Blog

NNFN Jewish Foods and Festivals

The theme for this year’s National Non-Fiction November is ‘Food and Festivals Around the World’. I couldn’t help but jump onto the bandwagon with a look at Jewish festivals and their food, seeing as every festival has a distinctive and mainly yummy food associated with it.

rise and shine
Shabbat falls every week on a Friday night and is the time for families to come together to share a meal. The food most associated with this is challah – a braided bread. Rise and Shine: A Challah-Day Tale by Karen Ostrove, illustrated by Kimberly Scott, tells the tale of when Sammy and Sophie find a crumpled bit of paper in an old cooking apron but can’t read the writing. Their grandmother explains it’s a recipe in Yiddish for baking challah, and with the help of family members, they bake it in time for Shabbat. This sweet story exemplifies the importance of inter-generational activities, cultural inheritance, and of course the joy to be found in baking bread. You can buy it here.

whats the buzz
At the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, it is customary to celebrate the wish for a sweet new year by eating sweet foods, in particular dipping apple in honey. This could also be tzimmes (typically a sweetened dish of carrots), or my favourite, the honey cake. Of course there’d be no honey without bees, and What’s the Buzz? Honey for a Sweet New Year by Allison Maile Ofanansky, photographs by Eliyahu Alpern, takes the reader for a photographic tour around a bee farm, exploring how honey is extracted from the honeycomb and how a hive operates. A good non-fiction resource, there’s a fun fact section at the end.

all of a kind family hanukkah
Hanukkah lasts for eight days, and is known as the Festival of Lights, but most children welcome it for its glut of doughnuts. Jewish people typically eat foods fried in oil, such as latkes and doughnuts, to celebrate the miracle of the oil lamp and the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem. However, it’s not krispy kremes but a special type of doughnut called sufganiot, which the Jewish bakeries sell. Gooey jam inside, sprinkles of sugar on the outside – these small round treats are light and fluffy. Just published this year, All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Paul O Zelinsky takes the All-of-a-Kind Family from the original book by Sydney Taylor, set at the turn of the last century in New York, and revisits them in 1912 in the tenements of the Lower East Side of NYC as Hanukkah approaches. This beautiful narrative gives a significance to the immigrant experience as it explores the sights and sounds of Jewish immigrant family, and shows how the cultural customs have lasted. You can buy it here.

purim superhero
Purim is a popular holiday – a time of dressing up and play-acting and the retelling of the story of Esther, who saved the Jewish people in ancient Persia. The hamantaschen is the food of choice, a triangular-shaped pastry or biscuit filled with poppy seeds or jam (and nowadays even chocolate) that is said to represent the hat of the baddie in Esther’s story. Perhaps representation can feel a little thin in some Jewish children’s books. The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner, illustrated by Mike Byrne, focusses more on the costumes than the food of Purim, but strikes an important message for our times. Nate wants to dress as an alien for Purim but all his friends are going as superheroes. Taking inspiration from Esther, as well as from his two dads, he devises a super alien costume. This is a bright and happy picture book, which not only shows what a modern family does at Purim, but also features a non-traditional family. You can buy it here.

sweet passover
In the spring, and hovering around the same time as Easter, is the Jewish festival of Passover. Celebrating the story of the Israelites fleeing Egypt (the Exodus), the narrative explains how they didn’t have enough time to bake bread for the journey, and so left with bread that wasn’t risen – matzah. Today, Jewish people celebrate with a whole selection of symbolic foods on the table during the telling of the story at the holiday meal – the seder. But matzah is always the first food that comes to mind, mainly because most people dislike the ‘cardboard’ like texture of the crackers. This sentiment is echoed by Miriam in A Sweet Passover by Leslea Newman, illustrated by David Slonim. By the last day of this eight-day festival, Miriam is “sick, sick, sick of matzah” despite having eaten it with a whole variety of spreads including chocolate, jam, cheese, tuna and egg. Her grandfather encourages her to try his matzah brie – like French toast but with matzah instead of bread. The book is almost as delicious as matzah brie itself, managing to slip in the exodus story and make insightful little comments too.

Book of the Week

Skycircus by Peter Bunzl (Book Three of the Cogheart Series)

skycircusWhen I was reading Skycircus, I couldn’t help but think of The Greatest Showman. The success of that film wasn’t down to critics, who panned the movie on its opening weekend, and I went to see it (somewhat reluctantly and with low expectations) with the children, and now own both the DVD and the soundtrack and secretly play them when the children are at school. Is it the music, or is it perhaps the emotions that circuses inspire that proved it such a great success?

The Greatest Showman is based very loosely upon PT Barnum, remembered for his travelling circus. Ironically the film sets out to show acceptance of difference, despite Barnum being known for his exploitation and sometime racism.

Circuses have long been a source of inspiration and imagination for novelists. Many children’s book characters visit the circus at least once in their series – Pippi Longstocking, Madeline, Doctor Doolittle, Claude, Paddington Bear all went to the circus, and some of my favourite stand-alone literature is set in the circus – The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Carroll, Circus Shoes by Noel Streatfield.

The circus arena is a great site for storytelling. As with theatre there’s the theme of appearance and reality, what’s hidden behind masks and costumes, but the circus also brings a daredevil nature to the stage – acts that seem impossible, daring and courage, excitement and danger. And an inherent subversive nature. Whether it’s the people behind the circus – seen for such a long time as ‘other’ – or the arguments over mistreatment of animals in the arena, the dichotomy of both providing entertainment but also making money, and the long history and argument of exploitative acts versus acts celebrating freedoms.

Peter Bunzl had already incorporated elements of this into his Victoriana steampunk series that  begins with Cogheart, an adventure story that subverts history and science, featuring mechanimals, penny dreadfuls, clocks and cogs, the author supposing that mechanicals were more advanced than they really were – that humans had reached a scientific equivalent to robots and AI but without computing leading the way – instead using mechanical parts.

Skycircus, the third in Bunzl’s Cogheart series, transports the characters from Cogheart – Lily, her mechanimal fox Malkin and her human friend Robert into a circus adventure. With the energy and tone of the prior books, it adds to the atmosphere a circus in which the people are treated more as prisoners, and circus acts that fuse the mechanical with the derring-do of trapeze acts and escape artists.

On Lily’s fourteenth birthday, she receives a cryptic poem inviting her to a travelling skycircus, arrived in the locale. Not being able to resist the clues, she sets off to watch the acts, little failing to realise that it’s a trap and that before long she’ll no longer be the observer in the audience, but the headline act herself.

With references to the past books, and Lily’s own past creeping forwards to haunt her, the book works both as a stand-alone read but also a continuation of the series. Never shy with words, the book is meaty and dense – an imagined world full of science and steampunk and its accompanying vocabulary.

With a keen nod to today’s preoccupations of gender stereotyping (a plot twist for which I fell cog, sprocket and gear), and liberally littered with allusions to Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage and the leading thinkers of the time in which it’s set, this is a layered book with much to extrapolate. Of course, there’s much about exploitation, and of animals too, but mainly about how we see others who may seem different from us; whether it’s a seen physical manifestation (perhaps race or a disability), or whether its just about seeing things from another’s point of view. Whom do you trust and how far can science take us?

Despite all this, at its heart this is a thrilling, danger-filled adventure story. I particularly enjoy Bunzl’s small touches of humour and detail that imbue each story with depth of character and charm. The clown who speaks in spoonerisms in Skycircus, the magnificent understanding of the rolling out of the circus, and the allusions to ancient myths and the power of storytelling itself.

This is a grand book with a plot as tense as tiptoeing the tightrope, and bold narration that shouts as loudly as the red and white stripes of the circus tent. You can run away to your own circus here.