Three children's Books about Judaism and Jewish Culture Aug 26, 2013 9:38:14 GMT -5
Post by shira on Aug 26, 2013 9:38:14 GMT -5
Children's Books: 'With a Mighty Hand' by Amy Ehrlich | 'The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales' by Shoshana Boyd Gelfand | 'The Blessing Cup' by Patricia Polacco
The God of the monotheistic religions isn't a frequent presence in children's books. Though belief and practice will sometimes inform a story's setting—and, heaven knows, the Greek, Roman and Egyptian pantheons are all the rage—the God in whom billions believe usually doesn't get more than a passing mention. The exceptions are those books that are overtly religious or that derive their narrative power from faith in a way not easily avoided.
So it is God's good fortune, you might say, that three such books for young readers should appear at once. Each deals with aspects of Judaism and Jewish culture, but in a way that certainly wouldn't exclude readers of other (or no) spiritual belief.
The most explicitly religious of the three is "With a Mighty Hand: The Story in the Torah" (Candlewick, 198 pages, $29.99), Amy Ehrlich's elegant rewriting of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, which Christians know as the Old Testament. In restrained but resonant free verse that reads as a continuous narrative broken into short chapters, "With a Mighty Hand" takes young readers into the ancient narratives of Adam and Eve, of Esau and Jacob, of Joseph and his multicolored tunic (and his jealous brothers), of Moses and Pharaoh, and, of course, of God—or Yahweh—himself. "Look at the sky and count the stars," God says to the childless Abram in the book of Genesis. "Can you count them? So shall your children be."
The author notes in a preface that she sought, while doing her textual pruning, to retain a few branches from the Torah's "thickets of genealogy, law and ritual," and it's all to the good: A child poring over these handsomely designed pages, made vivid with Daniel Nevins's autumn-toned paintings, will get a sense of the importance of lineage and ceremony in the Jewish faith without having to struggle through complicated dietary laws or confusing lists of "begats."
There is a considerably lighter feel to the equally handsome but thematically jollier pages of "The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales" (Barefoot Books, 80 pages, $19.99), written by Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, an English rabbi. Here, eight stories drawn from sources that range from the Bible to 19th-century Poland are told in eventful, stand-alone chapters that make for excellent reading aloud to children ages 6 and older. (For parental convenience, the book comes with two CDs narrated by actress Debra Messing.) All the stories have an uplifting quality. "The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster" introduces us to an addled fellow who eventually gives up his fowl ways after a heavenly messenger named Ezra teaches him that "God gives human beings the ability to make choices" and that "no matter how we feel on the inside, we can choose to behave better than we feel." The tale of "Clever Rachel" gives us a brave, intelligent heroine whose parents understand that "what really matters in life is not how clever you are, but how kind," as they raise a daughter who will ultimate wed—and outwit—a king. Amanda Hall's inviting illustrations of rabbis, palaces, fruits and challah loaves have such soft edges and delicious colors that they might be made of marzipan.
Young readers will get a glimpse at a darker historical reality in Jewish history in Patricia Polacco's "The Blessing Cup" (Simon & Schuster, 48 pages, $17.99), which in several unnerving pages depicts pogroms against Jewish villagers in 19th-century Russia. As with her acclaimed 1988 picture book, "The Keeping Quilt," for which this new volume serves as a companion, the author and illustrator uses an object from her family to represent the continuity of generations across decades and borders.
Here the object is a beautiful china cup, all that remains of a tea set given as a wedding gift to Ms. Polacco's shtetl-dwelling great-great-grandparents. According to family lore, a note had been tucked into the original gift: "Anyone who drinks from [the cup] has a blessing from God. They will never know a day of hunger. Their lives will always have flavor . . . and they will never be poor!"
For the newlyweds, this was no doubt a wonderful promise, but under the circumstances it had to be interpreted flexibly. When the czar orders the Jews expelled from Russia, as Ms. Polacco retells the story, her forebears experience great privation and fear. In black-and-white pencil drawings lighted by occasional flashes of color—the red and blue of the tea set, the orange of burning houses—we see frightened families struggling through snow with their belongings in carts or on their backs.
Fortunately, the family with the tea set finds temporary refuge in the home of a wealthy doctor. Such affection grows between gentile host and Jewish guests that the doctor pays for their passage to America—and they bequeath him the tea set, taking with them only one cup. Handed down intact through generations, the cup broke in half during the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, creating "as if by design . . . by an unseen force" a piece for each of Ms. Polacco's two children. "At that moment, I realized," she writes, "that my ancestors were my bread. That the salt and flavor of my life were their stories. . . . How rich I am indeed.