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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.

Emily Schneider

Emily Schneider is a writer and educator living in New York City. She reviews books and contributes essays for the Jewish Book Council and others, and blogs about children's literature at imaginaryelevators.blog.

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Tracy Christenson

I'm a little late to the party, but since someone else here was looking for a book a couple of months ago, I thought I'd give it a try. I'm not Jewish, but when I was about 7 or 8 (c. 1989 or 1990, although the book might have been older), I read a book at my public library that look place on Chanukah. I liked it because it was about a little girl and her doll, and I think there was some kind of mystery associated with the doll. I can't remember if the girl got the doll as a present for Chanukah. I think she might have, but maybe she already had the doll. I'm not sure now. I feel like I can almost see the cover of the book in my mind with a doll in a blue dress. But, the weird thing is that what I remember most about this book is that the cover spelled Chanukah specifically with a 'C'. I knew at that age what Hanukah was, and I remember the 'C' confused me. I didn't know how to pronounce it until my mom explained that Hanukah can be spelled in different ways and sometimes it has a 'C'. I tried to find this book again later, but the library no longer has it. I've tried to find it on the Internet, but no luck. If it weren't for the Chanukah spelling lesson, I might have thought I'd imagined reading this book. Does anyone else remember it?

Posted : Dec 12, 2020 05:03

Cosette Sondai

I have been searching for a book or series of books I read as a youngster growing up in the middle-late 1950's, early 1960's. I do not remember the author. The stories focused on a happy Jewish family......I first discovered the words "Rosh hoshana," "Purim," and "Yom Kippur," in these books. The stories were delightful, I recall how much I so thoroughly enjoyed the books. Can you help me find these books and/or the author? I have since learned a great deal of Jewish culture and religion. I would appreciate any help you could provide on finding these books, and the name of the author. Thank you. 

Posted : Sep 20, 2020 08:15

Elissa Gershowitz

Is it the All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor?

Posted : Sep 20, 2020 08:15



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