There are not a lot of books that we come across that talk about Buddhism. I was instantly intrigued by The Sweeper, a new book written and illustrated by Rebecca Hazel, that illustrates the importance of mindfulness.
Inspired by Buddhist tradition, this original story tells how Padme, a young servant girl, meets the Buddha as she is sweeping her master’s house. When she laments that she is so busy that she would never have time to meditate, the Buddha gives her the instruction to “sweep and clean.” This simple mindfulness practice transforms Padme’s life, and when she encounters the Buddha many years later, he teaches her how to send compassion out to others. Continue reading →
At the beginning of summer one of our local libraries held an event where the children saw books about fairy and gnome houses and then were able to make them themselves. It was a marvelous activity that really got their creative juices flowing. The houses were made with all natural items and intended to be left in the green areas behind the library. My daughter teamed up with a friend and they came up with a wonderful little house hidden under a miniature weeping willow-like tree.
Of course seeing them do this project, especially sponsored by the library, got the wheels spinning about all of the cool books out there that talk about fairies and encourage kids to use their creativity while still living in a world where fairies really do exist.
An ideal place to start learning about building a fairy house is in Tracy Kane’s book, Fairy Houses. This sweet story is about a little girl who spends the summer building fairy houses in Maine in the hopes of catching a glimpse of a fairy. The only rule in the woods where she is building is to not use artificial or living materials, much like the rules when we were building. As the little girl builds and adds to her house, you see how all of the animals are lured to it. The fairies leave her a note about how special her house is for that very reason. The back of the book gives ideas about what to use every season to make a fairy house.
In true Pinkalicious style, the “I Can Read” series offering of Pinkalicious Fairy House shows the magic of fairies seen through the eyes of a true believer but is shorter and easier for a younger reader to follow than Fairy Houses. In this book, Pinkalicious believes that fairies come into her yard and sprinkle fairy dust to make the plants grow. She longs to see the fairies so she and her brother build them a house. While she never actually sees fairies, as a true believer, she catches glimmers of light in the morning sky and believes they are fairies. A great encouragement for younger girls to build their own fairy houses.
I don’t normally review craft books, but since I’m talking about the idea of making fairy houses, this seemed appropriate. Fairy World Crafts, by Kathy Ross, is a great book that is absolutely do-able (said the very not crafty person). Staying with the theme of fairy houses, this book shows step-by-step instructions on things like toadstools, snail friends, fairy log houses, and a leaf table and bed.
The Hidden Folk, by Lise Lunge-Larsen, is a wonderful collection of stories about fairies, dwarves, gnomes, selkies, river sprites, and other hidden beings. As Lunge-Larsen explains, “for as long as there have been people, there have been stories about beings whose presence we feel but cannot see.” An excellent addition to books about fairies and other magical beings with an international point of view.
Most of the time we think of fairies as sweet little sprites. But many cultures tell stories of fairies who are not so sweet and instead are rather quite mischievous. Heather Forest retells an old Scottish story in The Woman who Flummoxed the Fairies that my 6 year old absolutely adores. In this story, the fairies come out at night and dance on dinner tables and feast on the crumbs people leave behind. But the fairies are never given a chance to taste the crumbs from the bakerwoman’s cakes because they are always eaten down to the last bite. The king hatches a plan to trap the bakerwoman in the fairy world, but she has a few tricks up her own sleeve. A fun story that kids love.
Too Many Fairies, by Margaret Read Macdonald, also looks at the idea that fairies might look sweet and innocent, but are not always so in real life. An old woman hates cleaning her house, but when fairies come to help her, she gets more than she bargained for. A great story showing the other side of fairies as well as highlighting that it is better to look on the bright side than to constantly complain.
Finally, for a true story about fairies, check out Shirley Raye Redmond’s Fairies! A True Story. This book tells about how different cultures all have different stories about fairies and how they each do different things. Over time, many people have told stories about actually seeing fairies, but most of these have been pranks. The second half of the book deals with the most famous fairy prank. In England in 1917, two cousins took pictures of themselves with cutout paper fairies. By moving the fairies while they were taking the pictures, it looked like they were real. This is a very interesting look at a make-believe subject and how it has permeated our history for so long. (Apparently this was also made into a movie in 1997)
My daughter and her friend had an absolute blast with the craft at the library. Here are some photos of them getting down to business, their finished product and one of the other houses made that day.
Folktales are such a wonderful part of children’s literature. There are so many tales that have been passed down through the generations and we have learned so many valuable lessons from them. One of the things that I find especially fascinating is reading folktales from a wide variety of cultures to see how similar situations are handled differently and how each culture tries to educate its children on how they are supposed to behave. The list could go on and on, but here are ten that we have recently read that are completely non-traditional for mainstream western world and quite wonderful.
My younger daughter’s current favorite book is the Usborne Illustrated Stories of Princes and Princesses. We are big fans of the Illuustrated Stories series in general because of their gorgeous illustrations and ability to take well known stories and bring them to younger audiences at an age appropriate level (Shakespeare for an 8 year old!). What sets this particular book apart is the fact that it brings forth many lesser known fairy tales from a variety of cultures and it is a book focusing on princesses, but without that common thread of princess needs saving from prince.
E found this book in our catalog and started begging for it, so of course I bought it, since I’m a sucker for that desire. We were quickly surprised by the content of the stories. Many are well known tales like Cinderella, The Princess and the Pea, Sleeping Beauty, and the Frog Prince. But then there are stories that have never made their way into my fairy tale loving family – The Princess and the Glass Hill, Princess Nobody, and the Seven Ravens, for example. Each story is beautifully told with illustrations and an easy to read font. Continue reading →
We learn many things from folk stories and fairy tales. Once passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth and then in written form, they are becoming less of a staple in the stories that are read to children. An important message that flows through many old tales is that good things come in small packages and that riches are often found in items not worth a lot of money.
Take the traditional story of Beauty and the Beast. In it, Beauty’s father sets off for a trade ship to see if there is anything that he can sell and asks his children what gift they would like him to bring back for them. Of his three daughters, the first two ask for clothing, jewels, and the finest dresses possible while his youngest asks for a rose. The father unfortunately picks a rose in the Beast’s garden after being graciously hosted the previous night and seals Beauty’s fate, but we know how the story resolves in the end.
In Priceless Gifts, by Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss, we are swept into the time of the old spice trade, where merchants traveled to distant islands to get precious spices in exchange for other goods. They would trade fine items for things that we take for granted, such as cinnamon or nutmeg.
On one of Antonio’s journeys to the spice islands, he is invited to the King’s Palace for dinner. Antonio is confused when he see servants holding sticks ready to strike and discovered that they were there because the palace was infested with rats who come out of hiding the moment that food is served. In order for people to eat in peace, there needed to be guards ready to beat off the rats. Antonio gives the king two cats from his ship to deal with the problem. He wants nothing in return, but the King is so grateful that he gives him a chest of jewels.
Another Italian merchant hears of Antonio’s experience and gathers up fine items of his own in hopes of getting his own supply of jewels from the King. The King of the island is stunned by the treasures that Luigi brings. Luigi is certain that he will be given a chest of jewels at least 20 times as large as Antonio’s. After a long discussion with his advisors over what they should give Luigi in return, the King gifts him with something truly priceless – a kitten from a litter born from Antonio’s cats. Luigi returns to Italy with the kitten. He didn’t return a rich man, but “he was certainly a wiser one.”
This is a wonderful example of how every person values things differently and that simple items that make your life a little easier and better can bring more joy than riches.
“There is a unique kind of magic that comes from hearing a story told. With only the power of a voice, an entire world can be created. Suddenly, the audience becomes the hero, the villain, or the magic djinn commanding the desert sand storm.”
So says Evan Turk in the author’s note to his book The Storyteller. Apparently, it is also an old Moroccan saying that “when a storyteller dies, a library burns.” I thought that sharing this book on Read Across America day was especially important.
There is power in telling a story, especially to an audience. While we now have easy access to books, television, movies and so on, we have historically learned from tales passed down orally from generation to generation. Stories teach us the ways of our cultures and feed our souls. Evan Turk shows that feeling in a literal way through this vivid tale.
Long ago, the kingdom of Morocco was formed on the edge of the great, dry Sahara. It had fountains of water to quench the thirst of the desert and storytellers to bring the people together. But just like everywhere else, modernity came and people soon forgot their storytellers and the land soon became parched.
As a young boy walks home, searching for water, he is given a brass cups from a water seller in the hopes that he might just be lucky enough to find something. What he finds is an old storyteller who calls out to him, assuring him that his thirst will be quenched if he listens to a story. The storyteller spins a tale of the terrible drought and how one family always had enough water to share. The young boy is enthralled, and by the time the old man has finished speaking, the boy’s cup is miraculously filled with cool water.
Through the power of a magical brass cup and the voice of a storyteller, a young boy once again learned the history of his people and slowly brought water back for his own parched thirst. What he didn’t realize was that not only was he physically thirsty for water, he was spiritually thirsty as well.
At the same time that the storyteller is weaving the story for the young boy, a sandstorm is forming. Just as the boy is quenching his thirst with the power of the story, the sandstorm comes to destroy the city in the form of a djinn. He has the power to destroy the city because the fountains have run dry and the fountains have run dry because the people have stopped listening to the storytellers. The boy, realizing the power that the story holds, tricks the djinn into listening to a story before destroying the land. It takes him multiple days to tell the story, but through the power of his tale and the fact that he is telling it in front of an ever expanding audience, the boy refills the city’s fountains and quenches the physical and metaphysical thirsts making the djinn powerless.
As the author notes, “Morocco, like countries all over the world, including the United States, is at a crossroads where the future threatens to eclipse what is beautiful about the past.” Evan Turk gave us a beautiful reminder to keep the past alive through the power of a good story.
The Storyteller was a beautiful book with haunting illustrations. You can also get a sense of it from the following trailer. May we continue to shine a light on the power of the story.
“Long ago, everything from the changing of the seasons to the passage of the Sun through the sky was an unsolved mystery. So people came up with stories to explain how things came to be. These stories – known as myths or fables – varied from place to place, but all had a shared thread running through them: they set out to explain the inexplicable, to offer a version of the world that made some sense.”
So begins the book the Usborne Illustrated Fables from Around the World. This beautiful book offers 18 wonderful myths and fables from around the world that at one point helped people try to understand the world around them. Continue reading →
Over the years, many have told the story of Stone Soup in which hungry strangers trick a town into feeding them by making soup from a stone. As with many folk tales, the story changes with each retelling, but the backbone stays the same. A hungry stranger, or two, enters a town. When the locals refuse to help him he proceeds to make some form of stone soup. The natives are curious about how you could possibly do this and set about watching him. They are then wisely tricked into providing the actual sustenance and the town shares a meal together. It is a tale in which people are initially unwilling to help a stranger, but in the end, realize that kindness and sharing make everything better.
A very fun version of the story is Fandango Stew, by David Davis. In this telling, Luis and his grandfather are dead broke, but as they ride into the town of Skinflint, they have a plant to make Fandango stew for the town, with one tiny bean. They slowly get people to offer up ingredients, playing on the fact that the folks of Skinflint don’t want to be out done by any of the other town that Luis and his abuelo have been to. The town comes together, as all do, and make a fine fandango stew. When the sherriff asks where he can find a fandango bean, they explain that they are just simple pinto beans – “Any bean makes a fine fandango stew. Just add generosity and kindness.”
In a very similar style, Eric A. Kimmel brings forth his version in Cactus Soup. Per his author’s note, Kimmel sets his version in the time of the Mexican Revolution, somewhere between 1910 and 1922. When a group of hungry soldiers ride into San Miguel, the townspeople don’t want to share their food. They hide their tortillas, tamales, beans, and flour and put on torn clothes to look poor. But the Capitán is not fooled. He asks for a cactus thorn to make some cactus soup, and before long he has tricked the townspeople into giving him salt and chilies, vegetables, and a chicken as well! He goes a step further and tells the town that cactus soup always tastes better if you have something to go with it, and soon a full fiesta is thrown with tamales, chorizo, camotes, and several fat roasting pigs.
Linda Glaser takes us to the village of Chelm, known in Jewish folklore as a village of fools, in Stone Soup with Matzoh Balls. When a poor stranger arrives as Passover is about to start, even though it is a part of the Passover tradition to welcome the stranger, the village encourages him to go elsewhere. No food? No worries. He will make the most delicious matzoh ball soup from a stone. He of course tricks them into bringing the specific ingredients, but Yenta is unconvinced because there are still no matzoh balls. Oh yes! “That stone of mine makes the best matzoh balls in the world – so big and heavy they’ll sit in your belly like rocks all 8 days of Passover.” Very few people like heavy matzoh balls and most claim theirs are the lightest and fluffiest. The women of Chelm step up and say they make the best matzoh balls ever and make hundreds to add to the soup. The town must hold their seder in the synagogue for it is the only place in town that will hold everyone, and that Passover, everyone in Chelm had a fully belly and a full heart.
Jon J. Muth retells the story with three monks who are contemplating what makes one truly happy as they come upon a village that had been through many hard times. The villagers had become distrustful of strangers and even of other villagers. When the monks entered the village, all inhabitants pretended not to be there. “These people do not know happiness, but today we will show them how to make stone soup.”As with all stone soup stories, the monks trick the villagers into adding extras. “Something magical begins to happen among the villagers. As each person opened their heart to give, the next person gave even more and as this happened the soup grew richer and smelled more delicious.” The town was able to enjoy a wonderful feast together, and as the monks got ready to leave, the villagers thanked them for making them realize that “sharing makes us all richer.”
Heather Forest takes the stinginess to a different level in her rendition of Stone Soup. Two hungry travelers arrive at a village expecting to find a household that will share a bit of food, as has been the custom along their journey. They come to the first door and kindly ask the woman, “Please, we are hungry. Do you care? will you share? do you have any food?” To their surprise, villager after villager refuses to share, each one closing the door with a bang. As they sit to rest beside a well, one of the travelers observes that if the townspeople have no food to share, they must be “in greater need than we are.” With that, the travelers demonstrate their special recipe for a magical soup, using a stone as a starter. They explain that the soup would be better with a carrot or onion, but knew that they had asked before and everyone had nothing to share with them. However, before long, everyone in the town had been able to give just a little and it soon became a lot. The town was amazed that the travelers had made such a delicious soup out of a stone. But it was not just a stone, it was “out of a stone and a magical ingredient…sharing.”
In Bone Button Borscht, by Aubrey Davis, a hungry beggar comes to a poor town on a cold and snowy evening. No door is opened to him until he sees a light and enters the synagogue. The caretaker, the shamas, does not answer his greeting so the beggar takes the five buttons off his coat and asks for one more in order to make Bone Button Borscht. Bowls, cups, ladles, and a pot wouldn’t hurt either, he explains. As the shamas goes from door to door seeking the ingredients, the incredulous townspeople gather round and provide the food that will make the soup just a little more tasty. Such a miracle. Such a joyous feast. They don’t need a single button to make a soup. In times of scarcity, they need each other. And that, writes Davis, is “.. the real miracle the beggar left behind.”
No matter which version you choose, this is a timeless story that encourages children to think of the bigger society instead of just themselves. Soup, and food in general, always tastes better when it is shared with others. Now I’m off to make some more soup here before the snow hits.
The story of Cinderella, at its heart, is the story of kindness overcoming vanity and cruelty. There are many ways to tell this story, but the message always comes back to the fact that the Cinderella character takes care of those around her, big and small, while her cruel step-sisters only think of themselves and expect everything to be handed to them without having to lift a finger.
Three years ago, I wrote about various versions of Cinderella told from around the world. It was really eye opening to see how so many different cultures have looked at the classic fairy tale over the years. When we were at our local library recently, they had a display about fairy tales and mentioned a few other versions of Cinderella so my mind started churning again. The story always stays within certain parameters, but it is the people and animals who surround Cinderella that always change. I was pleasantly surprised when I found additional versions to add to my original list.
In Smoky Mountain Rose: An Appalachian Cinderella, by Alan Schroeder, we get the classic story, but Cinderella’s name is Rose. Rose’s father marries “the crossest, fearsomest woman that side o’Tarbelly Creek,” and when she makes Rose do all of her chores, her father figured it was best to just stay out of it. Rose’s life only got worse when her father died. Rather than a prince throwing a ball, it’s just a rich young man trying to find a wife, but Rose’s sisters don’t let her go to the party. Fortunately, one of the pigs on the farm knows some magic and sends her off. Her step-sisters recognize her, a nice twist on the original, but can’t do anything about it as Seb, the rich gent, immediately takes a shine to her. Her step-mother plans to whip Rose first thing in the morning, but Seb arrived before she could. Of course the shoe fits Rose and she forgives her step-sisters for all of the sorrow they had caused her and she and Seb live happily ever after.
CinderEdna is a fun twist on the story with Cinderella and CinderEdna living next door to each other. Both are forced to do chores, but CinderEdna finds way to bring joy to her life and to avoid sitting in the cinders. To keep warm, Edna kept herself busy and earned extra money working for other families. Another key difference is that while Cinderella is beautiful under her rags, Edna isn’t much to look at, but she is strong, spunky, and knows some good jokes. Rather than rely on a fairy godmother to get her to the ball, Edna takes the bus. When she meets the prince, she finds him a bore and instead falls head over heels for his younger brother who runs a recycling plant and a home for orphaned kittens. The prince and his younger brother, Rupert, fall for the two girls and go searching for them after they each run off. Rupert can’t see Edna because his glasses were smashed, but he knows it is her when she can recite 15 different recipes for tuna casserole and tells him a joke about a kangaroo from Kalamazoo. The two couples wed in a joint ceremony, BUT, Cinderella finds herself bored with endless ceremonies and speeches while Edna and Rupert enjoy their life making the world a better place and caring for cats.
I will admit that I was shocked to find a Jewish retelling of the Cinderella story, but Raisel’s Riddle, by Erica Silverman, is just that. Raisel is a girl being raised by her grandfather, a town scholar, and she has studied alongside him, something highly unusual in the old setting where this story takes place. When he dies, she must find a way to survive and winds up finding work in a faraway village as the helper to a rabbi’s cook, a jealous and harsh woman who could rival any evil stepmother. Raisel wishes to go to the Purim play but has no costume and has chores that must be done. On the night of the play she feeds an old woman who gives her three wishes for her kindness, thereby allowing Raisel to go the play. The Rabbi’s son is quickly taken by her, but when he tells her of her beauty, she responds with words from the Talmud that it is just a costume. When he tries to figure out who she is, she diverts him with a riddle. Before he can answer, the clock begins to toll midnight and she rushes off. The next day, rather than searching for the girl who can fit a glass slipper, the Rabbi and his son search for the educated girl with the good riddle. He finds Raisel and they live happily ever after.
In finding Raisel, I was thrilled to also find the beautiful version The Golden Sandal: A Middle Eastern Cinderella, by Rebecca Hickox. The Golden Sandal is a retelling of an Iraqi folktale “The Little Red Fish and the Clog of Gold,” which has every aspect of the traditionally Cinderella story, but with cultural traditions of Iraq where marriages are often arranged. In this version, young Maha’s father is a fisherman and after his wife dies he remarries a woman who is jealous of his love for Maha. When Maha is carrying a basket of fish back from the river, a small red one starts to talk to her and begs her to spare his life. She does and he responds, “Allah says a kindness never goes unrewarded. Call for me anytime and ask what you will.” Years pass and Maha grows sweeter by the day while her wicked step-sister has a face marked by her ugly nature. When the daughter of a wealthy merchant is to be married, there was great excitement “for it was at the women’s celebration that they were seen by the mothers of young men. Whom would they choose to be brides for their sons?” Maha asks the fish to help her go to the henna party and her wish is granted, but she must leave before her step-mother does. As she rushes out she loses one of her golden slippers in the water. When Tariq, the brother of the bride, finds her shoe he decides that she who can fit it is the one he wants to marry. The step-mother of course tries to block this from happening, but like all Cinderella stories, the two live happily ever after.
Cendrillon is a Caribbean retelling of the classic fairy tale, but told from the godmother’s point of view. In this story, the godmother is a poor washer woman who had been given a magic wand by her mother. She was told that it would only work on someone that she loved and at the time she had no one. Cendrillon’s mother dies and of course her father marries a mean woman and Cendrillon becomes a washer woman in her own home. She winds up building an even stronger bond with her godmother as they work side by side. When Cendrillon cannot attend the ball, her godmother recalls the want and puts it to good use. While true to the original story, it is the Creole words, beautiful illustrations, and the godmother’s true affection for Cendrillon that make this version unique and special.
The most unusual version I have seen so far comes in the form of The Irish Cinderlad. One thing that has remained true in all of the Cinderella retellings is that she attends the ball, the prince is enamored by her beauty, he searches for her, and they live happily ever after. So I was pleasantly surprised to find this version with a male lead. Becan, who is plagued with exceptionally large feet, finds himself with three horrible step-sisters when his father remarries. They taunt him and banish him to work in the fields. However, there he befriends a magical bull. With the bull’s help, Becan defeats a giant, slays a dragon, and rescues a princess. But before she can thank him, he disappears, leaving behind one of his enormous boots. The princess searches for him, and like all good fairy tales, they live happily ever after.
There is so much that we can learn about ourselves and other cultures by reading a wide variety of tellings of the same story. Fairy tales and folk tales in general will always be a key part of how our children learn. I’m so thrilled that there are so many versions of tales we thought we knew so well.
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.
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 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’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.”
In 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.”
In 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.
The 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.
Tashlilch 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!
Gershon’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 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.
The 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.