At dusk on Sunday, September 13, Jewish children around the world will begin celebrating Rosh Hashanah. This holiday starts the 10 day period of the Jewish High Holidays. The culminating day, Yom Kippur, is spent reflecting on one’s past deeds.
Unfortunately, my recent shoulder surgery prevented me from reading and reviewing recently published fall picture books. Instead, I am sharing 11 books that are considered Jewish children’s favorites. Many have been mentioned in previous postings.
Fall picture books usually have a universal appeal. However, in this selection most of the books are geared to a Jewish audience. After reading the summaries posted below, parents and teachers should be able to discern whether a book is appropriate for their child or class.
In addition to High Holiday books, I am listing several Sukkot books. This year Sukkot begins on the evening of Sunday, September 27.
The 11 fall picture books include Jewish traditions that should be passed down from generation-to- generation.
My best wishes for a Happy and Healthy New Year (5776).
L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem (May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year).
Gershon’s Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year. Retold by Eric A. Kimmel and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth. (Scholastic Press, 2000)
- Sydney Taylor Award
In this picture book, award-winning author, Kimmel, adapted an 18th century legend that focused upon the wisdom of the founder of the Hasidic movement in Judaism, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba’al Shem Tov, (c. 1700-1760). The main character Gershon, symbolically collected remnants of his improper behavior whenever he swept the floor. At the end of the year, these particles were placed into a large sack that was discarded into the sea.
This tradition stems from the centuries old custom of tashlikh (tashlich). On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, observant Jews discard breadcrumbs near an open body of water (lakes, rivers or seas) while reciting prayers of forgiveness. This gesture symbolizes the casting off of a year’s worth of wrong doings.
For many years, Gershon symbolically threw his bad deeds into the sea without taking any time to reflect on his actions. No time was spent thinking about what Gershon had done or how he could improve his life.
When his wife is unable to have any children, Gershon consults with a wonder rabbi, most likely the Baal Shem Tov. The rabbi prescribed a mystical charm for Gershon’s wife and predicted the birth of twins. The rabbi also shared a prophecy- the untimely death of Gershon’s future children. A twist of faith enables Gershon to come to terms with his mistakes. The end of the story illustrated the true meaning of repentance. One’s actions need to be sincere and full of intent.
By focusing on the ceremony of tashlikh, children learn how to recognize their mistakes and act accordingly. Children of all faiths also learn about the major theme of the High Holidays- forgiveness and repentance.
New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story. By April Halprin Wayland and Illustrated by Stephane Jorisch. (Dial Books, 2009)
Set in modern times, Wayland focuses on a Jewish family who is observing Rosh Hashanah. The children in this story recognize their poor choices and take time to say that they are sorry. The family attends services at their synagogue and then walks to the nearby ocean to perform the custom of tashlikh (tashlich).
Readers will be able to connect with Izzy’s struggles to confront his wrong doings and the challenges that he faced when offering sincere apologies. Anyone unfamiliar with the custom of tashlikh will gain an understanding of how this particular community celebrates this ancient tradition. The words and the illustrations are endearing and provide a glimpse of a several Rosh Hashanah practices.
When the Chicken Went on Strike: A Rosh Hashanah Tale (adapted from a story by Sholom Aleichem). By Erica Silverman and Illustrated by Matthew Trueman (Puffin Books, 2003)
- Sidney Taylor Honor Book for Young Readers
- NCSS-CBC Notable Children’s Trade Book in Social Studies
Award-winning children’s author Erica Silverman portrays the Rosh Hashanah custom of kapores or kaporot in a whimsical way to illustrate how people need to be conscious of their actions. While I have never witnessed the controversial custom of kaporot, I have seen it performed in videos and in books. Only a small number of 21st century Jews adhere to this ancient folk ritual. Many rabbis throughout history banned the use of animals as means for atonement.
Just prior to Yom Kippur, orthodox Jews hold a chicken above their head while swinging it around three times. The prayers ask God to transfer any harsh decrees to the chicken. Similar to tashlikh, the person performing the ritual is symbolizing the importance of repentance.
Silverman adapted Sholom Aleichem’s notable story Kapores. Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916) was the author of the Yiddish stories that eventually became the storyline for the play, The Fiddler on the Roof.
This picture book looks at this archaic ritual from the point of view of the chickens. The chickens are fed up with being swung around and decide to strike. The main character, a young Jewish boy, overhears the chickens’ conversation. Wanting to be able to repent for his mistakes, he tries to bring together the Jewish congregation and the chickens. The people’s words and actions alienate the chickens.
A tender moment occurs when the boy makes an appeal to the chickens. He says, “I have more bad deeds that a dog has fleas… Without kapores, I will never be able to make my papa proud.”
The underlying message of the story is seen in the response of one of the chickens.
“For this do you really need a chicken?” The boy came to the logical conclusion that he could control his actions and act accordingly.
Some may find this ritual to be peculiar. Nevertheless, this delightful adaptation of Aleichem’s story will prompt a discussion on the choices everyone makes. Taking responsibility for one’s actions is vital. Silverman’s story reaffirms that fact.
The Hardest Word: A Yom Kippur Story. By Jacqueline Jules and Illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn. (Kar Ben, 2001)
- A National Jewish Book Awards Finalist
- An Association of Jewish Libraries Notable Children’s Book
Jules also focuses on the ramifications of people’s mistakes. However, her story is seen through the eyes of Ziz, a mythical flying creature. Ziz has the propensity to cause destruction due to his enormous size. Many times, Ziz is able to fix the problems that he causes. On one occasion, he sought God’s advice on how to fix one of his calamities. God sent him on a mission to find the hardest word. Searching the world, he came up with dozens of answers. None were correct. Frustrated and sad, he approached God with no more answers. He simply apologized. Finally, he had found the hardest word, “sorry.”
“Sorry” can be the hardest word for some. Anyone reading this book will be reminded of the importance of this word. The references to God may or may not be appropriate in all settings. Most will consider this book more relevant to a Jewish audience. Young Jewish children will see Ziz as a role model for appropriate behavior by following his example of saying “I’m sorry” on Yom Kippur as well as the rest of the year.
Yussel’s Prayer: A Yom Kippur Story. Retold by Barbara Cohen and Illustrated by Michael J. Deraney. (Lathrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1981)
Decades ago, Barbara Cohen retold an ancient rabbinic tale in a way that Jewish children can easily appreciate. Due to the age of this book, it may be problematic to find a copy.
While all of the Jewish people in a small village went to synagogue to pray on Yom Kippur, a young orphan boy named Yussel was told to mind the cows in the pasture. Rev Meir and his sons didn’t think that this illiterate child was capable of praying. In the synagogue, Reb Meir and his sons were unable to focus on their prayers. Instead their thoughts wandered back to events in their day-to-day life. Even though the sun had set, the congregation’s rabbi chose not to end the service. He had a vision that showed that the gates of heaven had been closed and that his congregants’ prayers were not being accepted. A subsequent vision showed that the gates had been opened by a melody played on a reed pipe. At that point, the rabbi chose to end the service. Walking home, Reb Meir realized that Yussel’s sincerity and intentions were represented in the way he played the reed pipe. Instead of ostracizing the unkept orphan, he invited Yussel into his home to break the Yom Kippur fast.
The black and white drawings bring this tale back to life and help younger children appreciate an earlier time period. This book is clearly intended for a Jewish audience.
Days of Awe: Stories for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Adapted From Traditional Sources By Eric A. Kimmel and Illustrated by Erika Weihs. (Puffin Books, 1991)
Noted children’s author Eric Kimmel uses his storytelling talents to revitalize 4 Jewish folktales. In the first chapter, Eric introduces children to the The Days of Awe. He provides an overview for anyone who may not be familiar with Jewish customs and traditions and also gives a review for more knowledgeable individuals.
The first, “The Samovar: A Story of Charity” is derived from earlier stories that appeared in Madras Ruth Zuta (1100-1200), Yalkut Shimoni (1200-1300) and I. L. Peretz’s (1852-1915) short story “Seven Years.” In this tale, young readers learn the importance of treating people fairly and helping others. A glove maker’s wife thoughtfully accepts the responsibility of housing a stranger’s large family heirloom for seven years. Whenever she is generous or charitable, the object loses a bit of its tarnish. Meanwhile, the glove maker’s business grows and prospers. Despite the unexpected wealth, the couple remains true to their standards of being charitable and living a modest life. After the seven years, the stranger returns. He admires the shiny heirloom, but leaves without it. The couple is blessed with a long and prosperous life.
The second story, “The Shepherd: A Story of Prayer” has the same message as Yussel’s Prayer: A Yom Kippur Story (see above). This version is set in Cordoba, Spain. Instead of a young orphan, the main character is an illiterate shepherd. The shepherd’s simple prayers are overheard by a Jewish scholar who chastises him for not reciting traditional prayers. The scholar lectures him on the finer details of prayer. As a result, the shepherd chooses not to pray because he was embarrassed by his primitive ways. God becomes aware of the shepherd’s silence and summons an angel to investigate. Through a magical encounter, the shepherd learns that his prayers with a pure heart are more important than the traditional prayers.
The last story, “Rabbi Eleazar and the Beggar: A Story of Repentance”, comes from Tractate Taanim in the Talmud. It focuses on one of Rabbi Eleazar’s sermons that highlights God’s role in creating individuals who have a purpose. When the rabbi rode home, he reacted inappropriately to a deformed man. Despite the rabbi’s sincere apologies and words of forgiveness, the man refuses to forgive the man until God forgives the man. Rabbi Eleazar’s sons’ pleas on behalf of their father are not accepted. In a gentle and tender way, the rabbi’s daughter reminds the man that God forgives all that seek it. The man accepted the rabbi’s apology. The rabbi is free to go home.
It should be noted that each chapter only has a couple of illustrations.
The House on the Roof: A Sukkot Story. By David A. Adler and Illustrated by Marilyn Hirsh. (Holiday House, 1976)
Looking at the copyright date, one can see that this is a timeless classic. Adler creates a bit of mystery as he shows the main character bringing a variety of items into his apartment building. Conflict immediately developes between this man and the owner of the building. The owner doesn’t want him bringing in odds and ends or damaging the hallway or stairwell. Midway through the book, the mystery is revealed. The man has constructed a sukkah on the roof of his building. The conflict intensifies when the apartment owner takes court action. This story not only highlights how Jews celebrate Sukkot, but it also sheds light on how people can become intolerant of people’s differences.
The Vanishing Gourds: A Sukkot Mystery. By Susan Axe-Bronk and Illustrated by Marta Monelli (Kar Ben, 2012)
Jewish children find pleasure in celebrating Sukkot. Sara, the main character, exhibits absolute joy when she celebrates one of her favorite Jewish holidays. Interacting with nature is part of any outdoor adventure. Sara learns first-hand that the harvest vegetables that decorate her sukkah are desired by a neighborhood squirrel. A hungry squirrel smashes the gourds. Math skills are reinforced as the number of gourds is reduced. Sara recognizes the squirrel’s needs. As a result, she leaves food for him. The seeds from the gourds ultimately germinate in time for the next festival. Intertwining nature and basic math skills into this story makes the story appealing to a secular young audience.
The Mysterious Guests: A Sukkot Story. By Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Katya Kremina. (Holiday House, 2008)
While the underlying message of this story is valuable, some secular teachers may shy away from using a book that has a few generic references to the Bible. According to Jewish tradition, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob mysteriously appear as guests at each sukkah. This story focuses on how these men are treated in two contrasting situations and their response. In one location, the host provides a lavishly appointed sukkah with endless food options while the other is more modest. There is no shortage of food in the first scenario, but the host is not gracious and did not show any kindness to the poor. The owner of the second sukkah makes everyone feel welcome and does his best to share his limited amount of food with his guests. Not surprising, the three biblical patriarchs reward the generous person and the other learns a lesson from his misbehavior.
Tikvah Means Hope. By Patricia Polacco. (Doubleday,1994)
By Patricia Polacco. (1996) This picture book is one of my all time favorites. For more information see a previous blog- Tikvah Means Hope- A Charming Classic for Sukkot.
Sammy Spider’s First Sukkot. By Sylvia A. Rouss and Illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn. (Kar Ben, 2004)
If you are unfamiliar with the Sammy Spider series, consider reading Sammy Spider’s First Sukkot. In this book, the fall holiday of Sukkot is seen through the observant eyes of Sammy, a precocious spider. Sammy is initially fascinated by the steps that a family takes to build a sukkah. Through an ongoing dialogue with his mother, Mrs. Spider, readers learn how the Shapiro family prepares and celebratse Sukkoth in their home. The colorful illustrations guide readers with relevant picture clues. Sylvia skillfully uses and highlights directional words throughout the text. Not only do readers have the opportunity to learn more about Sukkoth, they also get an added bonus of mastering words such as- up, down, inside, outside,etc.