Books: Delighting Children in Picture and Prose
Enthusiasts of literature geared to young readers from preschoolers to teens will have much to celebrate as they turn the pages of the newest publications. Happily available to Jewish youngsters (and, of course, to their teachers and families) are a wide range of titles that teach without preaching, engage the imagination and, in the picture book category, delight the eye.
Goodnight Sh’ma by Jacqueline Jules(illustrated by Melanie Hall) and Where Shabbat Lives by Jan Goldin Fabiyi (illustrated by Sue Rama; both from Kar-Ben, 12 pp. $5.95) are board books. The first informs about “the one God of the earth and the skies,” the latter about the beauty of Shabbat as expressed “in our caring and our sharing.”
They are gently told and tenderly illustrated and fun for growing bookshelves.
For the youngest readers
Deborah Bodin Cohen goes back to 1892 in Engineer Ari and the Rosh Hashanah Ride (illustrated by Shahar Kober; Kar-Ben, 32 pp. $7.95), when engineer Ari boarded the first train to go from Jaffa to Jerusalem, transporting apples, honey, round hallot and shofarot. Unfortunately, his good friends Nathaniel and Jennie cannot accompany him on this exciting trip, but Ari returns with an assortment of gifts for the New Year. The text mixes history with lessons on loving kindness and repentance.
Among the numerous new Hanukka stories is Nathan’s Hanukkah Bargain by Jacqueline Dembar Greene (illustrated by Judi Hierstein; Pelican, 32 pp. $15.95). When Nathan shops for a menora of his own, his grandfather accompanies him. Nathan rejects modern designs in favor of a junk-shop find. His grandfather teaches him the art of bargaining until the elderly shopkeeper lowers his price to accommodate Nathan’s limited budget—a dubious lesson that mars this well-told and colorfully illustrated story.
In Jodie’s Hanukkah Dig by Anna Levine (illustrated by Ksenia Topaz; Kar-Ben, 32 pp. $7.95), Jodie joins her archaeologist father as he explores a Maccabean battlefield and discovers an ancient arrowhead. She returns to her Jerusalem home in time to light the menora, thrilled to experience the link between her people’s history and the glowing present.
Classic three-line verses for each of the eight nights of the festival provide the text in Harriet Ziefert’s Hanukkah Haiku (illustrated by Karla Gudeo; Blue Apple Books, 32 pp. $16.95). This beautifully designed book is both a lyrical and aesthetic treat.
Harvest of Light (Kar-Ben, 32 pp. $15.95), a photographic essay by Allison Ofanansky with images by Eliyahu Alpern, traces the olive from the tree’s white blossoms at the onset of spring to Sukkot harvest to its final press into oil. The delightful tree whose “branches twist into beautiful shapes,” the overflowing sacks of gleaming fruit and the huge stones of the press are captured in descriptive phrase and luminous photos. Fittingly, the book concludes with the lighting of a menora.
Richard Michelson offers an ecumenical approach in A Is for Abraham: A Jewish Family Alphabet (illustrations by Ron Marcellan; Sleeping Bear Press, 36 pp. $17.95). Each letter is explained in a rhyming verse and attractively illustrated. A well-meaning emphasis on universality is occasionally disconcerting, as when it is explained that the letter mem is for Maccabees and their triumphant battle for religious freedom, without which, we are told, there would be “no Judaism or Christianity today.”
In A Mouse in the Study by Nancy Larner (illustrated by Pegi Ballenger (CD of songs included; Song Sparrow Press, 35 pp. $19.95), kindly Rabbi Saltzman shares his snacks with Mazal the mouse in his study. Between noshing (Mazal favors hamentashen) the rabbi teaches him the meaning of the Jewish holidays. Ballenger’s final drawing of a congregation of devout mice wearing kippot and prayer shawls is a delight.
Tara’s Flight by Ruth Eitzen (illustrated by Allan Eitzen; Boyds Mills Press, 32 pp. $16.95) tells the fanciful tale of Tara the dove, brought into Noah’s ark by his grandson Aram. Tara waits patiently on her perch through 40 days of storms until a rainbow appears. She then flies homeward, a messenger bringing tidings of peace and pleasantness. The charming text is enhanced by equally charming illustrations.
A Holocaust picture book geared to young readers is problematic no matter how carefully narrated and brilliantly illustrated—both qualifications met by Laurie Friedman’s Angel Girl (illustrated by Ofra Amit; Carolrhoda Books, 322 pp. $16.95). However, the focus on the unrelenting horror of the concentration camp and the sadness and hunger of 11-year-old Herman is the stuff of nightmares. That Herman is saved because Roma, an “angel girl,” appeares at the camp gate and each day gives him a life-sustaining apple, and that years later in America they meet, fall in love and marry, does little to relieve the darkness of their childhood tragedy. Would that Friedman had written this moving story for older readers. Yet this true story is an important teaching text to be read with care.
Twenty American Jews spring to life in Malka Druker’s Portraits of Jewish American Heroes (illlustrated by Elizabeth Rosen; Dutton Children’s Books, 96 pp. $21.99). The brief biographies of men and women of talent and accomplishment inspire hope and admiration. There is Haym Solomon, a Polish Jewish immigrant who helped finance the American Revolution; blue-jeans creator Levi Straus; Emma Lazarus, whose moving words are engraved on the Statue of Liberty; and Supreme Court Justices Louis Dembitz Brandeis and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. There are also two great American Jewish women who changed the destiny of the State of Israel—Henrietta Szold and Golda Meir. Other heroes are drawn from the worlds of sports, entertainment and science. Elizabeth Rosen’s dramatic portraits are a welcome bonus.
City-bred Piri visits rural Ukraine and her farmer grandmother inMemories of Babi: Stories by Aranka Siegal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 111 pp. $16). There, Piri encounters a cemetery haunted by a rooster; drunken ducklings bereft of their feathers; a cat named Paskdinak who, not being Jewish, is always addressed in Ukrainian; and a beggar woman whose pockets bulge with coins. She learns how to make cornbread, harvest mushrooms and the fine art of plucking feathers. Babi also teaches her that the observance of yortzeit, the anniversary of a death, “is a reminder of the light of the soul.”
Maggie Anton has transformed her successful adult novel based on the life of one of Rashi’s daughters into a biography for young readers. Rashi’s Daughter, Secret Scholar (Jewish Publication Society, 199 pp. $14) is an absorbing tale set in 11th-century Troyes, France. The religious mores of the community, the intricacies of winemaking, the structure of family life and the tyranny of the nobility add unique dimensions to the story of Jocheved. Rashi is determined to teach Torah to his three daughters despite the resistance of their mother, who fears that cultivating their intelligence will frighten away prospective grooms. However, Jocheved is well schooled in Jewish history and law, and determined to wear tefilin because “they help her to pray better.” She finds a husband in Meir, who loves her even more for her knowledge and devotion—a happy ending to a well-told story, leaving readers awaiting sequels about Jocheved’s sisters.
The moving story of spunky 11-year-old Marianne Kohn, whose peaceful Berlin girlhood is shattered by the Nazi reign of terror, is captured in this reissue of Irene N. Watts’s Good-bye Marianne: A Story of Growing Up in Nazi Germany (Tundra Books, 128 pp. $12.95) by Kathryn Shoemaker’s starkly explicit drawings. This graphic novel shows how Marianne experiences friendship and betrayal, generosity and cruelty until her life is saved by her courageous mother, who arranges for her to be spirited to safety in England via the historic Kindertransport. In her farewell letter, Marianne’s beloved mother writes: “Wherever you are, where I am, at night we will be looking at the same sky.”
In E.L. Konigsberg’s About the B’Nai Bagels (Aladdin, 181 pp. $5.99), Mark Setzer’s zany family includes his loving, acerbic mother, his college-age brother and his long-suffering accountant father. Sparks fly when mother and brother become manager and coach, respectively, of the synagogue sisterhood’s Little League team during Mark’s bar mitzva year. Peppered with insight and humor, the author captures the world of suburban Jewry. Baseball practice may conflict with synagogue attendance and bar mitzva preparation, but in the end the B’Nai Bagels unites the family as well as the community of weary mothers. Lessons are learned, friendships created and Mark celebrates his bar mitzva as a “tone deaf center fielder, son, brother, friend, Bagel.” A fitting end to a great and funny story.
In Penina Levine Is a Potato Pancake, the second book in a series by Rebecca O’Connell (illustrated by Majella Lue Sue; Roaring Brook Press, 135 pp. $16.95), Penina grapples with Hanukka disasters. The presents for her family are not ready, her latkes are soggy, her little sister monopolizes the candle lighting and there are drastic desertions by her favorite teacher and her best friends—as well as a blizzard and family quarrels. Still, Penina is undeterred and, as the holiday ends, she stares gratefully “at the brilliant, glittering, sparkling, glowing, dancing Hanukkah lights.” The meaning of the holiday is, at last, clear to her.
(ages 12 and up)
Fourteen-year-old Joseph Michtom feels fortunate to be living in Brooklyn, where his enterprising immigrant parents are manufacturing teddy bears, named for the sitting president, Teddy Roosevelt. His life is the opposite of the colony of unhappy homeless youngsters who live beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Karen Hesse’s prose in Brooklyn Bridge (illustrated by Chris Sheban; Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends, 229 pp. $17.95) soars into poetry as she tells the stories of those unfortunate children. Joseph’s world, however, is filled with stickball and pickle sellers, a little sister who opens her own storefront library, a small brother who tumbles into frightening illness—and the glittering promise of the newly opened Coney Island amusement park. Joseph yearns to visit Coney Island, a promised land of excitement at the ocean’s edge.
Ultimately, Joseph and his family do go there, an adventure that culminates in the solution of a family mystery. And the children beneath the bridge find a surreal peace beneath “the milky cluster of stars.” Joseph, too, learns that “sometimes you have to make your own luck.”
In Checkpoints (Jewish Publication Society, 178 pp. $14), Marilyn Levy successfully negotiates dangerous territory as she tells the story of Noa, a high school student from a Jerusalem suburb, and her friendship with Maha, a Palestinian student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, at the height of the intifada. The girls visit each other’s homes, passing through the onerous checkpoints that give the novel its title, as they struggle to understand their separate and often hostile worlds.
Friendships are frayed and tragedy strikes during the Passover holiday when Noa’s grandmother is killed in the terrorist bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya and her sister suffers horrendous burns. Anger sears, yet reconciliation is possible. Noa acknowledges that if she and Maha “can present a united front even when we disagree, then there is hope for all of us.”
Twelve-year-old Caroline grieves for her Jewish maternal grandmother who left her a Magen David necklace, which she is reluctant to wear, uncertain as she is about her own religious identity—her father is not Jewish and her parents embrace no particular faith. In Nora Raleigh Baskin’s The Truth About My Bat Mitzvah (Simon & Schuster, 137 pp. $15.99), Caroline puzzles over her classmates’ celebrations, especially that of her best friend, Rachel, and wonders if she herself should have a bat mitzva. She wants to understand her own family’s complexities and longs to connect to her history.
Baskin is a fluid writer, and her fast-moving narrative captures the angst of suburban teens, their sleepovers and laughter, their yearnings and uncertainties; Caroline is endearing, honest and funny. When, in the end, she embraces her Judaism, she does so with sweet conviction.
An overly complicated, overly populated novel, Sondra’s Search by Esther Katz Silver (Devora Publishing, 238 pp. $21.95) is nevertheless worth reading, as it tells the story of Sondra Afelbaum and her cousin Howie, two Jewish youngsters inching toward maturity in a small Kansas town with a tiny Jewish community.
Sondra’s sense of “otherness” is compounded when she learns her mother survived a concentration camp. The Torah scroll used for services was rescued from the Afelbaums’ synagogue in Germany; a second scroll has disappeared. The determination to search for the missing scroll gives this story its intriguing title, though Sondra’s search is actually for her own Jewish commitment, realized at last when she and her fiancé, Danny, agree to lead a religious life. It is Danny who tells her “by deciding to live by the Torah, it is as though you found the missing Torah.”
by Elinor Burkett. (HarperCollins, 483 pp $27.95)
Timed to coincide with the celebration of Israel’s 60th anniversary, the publication of Golda by Elinor Burkett, journalist and historian, promised to be a much needed, in-depth portrait of the remarkable woman born Goldie Mabovitch in czarist Russia and raised in Milwaukee, who went on to become prime minister of Israel. Alas, Burkett dilutes the very history she would re-create and her negative feelings about contemporary Israel destroy her credibility as an objective recorder.
It is with considerable skill that Burkett chronicles Golda’s earliest childhood in Russia, the trauma of pogroms compounded by the Mabovitch domestic drama in which Bluma, Golda’s harsh, dissatisfied mother, and Moshe, her unsuccessful father, struggled against their oldest daughter Sheyna’s nascent Zionism, all the while disparaging Golda. The move to Milwaukee barely improved their financial status and offered little relief from familial tension. However, while Burkett captures the innuendoes of immigrant life in the new country, she also indulges in laying the groundwork for the extensive and largely superficial psychobabble that characterizes much of her later theorizing about the impact of such childhood stress on the woman Golda would become.
Her escape from parental pressure in Milwaukee to stay with Sheyna in Denver, where socialism and Zionism were fiercely debated, provides the first clues to the young girl’s commitment to the Jewish people but also sheds light on her biographer’s barely concealed contempt for her subject. In a telling phrase, Burkett reports that even as an intellectual novice, “Golda was a narrow nationalist”—an odd condemnation that informs much of the subsequent text.
That “narrow nationalist” attracts the ardor of Morris Meyerson, a young intellectual who loved literature and music and is so enamored of Golda that he follows her when she returns to Milwaukee, persuades her to marry him and agrees, however reluctantly, to their joint aliya. Even this courageous act arouses Burkett’s cynicism. Rather than expressing admiration for Golda’s daring she speculates as to whether “Golda was attempting to live up to the image she’d built up of her older sister, trying to please her overbearing mother or exorcising the demons planted by her father’s helplessness.” One wonders if it never occurred to the biographer that idealism rather than emotional scars impelled the young pioneer.
It is also incomprehensible that Burkett, a trained historian with access to archival materials, describes Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, during that period as embracing a form of Zionism that negated activism and aliya, seeing it rather as “a charity on behalf of Jews who had fled Eastern Europe in the wrong direction.” Such a statement betrays a serious lack of understanding of Hadassah’s historic stance and thus casts doubt on Burkett’s retelling.
With great rapidity, the Meyersons’ early days in Palestine are disposed of, their experiences at Kibbutz Merhavia, their life in Tel Aviv, the birth of the Meyerson son and daughter and the slow, inevitable dissolution of the marriage that survived in name only, dealt with as Golda became more and more deeply immersed in political life. Her role in the Labor Party, her involvement with the most prominent and dramatic personages of Zionist history—David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharrett (his name was Shertok then, just as Golda was still Meyerson), Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan and Abba Eban, among others, provide fascinating, if not always pleasant, reading. To Levi Eshkol, she was perceived to be “de machsheva, the witch, de klafka,” the hag; to Miriam Eshkol, his widow, “she was a terrible, hysterical Madonna.” There are also references to her extramarital sex life and her famous statement that she was not a nun. Women may justly recoil from such sexist stereotypical verbiage and it is indeed odd that Burkett, a historian of women, chose to include that particular language.
The most exciting sections of the book focus on Golda’s experience as ambassador to Russia, her moving attendance at a Moscow synagogue and the positions she took during Israel’s wars—the most controversial and tragic, of course, being the Yom Kippur War, which occurred on her watch as prime minister and resulted in much condemnation of her decisions.
While crediting her with much, Burkett sees fit to deride her for not “bursting the bubble of arrogant self-confidence by explaining that the political system was ossified…that Israelis were not, in fact, the new Superheroes.” Such a statement augments Burkett’s earlier unfounded assertion that “Golda would never have admitted in publicly but she wasn’t overly fond of the Israel whose mantle she had inherited.” These words apparently project Burkett’s own attitude toward Israel.
It is sad that a biographer of a great nation builder has so little sympathy for that very nation. Regretfully, the definitive biography of Golda Meir is yet to be written.
Adam Mansbach didn’t set out to write a book about Jewish identity. Rather, the 32-year-old author was just trying to follow up his critically acclaimed Angry Black White Boy, or The Miscegenation of Macon Detornay (Crown), a satirical novel about an Afro-centric white kid involved with hip-hop who ultimately becomes a cult hero.
“I set out to write a new book about people in a family—about a writer and another writer whose ambitions butt up against their loyalties,” Mansbach said. But as he researched and wrote the book, he found the Jewish part became a significant factor.
Nevertheless, his book, The End of the Jews (Spiegel & Grau, 310 pp. $23.95)—which follows a grandfather, a grandson and his future wife—only at times touches on Judaism. It opens with Tristan Brodsky in 1935 in the Bronx, “fifteen years old, the sum total of five thousand years of Jewry, one week into City College, a mind on him like a diamond cutter.” Tristan, the son of Jewish immigrants, is eager to escape his roots by studying literature and writing at The New School in New York. He becomes a famous writer whose grandson, the graffiti artist Tris, ultimately follows in his footsteps, becoming a tell-all novelist—to his grandfather’s dismay.
By far Tris’s story—as a young man who moves in the hip-hop world in the late 1980s—is the most compelling of the three; he is searching for his identity and finds it by novelizing his rebellious grandfather’s life. Tris meets and marries Nina Hricek, who grew up a hidden Jew in Prague and later tours as a photographer for an American Jazz band. (There seems to be more music than Judaism in this book about the Jews.)
While it is currently in vogue for Jewish books to strike an edgy, ironic perspective on the 5,000-year-old religion—think Tova Reich’sMy Holocaust, Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament (Simon & Schuster) and Elisa Albert’s How This Night Is Different?—Mansbach’s book, despite its title, makes no attempts at such irony. It’s not really poking fun at the Jews as much as describing some Jews.
One reason is because this is more of an immigrant family’s saga than a specifically Jewish one. It shows how families who “buy two sets of dishes, buy the more expensive kosher meat, buy shul memberships, buy into the notion that the Jews are smarter than everybody else and that things are improving for them all the time…” can end up with a graffiti artist grandson in 1989 who is totally ignorant of Jewish custom. The story mirrors many American immigrant stories, for example: Min Jin Lee’s Free Food for Millionaires about Koreans who are disappointed in their daughter’s choices and abandonment of their culture is similar. The Jews are no different.
Another reason The End of the Jews lacks irony is because Mansbach, like his character Tris, is a not a Jewish “insider” versed in the religion and the culture. “I grew up in a secular household, as a subset of a larger secular family members in which nobody for generations had attended synagogue or identified religiously,” said Mansbach, who grew up in suburban Boston. (Like Tris, Mansbach attended—and hated—Sunday school and eventually got kicked out.)
It was only after college that Mansbach started to notice “the thread of Jewishness” common in his family and their artist friends. And this is what he is trying to explore in the novel: “I’m trying to get at this notion of a Jewish sensibility that I saw running through the artists and writers that I found myself relating to and connecting to.”
Since writing The End of The Jews, Mansbach has appeared on panels at Jewish conferences hosted by organizations such as Jewlicious and Reboot, which bring him into contact with hip, young, secular but culturally identified Jews, which he is just beginning to learn about. It is all somewhat overwhelming to him, especially being classified as a “Jewish artist.”
“I am reluctant to make sweeping statements because I’m outside of the [Jewish mainstream],” he said. But what about the sweeping statement he makes with his book’s dramatic title? The end, he said, is not an “apocalyptic moment,” but an exploration of the end of a community, the end of family structure.
As far as the continuation of the Jewish people, “It matters to me,” he said, “but I wouldn’t say I’m worried about it.”
That may be because Mansbach is an artist who happens to be Jewish, rather than a Jewish artist. He’s not necessarily interested in preventing intermarriage or Jewish continuity, just in writing books: “These things should be ends in and of themselves.” —Amy Klein
Top Ten Jewish Best Sellers
1. Indignation, by Philip Roth.(Houghton Mifflin, $26)
2. People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. (Viking, $25.95)
3. Moscow Rules, by Daniel Silva. (Putnam, $26.95)
4. Certain Girls, by Jennifer Weiner. (Atria, $26.95)
5. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: A Novel, by Michael Chabon..(HarperCollins, $26.95)
1. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman. (W.W. Norton, $23.95)
2. The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs. (Simon & Schuster, $25)
3. The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs, by Charles D. Ellis. (Penguin, $37.95)
4. Hurry Down Sunshine, by Michael Greenberg. (Other Press, $22)
5. The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, by Lucette Lagnado(Harper Perennial, $14.95, paper)
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.
Courtesy of www.MyJewishBooks.com