions with her. When they go to get the afikomen, both it and the bird are gone! The parrot is on a tree branch outside and Leba realizes that the easiest way to get the afikomen back is by singing the questions – Hametz the parrot just can’t resist singing along. This is a sweet story that also ties in the holiday.

mrs katzThis is not a Passover book, per se, but there is a section that does touch on the holiday in a truly beautiful way. In Mrs. Katz and Tush by Patricia Polacco, young Larnel asks if he can join Mrs. Katz for Passover so she teaches him about the holiday. She explains that the Jews, like African Americans, were once slaves as well. The Jews prayed to God for freedom. Then she says that we have a large feast to celebrate our freedom, but we also take note to remember those who suffered so that we could be free – the Jews that came before and the Egyptians that suffered from the plagues. This book is a beautiful read all year long, but I loved what it had to say about Passover. For the complete review, click here.

matzah and miraclesNo list of Passover books for slightly older kids would be complete without including Matzah & Miracles: A Passover Musical, by January M. Akselrad. We got this about 2 years ago and at the time, I promise you that we listened to it NONSTOP! So, when you buy this it comes with a chapter book and a CD. I am sure that J read the story, but more than that, we listened to it. The story is about two kids who think Passover is boring – they want magic and miracles to keep them entertained. Their Bubbe (grandmother) starts spinning the story of Passover such that they go back in time and become key characters in the story. Pharaoh is as evil as ever singing of his evil decree that “ever first born male child must be thrown into the sea.” We learned more about Miriam and Joheved in this story than anything that had come before and the kids are encouraged to think what it would be like if they had been in Moses or Miriam’s positions. It is an awesome way to bring the story to life.

escapeOne final book that I couldn’t leave out is Scarlett and Sam Escape from Egypt by Eric A. Kimmel. This was released in January of 2015 and we only got our copy yesterday. That said, we have always been highly impressed with Kimmel’s work and the premise sounds fabulous (although a little similar to Matzah and Miracles)

From Amazon – One minute, twins Scarlett and Sam are bickering about who’s going to read the Four Questions at the Passover seder. The next minute, they’ve been swept up by Grandma Mina’s time-traveling carpet and dumped in the ancient Egyptian desert! And as if being stranded 3,000 years in the past isn’t bad enough, they also find their fellow Hebrews suffering in slavery. So they team up with Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to help free the slaves. The future’s looking bright! But the story they know so well doesn’t turn out the way they expected…

This last one will come with us on the airplane to California. Chag Sameach!

Passover Books for Preschoolers

passover preschool-001Hello spring! Aside from the outrageous allergies, spring is definitely one of my favorite times of the year. It is wonderful to see the trees start to flower and life come out of hibernation. Spring is also the time of year that we celebrate Passover – the Jewish holiday that celebrates the exodus out of Egypt and out of slavery. Passover has long been my favorite holiday and I am happy to say that it is also my older daughter’s favorite. In terms of the Jewish religion, Passover is understandably one of the more important holidays, so there is a veritable wealth of books available for children of various levels. We actually have so many that I decided to write two posts about them based on appropriate age levels.

seder time coverKar-Ben Publishing has a marvelous series for preschoolers by Latifa Berry Kropf that I call the “It’s Time” series.  These books illustrate various holidays as celebrated by kids in a Jewish preschool. For Passover, they have “It’s Seder Time!”which does a great job of easily explaining how we get ready for Passover, some basic parts of the seder and a quick telling of the Passover story. By using preschoolers, kids can see themselves celebrating this important holiday. This is a fabulous book for a preschool classroom.seder time inside

GehlSheepAnother wonderful book that we recently got our hands on is And Then Another Sheep Turned Up, by Laura Gehl. This comical story takes us from Passover house preparations through the seder to the traditional saying of “next year in Jerusalem.” What keeps kids so engaged is the repetitive action that just when they think that everyone is seated, another sheep turns up! Just like the Sammy Spider books, I had my daughter say this line each time we got to it. She also found it funny as young Noah’s yawns grew larger and larger as the seder progressed. This is one that we have definitely enjoyed. To read an interview with author Laura Gehl, click here.

sweet passover coverWe were shocked to find this little gem at our Scholastic book fair this year. A Sweet Passover, by Leslea Newman focuses on a little girl named Miriam who loves celebrating Passover at her grandparents’ house, loves singing the four questions and searching for the afikomen (just like my little girls). Miriam also loves eating matzah and she describes her favorite ways to enjoy it. But on the 8th day of Passover, Miriam has had enough. She is SICK of matzah and she just wants BREAD! When her grandfather refuses to come down for breakfast, he tells her that he is making French Toast, but he is actually making matzah brei. Miriam refuses to eat it. The whole family joins at the breakfast table and everyone enjoys the matzah brei with different toppings, but still “Miriam is never eating matzah again.” Her parents are shocked. They explain to her that matzah reminds us of when our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, we see that “even the plainest food eaten in freedom tastes sweeter than the fanciest food eaten in slavery.” Her family tells her all of the many reasons that we eat matzah and, as if that weren’t enough, “your grandfather makes the best matzah brei in the world.” She finally agrees and grandpa teaches her the art of making it herself. The book even closes with a recipe. A very fun book about what happens AFTER the seder is over.

mouse old coverThe Mouse in the Matzah Factory, by Francine Medoff was given to us by a family friend from her days of teaching in a Jewish preschool. This book describes the preparation for the shmurah matzah eaten by the especially observant Jews. Shmurah matzah is watched over from the time of planting through production, but it is a great teaching tool about how matzah is made in general. The story follows a little field mouse who watched the watchers. He was curious as to why the wheat was so special, so he followed it. He saw it ground into flour and packed into trucks. Then he hops on the truck with it and arrives in the city at the matzah factory where he sees the real magic happen in under 18 minutes each time. A marvelous way to show how matzah is made especially if followed up by a hands on experiment.

The-Little-Red-HenWe are all familiar with the story of the Little Red Hen who finds a grain of wheat and asks the other animals to help plant, harvest, thresh, mill and bake it into bread. In The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah, by Leslie Kimmelman,  rather than finding a grain of wheat, the hen is making special preparations for matzah for her seder dinner. Her friends get rude in always saying no, but she goes on and gets the matzah ready herself. When Passover arrives, her animal friends are at her door ready to celebrate. She gets quite upset, scolds them and asks why she should share her seder meal with them, but she remembers the words in the Haggadah – “let all who are hungry come and eat.” Her table had seemed oddly empty without her friends, but now it can be a true celebration. Of course, she did make them all clean up the dishes.

let my people go

Let My People Go! by Tilda Balsley is a great retelling of the 10 plagues, a part of the Passover story that is vitally important and yet often confusing to young children. This takes us into the part of the story where Moses repeatedly asks Pharaoh to let the Jews leave Egypt. Then with marvelous illustrations, the children can actually see what each of those plagues meant to the Egyptians. Even when the people of Egypt begged the Pharaoh to end the plagues and let the Jews go, he said no. Not until the 10th and worst plague were the Jews finally set free, we might even use portions of it in our seder this year.let my people go frogs

P is for passover coverP is for Passover – A simple, poetic journey through Passover from afikomen to zzzz – the sleepy sounds that kids make at the end of a long seder. Alphabet books are always a wonderful addition to any library.

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However you celebrate the spring holidays, if you are looking for a way to educate a preschooler on Passover, these books should definitely be on your list.

Author Interview – Laura Gehl

One of the wonderful things about having this blog and following the numerous other awesome book bloggers out there is discovering new authors and great books. In addition, as my older daughter grows in her writing abilities, it is fascinating to learn more about the writing process.

For anyone who follows this blog, you can tell that I have often written about Jewish books. They are very important to helping my children understand aspects of our religion and I find them especially important as we do not live in a large Jewish community. That said, finding new and exciting books that focus on our culture is incredibly exiting.

After writing this year’s Hanukkah post, I was thrilled to get an email from author Laura Gehl letting me know about two of her newest books – Tortoise and Hare Race Across Israel and And Then Another Sheep Showed Up. She was kind enough to send me copies of these great books and we thought that it would be fun to also talk about her writing process.

laura gehl

How long have you been writing for kids and what is your favorite part?

I started writing my first children’s book about ten years ago, around the time I began writing for children’s magazines. But that first book, ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR, wasn’t actually published until last fall. I remember scribbling verses in the middle of the night while nursing my then-infant son. Now he is about to graduate from elementary school.

I have a lot of favorite parts about writing for kids. One of the best parts is when I read to a big group of kids and they all start laughing. At one recent school visit, a boy called out “Hey! This is a really funny book!” after just a few pages. Which, of course, made all the rest of the kids laugh even harder.

You’ve chosen animals as all of your characters, why?

There is a movement within the children’s book industry to make sure all kids can “see themselves” in books. This means, among other things, making sure books are produced with characters of all races. I agree 100% with the idea that every child should be able to see herself or himself in a book. And that’s why I love animal characters. My animal characters don’t have any specific race, so kids of every race can identify with those characters.

What are you currently working on?

I’m always working on lots of projects at once. Right now these include a middle grade novel about a seventh grade science genius (no animals in that one), a picture book series with a wacky duck main character, and a few humorous nonfiction science books.

How did you come up with the ideas for your books?

Sometimes a title just pops into my head and the story follows. That happened with both AND THEN ANOTHER SHEEP TURNED UP and ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR. As soon as the words “And then another sheep turned up” entered my brain, I knew I had the beginning of a great Passover book. Many Jewish families can identify with trying to squeeze in an extra chair or two at the seder table. Not to mention needing to pull out a beach chair from the garage when the regular chairs run out!

The idea for HARE AND TORTOISE RACE ACROSS ISRAEL came from my second son’s preschool class. They were reading HARE AND TORTOISE RACE TO THE MOON, and that story was still in the back of my mind when I started thinking about writing an Israel book.

How long does it typically take between coming up with the idea and publishing it?

I think three years might be about average for a picture book, at least for a professional author who has published other books in the past. That time estimate includes one year for writing and selling the book and two years for the publication process. For an author’s first book, the writing and selling part of the process often takes a lot longer, though.

For a review of Hare and Tortoise Race Across Israel, check out this post.

Bio: Laura Gehl is the author of One Big Pair of Underwear, a Charlotte Zolotow Highly Commended Title; Hare and Tortoise Race Across Israel; And Then Another Sheep Turned Up; and the Peep and Egg series (hatching spring 2016). Laura also writes about science for kids and adults. She lives in Maryland with her husband and four children. Visit Laura online at www.lauragehl.com and www.facebook.com/AuthorLauraGehl.