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Jewish Books, Jewish Families

When I was growing up in the 1960s, my family had a book given to us by cousins who had outgrown children’s books. (There are people who do that!). What the Moon Brought by Sadie Rose Weilerstein, illustrated by Mathilda Keller, was first released in 1942 by the Jewish Publication Society. It told the story of Ruth and Debby, two sisters who were close enough in age to experience everything together, especially a family life centered on Jewish celebrations and rituals. (Weilerstein was better known for the K’tonton series, about a fantastically tiny Jewish boy who had a series of holiday-related adventures. Imagine if the Borrowers had come from Brooklyn.) If Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books were Little Women but about Jewish American girls, with characters as vivid and individual as Louisa May Alcott’s, What the Moon Brought was really a series of loosely connected chapters about the cycle of Jewish holidays based on the lunar calendar. There was little plot development and almost no conflict. The chapters included frequent asides about Jewish traditional texts and folklore, which emphasized the human qualities of heroic figures and the continuity of Jewish life. What the Moon Brought was not a religious school textbook, but a work of fiction, and opened a door to later books for a Jewish audience eager to see ourselves in stories that acknowledge and elevate what is special about us, while at the same time encouraging us to fully share in American life. Chapters about the girls building a sukkah, with the help of other kids, or frying scaled-down potato pancakes for Chanukah and serving them to their dolls, sent the message that Debby and Ruth were not “missing out” on Christmas, or any other practice which might exclude them, because their own life was rich and full. My daughters also read the book; one of them remembers being “bemused” at the almost bland normality of this observant but also assimilated family. The father wore a wide-lapelled suit and neatly folded pocket handkerchief and an elegant fedora, as he placed his hands on his daughters’ heads in giving the traditional Sabbath blessing.

That image was emblematic, to me, of Jewish publishers’ unique role, giving their readers a chance to see their experience as both culturally specific and part of the mainstream. The Jewish Publication Society was founded in 1888 and specialized in providing Bibles and other religious texts with accessible commentary. It soon added books for children, both textbooks and fiction (such as What the Moon Brought). Behrman House, founded in 1921, also focused on religious and educational materials, but eventually expanded its list to other offerings for young readers; in 2015 it launched the Apples & Honey Press imprint for children’s books of high artistic and literary quality. Kar-Ben Publishing was rooted in the goal of its founders, Judyth Groner and Madeline Wikler, to create a new resource for children’s books reflecting all the dimensions of Jewish life. At the time, 1974, awareness of ethnic diversity and pride following the changes won by the civil rights movements made their vision more feasible. In 2001 Lerner Publishing Group acquired Kar-Ben and, under the direction of Joni Sussman, continues to focus on the founders’ mission of excellence in Jewish children’s books. At their best, these publishers have painted an accurate and evolving portrait of Jewish life, its frame wide enough to include much of interest to non-Jewish readers. Here are a few examples to enjoy this fall holiday season.

Hannah’s Way by Linda Glaser, illustrated by Adam Gustavson (Kar-Ben, 2012), teaches empathy and acceptance through the specific lens of Jewish Sabbath observance. Hannah is a young Jewish girl living in a Minnesota town with no Jewish community in 1932. Hannah feels isolated, and also resentful at the prospect of missing a class picnic that would require Saturday travel by car, forbidden by her faith. Like many children of immigrants, Hannah is torn between assimilation and loyalty to her own culture When Hannah’s classmates are asked by the teacher to walk her to the picnic, their unanimous and enthusiastic response supports the idea of tolerance, but also the value and dignity of traditional Sabbath observance, one of the most difficult practices to maintain in the larger world. (Like many Kar-Ben books, this one was a selection of PJ Library, a successful program for delivering free books to “families raising Jewish children”.)

A Heart Just like My Mother’s by Lela Nargi, illustrated by Valeria Cis (Kar-Ben, 2018), places a common dilemma in an identifiably Jewish context as it explores the anxiety of a child comparing herself to a beloved parent. Honoring one’s parents is at the core of Jewish tradition, but Anna is afraid that she can never live up to the standard set by her accomplished mother. When Anna translates her empathy for a homeless man into a project to help him, tzedakah, she forges a connection to her mother and to a world in need of healing. (Notes at the end of the book point out how the Jewish concept of tzedakah, rooted in “righteousness,” differs from the impulse to give charity.) The book reminds me of Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson’s Newbery Award-winning Last Stop on Market Street, a moving tribute to the lessons of a generous grandmother for a child who needs a little perspective.

In Sky-High Sukkah, Rachel Packer and Deborah Zemke bring us full circle to the same values highlighted in What the Moon Brought. Debby and Ruth had built and decorated their family’s temporary holiday dwelling with the help of family and friends, as well as non-Jewish neighbors. In this 2016 story from Behrman House’s Apples & Honey imprint, Leah and Ari build their urban sukkah with support from everyone, emphasizing the true meaning of kehilla (community). The sukkah, like life itself, is fragile and temporary, but simple decorations, including fruits and vegetables, make it beautiful. When Al, the African American grocery store owner, learns about the last-minute construction of the sukkah, he quickly brings pumpkins, apples, and colorful corn, enhancing the gray urban background with autumnal hues. Jewish publishers can develop and promote books which explore holidays such as Sukkot, less commonly known than Chanukah, in a complex and informative way. They also invite a wider audience when they tell stories such as this, in which other people are encouraged to participate.

Even today, when children’s books have embraced a much wider and inclusive portrait of different cultures, these Jewish-themed publishing houses are not obsolete. Although the majority of children’s books with Jewish themes are now produced by mainstream companies, these smaller presses are uniquely placed to deliver books which continue to affirm the value of history and tradition in all their particulars, while linking Jewish stories to the wider world.

See also Shoshana Flax’s article “Devoted to Diversity: Publishers with a Purpose” from the September/October 2018 Horn Book Magazine.

About Emily Schneider

Dr. Emily Schneider is a writer and educator living in New York City. She blogs about children's literature at Imaginary Elevators (imaginaryelevators.blog).

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