Books: Castles to Klezmer: Writing New Worlds for Children
Acornucopia of new publications concocted to suit the tastes of youthful readers offers a sweet array of picture books for the very young, a spicy assortment of stories for those who are somewhat older, well-seasoned holiday tales and generous portions of meaningful history rendered with insight and clarity. Especially welcome are serious titles certain to satisfy the literary appetites of adolescents—fiction and nonfiction alike—encompassing the Jewish experience from medieval times to the present.
For Younger Page-Turners (ages 5-9)
Boris Kulikov’s fanciful illustrations for the 25th-anniversary edition of Linda Heller’s The Castle on Hester Street (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, unpaginated, $15.99) do justice to this charming story that won the Sydney Taylor Award. Rosie’s grandpa is an imaginative storyteller, transforming his apartment on Hester Street into a castle; he maintains that the buttons he sold from his pushcart were carved from diamonds and could be used as sleds and that his American-born babies “wore tiny jeweled crowns and rode through the streets in golden carriages.” Grandma insists on a return to reality, but even she recognizes the royal gift of their new country: “We were free to live as we wanted.”
Mendel’s Accordion by Heidi Smith Hyde (illustrated by Johanna van der Stere; Kar-Ben Publishing, 32 pp. $16.95, cloth; $7.95, paper) details a family’s musical voyage to the land of the free and through the generations that follow. Mendel plays his accordion, Yankele his fiddle, Hymie the drums, Zalman the flute and Shmelke the cello. The hap-py klezmorim perform at weddings and festivals in their shtetl, and they make music during their difficult ocean journey to America. In the new world, Mendel entertains his wife and children in their small apartment and then in their larger home, but new times call for new music. There is jazz and swing; great-grandson Samuel plays rock ’n’ roll. It would seem that klezmer has been forgotten. But when Samuel discovers Mendel’s accordion, he learns to play the instrument, and soon a band is formed.
The New Klezmorim, like Mendel and his friends before, plays at weddings and festivals, causing people to laugh and cry and smile wistfully.
The afterword offers a succinct history of klezmer and an intriguing discussion of the evolution of the accordion. Noah of Amy Meltzer’s A Mezuzah on the Door (illustrated by Janice Fried; Kar-Ben Publishing, 32 pp. $17.95, cloth; $7.95, paper) is unhappy in his new house until his family celebrates a hanukkat habayit (dedication of a new home), during which mezuzot are hung—including one for the door of his very own room. His loneliness evaporates as he learns the secret of the mezuza and the message of the klaf (parchment) and thinks of all those “who had touched and kissed it.” The mezuza has transformed his house into a Jewish home.
Abraham’s Search for God by Jacqueline Jules (illustrated by Natascia Ugliano; Kar-Ben Publishing, 32 pp. $17.95) is a midrash for children. The book describes Abraham as a child who discovers that there is “one God of earth and skies.” However, the book’s message is slightly marred by the unfortunate last line, which erroneously hails Abraham as the father of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, rather than monotheism.
A classic Yiddish tale and a kabbalistic midrash are charmingly retold in Even Higher by Richard Ungar (Tundra Books, 32 pp. $18.95) and Light by Jane Breskin Zalben (Dutton Children’s Books, 40 pp. $17.99). Ungar’s prose and Chagallesque illustrations capture the spirit of the saintly rabbi whose deeds of loving-kindness propel him even beyond the celestial sphere.
Zalben’s enchanting graphics re-create the midrash of the divinely crafted jar, inadvertently broken and its shards of light scattered. Kabbalistic wisdom has it that tikkun olam, the reparation of the world, can only be accomplished when the shards are reunited and the heavenly light is made whole once again.
Zalben writes that the book was inspired by the sadness of 9/11 and the terrible darkness of spirit it evoked.
The zany Five Little Gefiltes by Dave Horowitz (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 32 pp. $12.99) tells the story, in a kind of Yinglish, of disappearing gefiltes (“which are like matzoh balls made out of fish”) and Mama Gefilte, who moans because “they don’t write, they don’t call.” However, a happy ending takes place on a park bench, which, unsurprisingly, rhymes with mensch.
Ten Old Men and a Mouse by Gary Fagan (illustrated by Gary Clement; Tundra Books, unpaginated, $18.95) features a similarly distraught mother—only this one is a mouse. An aging minyan in an aging synagogue plays host to the mother mouse and her brood until, threatened by an overflow of baby mice, the elderly worshipers transport the small colony to the country. When the mother finds her way back alone, she is welcomed with poppyseed Danishes and the assurance that she will hear from her children “when they need something.”
The story and the depiction of the mischievous mice will delight children while the message will surely appeal to the older generation.
Grandparents partake in a little mischief themselves in Bubbie and Zadie Come to My House: A Story for Hanukkah by Daniel HaLevi Bloom and illustrated by Alex Meilichson (Square One Publishers, unpaginated, $16.95). Bubbie and Zadie fly through the air on the first night of Hanukka, bringing laughter and lore, gaiety and games to all children who welcome them.
Since 1985, when these adorable grandparents first appeared on the literary scene, they have received thousands of letters from grateful surrogate grandkids. Their address? It’s found on the last page of this colorful book.
Deborah da Costa’s Hanukkah Moon (Kar-Ben Publishing, 32 pp. $17.95, cloth; $7.95, paper) lends Hispanic spice to the Festival of Lights with its portrayal of Aunt Luisa, who observes the holiday in the Mexican tradition with a dreidel-shaped piñata, Hanukka songs sung in Spanish and a joyous celebration of the luna nueva, the new moon, when women are rewarded for their tenacity and fidelity. Gossia Mosz’s skillful earth-colored drawings complement the graceful text.
Jonathan and the Waves by Shira Sheri (22 pp. $14.95), A New Boy by Eve Tal (illustrated by Ora Schwartz; 32 pp. $14.95) andLon-Lon’s Big Night by Miri Leshem Peli (30 pp. $14.95) are a trio of charming and welcome dual-language books published by Milk and Honey Press. Youngsters are introduced to life in Israel as they meet Jonathan, who goes to the beach with his family but is frightened by the waves of the Mediterranean Sea until his mother explains the protective presence of God.
Tal deepens the understanding of the new country with new boy Boris, a recent immigrant to Israel who does not know Hebrew and rebuffs the friendly overtures of his kindergarten classmates because he does not understand them. He reaches out to a classmate who is saddened because his father has left for Army duty. When another new boy “with face too dark and hair too curly” joins the class, Boris (no longer the new kid) joins the other children in welcoming him.
Tal’s text is a gentle introduction to the realities of an Israeli childhood, which include fathers who periodically don uniforms and classmates from distant countries.
Readers gain an additional feel for the country itself with the tale of Lon-Lon, a young sand fox who emerges for the first time from his burrow in Israel’s Negev and discovers the wonders and mysteries of his desert world. His furry and winged friends help him find his way back to his family and their home “near the acacia tree and the soft sand dunes.” The drawings capture the landscape of Israel’s south, and the Hebrew text comprises wonderfully simple translations from the English (or, perhaps, vice versa). These books are a must for schools and libraries as well as for home reading.
The story of Haym Salomon, a Polish immigrant to the American colonies who joined the fight for independence using his wits, his knowledge of languages and his passion for freedom, is explored in Susan Goldman Rubin’s Haym Salomon: American Patriot (Abram Books for Young Readers, unpaginated, $16.95). Salomon raised funds to support George Washington’s Army and, at war’s end, established the Bank of North America. He died a hero just before the birth of his fourth child, a poor man because he had donated everything to the country that had given him freedom. Rubin’s text is intriguingly designed with bold-faced, oversized print flying across pages peopled with David Slonim’s evocative drawings.
For the Older Reader: Literary Odysseys Into History
Three unusual novels for young adults engage and inform as they mingle drama and history, poignantly telling the stories of young Jews in the too-long neglected locales of medieval Spain, Thessaloniki and Germany. Complex, well-researched and smoothly written, The Boy From Seville by Dorit Orgad, a prolific writer of Israeli children’s books (this one translated from Hebrew by Sandra Silverstein; Kar-Ben Publishing, 200 pp. $16.95), re-creates the dark world of the Spanish Inquisition and its impact on young Manuel Nunez, a secret Jew. Taut with suspense and attentive to historic accuracy, the story recounts the Nunez family’s struggle to conceal their allegiance to Judaism from the brutal inquisitors, covertly celebrating Shabbat and holidays and observing kashrut against all odds. Manuel’s valiant efforts to protect his family and friends evoke admiration for the youthful hero and compassion for his community, tenacious in its commitment to meaningful survival. Avi Katz’s subtly shaded black-and-white drawings capture the spirit of this haunting story, which won Italy’s prestigious Verghereto Prize.
Set in Thessaloniki in the telling year of 1492, the heroes of Mara W. Cohen Ioannides’s A Shout in the Sunshine (Jewish Publication Society, 157 pp. $12.95) are Miguel, a refugee from Spain, and David, whose wealthy Greek father is a pillar of the Jewish community. Their friendship and shared adventures reflect both Jewish unity and diversity in difficult times. Ioannides brings to life the ambiance and customs of the exotic multilingual Romaniote congregation as it copes with the influx of Ashkenazic, Provencal, Venetian and Sefardic Jews, each with different practices and customs. Even culinary details are offered with compelling authenticity as David’s family prepares “eggs boiled with red onion skins, leek croquettes, meat pies made with matza and rice with fava beans” for the traditional Seder meal. A vanished world comes to life, tastes and scents intact, as David teaches the secret and silent Miguel to live in freedom and “to shout in the sunshine.”
In her foreword, the author expresses the hope that the history of the Jews of Greece, decimated by the Nazis, will not be forgotten. Her well-crafted and intricately plotted narrative assures that remembrance.
The Silver Cup by constance Leeds (Viking Children’s Books, 224 pp. $16.99) takes readers to 11th-century Germany, where 15-year-old Anna forges a selfless and dangerous friendship with Leah, a Jewish girl orphaned by marauding Crusaders. The descriptions of Crusader cruelties and the fierce anti-Semitism of Anna’s family and neighbors are unflinchingly graphic, while the friendship between the two girls is depicted with tenderness. In an act of mutual generosity they exchange gifts; Leah offers Anna her precious silver Kiddush cup and teaches her to say “L’Chaim.” The sweetness of their voices obscures the harsh sounds of hatred and death that surround them. Happily, they each lay claim to better futures as Leah is restored to her people in Strasbourg while Anna and her father establish a new home in the more tolerant city of Worms.
Sara, who envies her friend’s Christmas celebrations, finds new excitement in a fanciful Hanukka triggered by Ellen Kushner’s The Golden Dreydl (illustrated by Ilene Winn-Lederer; Charlesbridge Publishing, 126 pp. $15.95).
Peopled with a magical cast that includes evil demons and biblical royalty, the book is an imaginative stretch but a pleasant read that is sure to engage Harry Potter enthusiasts.
Sepia-toned photographs illustrate Anne Frank: The Young Writer Who Told the World Her Story by Anne Kramer (National Geographic Children’s Books, 64 pp. $17.95), a biography of the young diarist who awakened the world to the impact of Nazi horror on a single family. The book chronicles the life of the Frank family in happier times, providing a sharp contrast to their dark and tragic fate. The Franks’ wedding portrait, photos of holiday celebrations and another of Otto—a proud father smiling at his daughters, Anne and Margot—tell the story of a family whose lives were shattered by hatred.
Forced into hiding in the now legendary secret annex, Anne wrote in her diary: “My greatest wish is to be a journalist and later a famous writer.” Ironically, that wish has been achieved.
John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (David Fickling Books, 219 pp. $15.95) offers a child’s view of the Holocaust—from the outside. Nine-year-old Bruno is mysteriously uprooted from his luxurious Berlin home by decree of his father’s boss, an unpleasant man with a small black mustache whom he calls “the Fury.” The family is relocated to a house set in a forbidding landscape, a place that lonely, devastated Bruno calls “Out With.” From his bedroom he can see a towering fence and beyond it a multitude of men, women and children, all dressed in striped pajamas.
The reader becomes complicit in Bruno’s slow and terrible discovery of the truth, gasping as his father’s cruel role as commandant becomes apparent and yearning for a happy outcome to the serendipitous friendship Bruno forms with Shmuel, the Jewish “boy in striped pajamas,” as they sit on either side of the fence.
This is a story to be read in a single sitting. It throbs with suspense and trembles with sadness. Its ending overwhelms. In his author’s note, Boyne writes that he hopes “the voices of Bruno and Shmuel will continue to resonate.” They surely will.
Amy Nelson Barak, daughter of an Israeli father and an American non-Jewish mother, proves a witty enough chronicler of her own life in Simone Elkeles’s How to Ruin a Summer Vacation (Flux; 233 pp. $8.95) and How to Ruin My Teenage Life (Flux; 281 pp. $8.95.) Her summer vacation is her reluctant trip to Israel to meet the paternal family she never knew existed.
While the story has many good moments and accurately depicts the lives of young Israeli high school graduates during their pre-Army summer, Elkeles relies too heavily on descriptions of bodily functions and sexual innuendoes, thus obscuring her larger and more important theme.
But a cross-country trip with kayaking on the Kinneret, an ascent of Masada and a visit to a Palestinian family makes this is an engaging read. Amy’s emergent feelings for handsome Avi and her tenderness for her fragile grandmother add depth to the spirited narrative.
Similar ambivalences surface in the sequel, as Amy tries to find her father a wife by enrolling him in a Jewish dating service, confides her troubles to benevolent Rabbi Glassman (too understanding to be believable), toys with conversion, works at a real job and forms new friendships. Of course, Israeli Avi reappears and, of course, there are more escapades with varying degrees of zaniness.
Elkeles’s lively junior chick lit duo has its charms, but a bit more narrative discretion would have been fortuitous.
Overall, there is an abundance of new and substantive Jewish texts and tales that will satisfy growing Jewish readers.
The Saturday Wife
by Naomi Ragen. (St. Martin’s Press, 292 pp. $ 24.95)
Naomi Ragen has written about the shame of illicit sex and adultery, forced marriage and religious hypocrisy in the Orthodox community. She has also written about the redeeming role of friendship, family and faith. These themes run through Ragen’s latest novel as well—but with a difference.
Departing from her passionate, poignant fiction, Ragen takes a stab at humor—and satirical humor at that. There are sections where she succeeds, hilariously portraying the excesses of American Jewry with regard to bar mitzva celebrations and synagogue politics. But overall, there is a disconnect between Ragen’s intent (and what the publisher is marketing) and what emerged. The result is a hybrid that really doesn’t work—a book too serious in most places to be a parody and too over-the-top in others to be serious. Comedy, as actors know, is harder to pull off than drama.
The Saturday Wife is off to a good start with its opening sentence: “It is not an easy thing for an Orthodox Jewish girl to be saddled with the name of a Gentile temptress.”
In particular, it is not easy because Delilah Goldgrab (a heavy-handed choice that works only when the parody does) comes from the wrong side of the tracks. Orthodox in name only, Delilah grows into a blond, sexy materialist who likes living on the edge. After a painful relationship with Yitzie Polinsky, a womanizing yeshiva boy, Delilah escapes into the marriage bed of an earnest but passive young rabbi, Chaim Levy.
Two sentences say it all: “She asked Chaim for his advice. As usual, he had been no help at all.”
Neither marriage nor motherhood settles Delilah. The congregation’s excessive expectations don’t help. Delilah flirts with a houseguest and a congregant and befriends the nonobservant wife of a shadowy millionaire—choices that bring the synagogue walls down around her and her hapless husband. As does the past she thought had been put to rest.
Though intriguing, Delilah isn’t the strong character she might have been. Ragen starts with a description of Delilah’s lonely childhood: “All she ever really wanted was to be included when they called out the names of those who were allowed to play.”
But the self-destructive, disingenuous sexpot never really wins our sympathy. If this were a pure parody, we would need nothing more than her outrageous behavior to make us laugh. But again, it isn’t.
There are other characters to compensate: the devilishly charming Yitzie; Dr. Joseph Rolland, the congregant with the roving eye; Joie Shammanov, the friend; and Rivkie Lipschitz, Delilah’s former roommate, who believably veers between being judgmental and kind.
The pace picks up once the Levys find themselves in a fabulously wealthy Connecticut congregation. We wince during a well-done scene when Delilah discovers her friends have brought in a French chef to cater a synagogue meeting, which turns out not to be kosher. And the bar mitzva? Wild!
The Saturday Wife tackles a theme rarely dealt with in American Jewish fiction—a woman’s suitability (or lack thereof) to be a rebbetzin. For that alone, it is worth a read.
—Barbara Trainin Blank
Life and Death
Janusz Korczak’s Children, by Gloria Spielman. Illustrations by Matthew Archambault. (Kar-Ben Publishing, 40 pp. $17.95, cloth; $7.95 paper)
Dr. Janusz Korczak is famous for his devotion to his orphaned charges. When the Nazis entered his orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto, he accompanied the 192 children in his care to the train that took them to Treblinka, where they were all murdered. Though Korczak could have been saved, he refused to abandon the children.
Born Henryk Goldszmidt into a wealthy family, Korczak loved to write and dreamed of “creating a world in which no child would be unloved or poor.” When he became a doctor, he treated families who couldn’t pay for free. Soon the beloved doctor again started to write, under a pen name; he wrote books for and about children. After he became director of an orphanage in 1912, he transformed the institute into a beautiful home for the youngsters, whom he watched over like a father.
Matthew Archambault’s somber, earth-toned illustrations fit the mood of the story, which is geared to children ages 7 to 10.
Jewish Best Sellers
1. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman. (W.W. Norton, $23.95)
2. Away by Amy Bloom. (Random House, $23.95)
3. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: A Novel, by Michael Chabon. (HarperCollins, $26.95)
4. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $16.95)
5. The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer. (Ecco, $24.95)
1. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26)
2. Night, by Elie Wiesel.
(Hill and Wang, $19.95, cloth; $9, paper)
3. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now,by James L. Kugel. (Free Press, $35)
4. I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, by Nora Ephron. (Knopf, $19.95)
5. Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson. (Simon & Schuster, $32)
Editor’s Note: Jewish readers purchase books for enjoyment and enlightenment, to reinforce their viewpoints or to see what the opposition is saying. The Top Ten Jewish Best Sellers list reflects only sales and does not imply approval by Hadassah Magazine—or the people buying the books.
Courtesy of www.MyJewishBooks.com; titles selected based on sales.