Tag Archives: jewish

Folktales with Lessons for Life

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.

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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.

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Welcoming the Immigrant

A few weeks ago, my family visited New York and took a trip out to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It is such an awe inspiring place and I wanted my girls to understand the importance of the immigrant in American society. I’m not sure exactly when they really start getting in to the meat of American history in school, but there is such value in going to places and seeing it yourself and, of course, reading about history in wonderful books.

April is also National Poetry Month. While we don’t read a ton of poetry, there are some amazing books and one of the books below focuses on the history of Emma Lazarus’ famous poem that helped pay for the pedestal of Lady Liberty.

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Serving Up Soup from a Stone

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.

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fandango-stew1A 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.”fandango-party

cactus-soup-coverIn 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.cactus-soup-inside

stone-soup-matzoh 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.matzoh-inside

muth-stoneJon 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.”muth-interior

forrest-coverHeather 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.”forest-interior

bone-button-coverIn 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.”bone-button-inside

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.

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Counting our Hanukkah Blessings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Many Faces of Cinderella

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.

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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.

smoky-cover-2In 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.

edna-marriageCinderEdna 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.

raisel-insideI 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.

101012the_golden_sandal_iraqi_cinderellaIn 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.

cendrillon11Cendrillon 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.

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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.