Jewish

Tell Me Another: Jewish Festival Storytelling

The Jewish festival of Passover is an interesting festival for me because it’s all about storytelling. Commonly, Jewish people retell the story of the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt over a meal. There are many children’s books on the market for Passover, because there is quite a lot about the festival that needs explanation for children – why bread isn’t eaten, why a special meal (the seder) is held, why it lasts for eight days, and the story of the exodus itself.

And Then Another Sheep Turned Up

And Then Another Sheep Turned Up by Laura Gehl and illustrated by Amy Adele is a gem of a Passover book, published in February this year. Sheep are often associated with spring, and it being a spring festival, the characters fit in perfectly. The scene at the table is great, from the seder plate to the wine, books on the side table, and matzah. The family of sheep are all ready for their special Passover seder and just about to begin, when Grandma Sheep turns up to join in, followed by many more unexpected guests. Told in rhyme, the beautiful illustrations evoke a warmth in the scene from the tight hugs with Grandma to the dog’s and cat’s movements as the evening progresses. The little touches are great – from the children’s tiredness, to Papa sheep’s final words:
“Time to get our kids to bed.
Next year in Jerusalem!
And next year….PLEASE CALL AHEAD!”
To purchase through Waterstones, click here. Available from 28 March 2015. Ages 3+

engineer ari and the passover rush

Another new title, Engineer Ari and the Passover Rush by Deborah Bodin Cohen, and illustrated by Shahar Kober, continues the Engineer Ari series inspired by the historic rail line from Jaffa to Jerusalem. Ari has to gather everything he needs for the Passover seder on the last day of driving his train to Jerusalem and back to Jaffa before Passover begins. He watches the workers in the matzah factory in Jerusalem, and admires their speed, before heading back to Jaffa, and gathering horseradish, parsley and an egg from his friends in exchange for boxes of matzah. Fabulous illustrations of the train, the market in Jerusalem and the baking of the matzah make this a special picture book, and it ends in the same way as many seders – with someone asleep! It’s a charming little story, which captures a nostalgia for Israel, and the feelings of joyfulness and anticipation as time rolls towards a festival. To purchase, click here. Ages 5+

Dinosaur on Passover

An old favourite is Dinosaur on Passover by Diane Levin Rauchwerger. A rhyming story about a dinosaur who gets involved in the preparations for Passover and causes havoc at the seder table, especially when searching for the afikoman. It’s always good to have a more secular topic (dinosaurs) interacting with a religious festival, as for many children it helps to familiarise it in their minds. Bright colours, easy words and basic concepts make this a winning formula for the youngest at the seder table. To buy this title click here. Ages 2+

sammy spider's first passover

I have chosen Sammy Spider’s First Passover by Sylvia Rouss mainly because it contains the line, “Sammy had never seen so much food!” which makes me chuckle every time I read it. Published as long ago as 1999, Sammy Spider remains ubiquitous with the Jewish festivals for many families. Sammy Spider is alarmed by the family doing housework and sweeping away his web, but by the end of the story (and the seder meal) he has spun a new web to help point the children in the right direction of the afikomen. He also uses shapes to spin his web, in the end ‘passing over’ one shape with another. It’s a cute link to the festival. To buy this title click here. Ages 3+

Passover Around the World

Lastly, and for slightly older children is Passover Around the World by Tami Lehman-Wilzig, illustrated by Elizabeth Wolf. Many families delight in reading about the different customs that different strands of the religion or people of different nationalities bring to the seder table. Although it’s traditional to have the same format every year, it is great to learn about other ways too. This book features stories, recipes and histories of Jews in America, Gibraltar, Turkey, Ethiopia, India, Israel, Iran and Morocco. From the brick of Gibraltar to the Mimouna celebration in Morocco, these are all intriguing customs, with a great glossary at the back to help. A useful and different addition to any child’s Passover bookcase. To buy this title, click here.
Age 8+yrs

Thank you to Kar-Ben publishers for review previews of And Then Another Sheep Turned Up and Engineer Ari and the Passover Rush

For Holocaust Memorial Day

“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Elie Wiesel

Teaching children about traumatic events in our collective history can be difficult, and when picking a book on the subject it’s more important than ever to judge content more than appearance. There is fierce debate on how old children should be before they are taught about the Holocaust or other genocides. Teaching the historical context of the Nazis, of death and what’s morally right and wrong can all be taught much earlier, but it’s hard to teach the meaning and mechanics of mass murder before secondary school. Even some adults have a hard time grasping the enormity of it. The national curriculum dictates that the Holocaust should be taught in key stage 3 – Year 7, 8 or 9, which is the first three years of secondary school (ages 11-14).

“Fiction cannot recite the numbing numbers, but it can be that witness, that memory” – Jane Yolen

Firstly, I’ve chosen three works of fiction. They are all picture books, but that doesn’t mean they’re for small children – in fact they are best for age 10+ yrs. I’ve chosen them for their exploration of the Holocaust from different viewpoints, and as starting points for serious discussion about the Holocaust. None of them should be read in isolation, but rather explored after an initial insight into what did happen to the Jewish people during the Second World War.

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass by Meg Wiviott, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon
This is a cat’s eye view of Kristallnacht. Benno is the neighbourhood cat, who visits Sophie on Shabbat, and is fed schnitzel by the Schmidts after church, and gets titbits from the kosher butcher. All is seemingly well. Then gradually Benno realises that there are fewer scraps, and the neighbourhood people are growing ever more impatient, and that there are now new black boots stomping along the pavement. Then Kristallnacht happens, Benno’s paws are sore from the broken glass on the pavement, and Benno doesn’t see Sophie and her family any more, nor Professor Goldfarb. It’s a simplistic animal tale of a neighbourhood changing, but the masked horror of the Holocaust pervades the story. The implied disappearance of the Jewish people of the neighbourhood leaves it up to the reader to imagine what may have prevailed that night. The Afterword explains Kristallnacht in a little more detail, telling what that night was about and what did happen to the Jews in Germany. However, the last paragraph is a little emotive, which is a shame for a page that should remain factual. However, it is a clever introduction to the build-up of the Holocaust in Germany.

Star of Fear

Star of Fear, Star of Hope by Jo Hoestlandt, illustrated by Johanna Kang
Another simplistic story, which belies the terror underneath, is Star of Fear, which tells the narrative from an old lady’s point of view – looking back on those things that she couldn’t comprehend as a little girl. Helen remembers growing up in France after the German invasion of 1942. She remembers her childhood friend Lydia, and the yellow star Lydia was forced to wear on her clothes. It’s a story about friendship, and how little girls can say things to their friends that they don’t mean – and ultimately live to regret. Helen regrets more than most, as in a spontaneous angry outburst she tells Lydia that they are no longer friends, little knowing it was the last time she would ever see her…it is supposed that Lydia was taken away by the Nazis the next day. The simplicity of the text and pictures adds to the poignancy.

whispering town

The Whispering Town by Jennifer Elvgren, illustrated by Fabio Santomauro
Published last year, The Whispering Town tells the story of the Danish Jews through the eyes of a little girl. The Danish story itself is quite remarkable. As a nation Denmark actively resisted the Nazis’ plan to round up the Jewish people, and managed to smuggle a huge percentage of their Jewish population to safety in Sweden. They relied upon the goodness of their people, and The Whispering Town shows how the shopkeepers and neighbours all helped the hidden Jews in one cellar in Gilleleje to escape by boat from the harbour. The illustrations depict the Nazis as menacing, gun-wielding soldiers and the Danish people with simpatico faces. Cleverly, the Jews hiding in the cellar are simply white pen lines on black – a shadow almost. The colours throughout are muted – pale greens, much black and grey – other than the stark red of the Nazi symbol on the soldiers’ shirtsleeves. This may be a story of hope and salvation, but the events happened in a terrible time. My feeling is that it’s important to teach children that there is hope despite the horror of six million Jews and many other people losing their lives during the Holocaust. It is vital that children understand there are pockets of goodness and humanity. If a whole nation can rise up against the Nazis, then it is possible for goodness to overcome. This link describes the Danish efforts well.

usborne holocaust

After a wealth of discussion of story, it is worth consulting some reference too. One such title that sets things out clearly and easily for children is Usborne: The Holocaust. In a matter-of-fact tone, but with excellently precise vocabulary, Susanna Davidson sets out the narrative of the Holocaust, encompassing the roots of anti-Semitism, the Nazi definition of whom they defined as being Jewish, the treatment of other minority groups, the advancement of Germany through Europe, the increasingly harsh treatment of Jews and minorities, before going on to address ghettos, and the final solution. It also covers small acts of defiance in the face of certain death, both from Jews and non-Jews, which is really important. It’s simple to understand, crams a mass of information into short digestible chunks, and does its very best to explain a seemingly inexplicable event. Despite its conciseness, the book does contain graphic information on the killing of Jews, including shooting at mass graves and the death camps. It also quotes people from the time, and includes graphic images, including the painting ‘Gassing’ by Auschwitz survivor David Olere. There are many photographs too, including those of a survivor at the liberation of Belsen. Be warned, this is not a book for young children, but would do well to accompany those studying the Holocaust at Key Stage 3. The afterword throws up some questions that children may ask afterwards, and doesn’t try to answer them, but instead finishes on the note that the Holocaust is not something that should ever be forgotten.

DK Holocaust

I’ve not included a comprehensive review of DK Holocaust, a title that I worked on myself, as sadly, it appears to be unavailable at most good bookstores. However, if you can get a copy it’s an all-encompassing examination of the Holocaust for older children, which I worked on with the superb writer Angela Gluck Wood. I can self-promote shamelessly as I receive no royalties.

Holocaust Memorial Day is on January 27th.

 Usborne Holocaust was very kindly sent to me by Usborne Publishing

Festival of Lights

I wanted to highlight eight books for the Jewish festival of Chanukah, which starts on Tuesday evening, because that’s how many days the festival lasts. However, I got a bit excited, and found twelve! I don’t think this is a bad thing though, as living in London, I get asked for books that celebrate different faiths and cultures quite frequently, and you can never have too many.

Chanukah celebrates the miracle of an oil lamp lasting for eight nights rather than one, and the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem following the victory of the Jewish Maccabees over the Syrian-Greeks in 165 BC.

My First Hanukkah Board book
For the very youngest in the family I heartily recommend My First Hanukkah Board Book (unashamedly self-promoting here as I wrote this book with Dorling Kindersley). An excellent pictorial introduction to Chanukah, with the story of the festival told in the most basic way and the cultural symbols photographed to ensure a growing familiarity with the festival. The festival’s main song is also included with the Hebrew words spelt out phonetically in English for the youngest reader to follow. Sadly out of print now, but there are some copies floating around.

Eight Candles to Light
Another basic introduction is Eight Candles to Light by Jonny Zucker and Jan Barger Cohen. Simple illustrations rather than photography, and a handy guide to which way to light the candles (for those who forget on the first night every year!). At the back of the book there’s also a text only adaptation of the story of Chanukah, which is one of the clearest I’ve read.

maccabee jamboreemaccabee jamboree inside
Maccabee Jamboree: Hanukkah Countdown by Cheri Holland, illustrated by Roz Shanzer, is a lovely way to celebrate the festival with small children. It’s a simple counting book starting with eight Maccabees, who one by one disappear as they prepare to celebrate Chanukah with a party.
“Five Maccabees cooked latkes
But only four gobbled them up.”

The Only One Club
Some children may find this a particularly difficult time of year, as not celebrating Christmas really marks out their difference; it can be hard to know what to say when strangers in shops ask you ‘What are you hoping for this Christmas?’ and ‘Have you decorated your tree?’. One wonderful book that manages to encapsulate that difficulty and celebrate diversity is The Only One Club by Jane Naliboff, illustrated by Jeff Hopkins. It tells the story of a girl called Jennifer who is the only one in her class who celebrates Hanukkah, and makes Hanukkah decorations whilst everyone else makes decorations for Christmas. Throughout the book though it becomes apparent that everyone has something that is ‘unique’ about them and that each child has their own ‘only one club’ individuality. By the end Jennifer doesn’t feel so ‘marked out’.

Light the LightsDaddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama
For those who celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas, or Chrismukkah as it’s known in the States, Light the Lights! A Story about Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas by Margaret Moorman fits the purpose. Totally secular, the story follows Emma and her family as they follow the traditions of first Chanukah and then Christmas, with lights on the chanukiah and then on the Christmas tree. It’s very limited and doesn’t try to explain the significance or story behind either festival, but is a good start for those who celebrate both without adhering to one faith in particular. Also on this theme is Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama by Selina Alko – you can’t get more of a mash-up than the recipe within for cranberry kugel.

Sadie's almost marvellous menorah
My new favourite is Sadie’s Almost Marvellous Menorah by Jamie Korngold, illustrated by Julie Fortenberry. Every child can sympathise with Sadie, who, at school, makes a beautiful menorah out of clay ready for the festival, only to break it on the way home to show her mother! Upset ensues, until Sadie’s clever mother shows her that the ‘helper’ candle – the shamash – which is used to light all the other candles, can still be used to light all the other candles on the family menorahs. If only most children were so easily appeased when their artwork gets destroyed!

A Chanukah Story for Night Number ThreeEngineer Ari and the Hanukkah MishapLots of Latkes

Three books that elucidate some of the qualities of the festival by telling stories are A Chanuka Story for Night Number Three by Dina Rosenfeld, illustrated by Vasilisa and Vitaliy Romanenko, Lots of Latkes by Sandy Lanton and illustrated by Vicki Jo Redenbaugh, and Engineer Ari and the Hanukkah Mishap by Deborah Bodin Cohen, illustrated by Shahar Kober.

A Chanukah Story for Night Number Three tells the tale of a boy whose birthday is on night three of Chanukah and is determined to make it special by making the largest latke in the world. The moral framework of ‘sharing’ lies behind the story, which is a good distraction from the increasingly materialistic nature of the festival. It is full of humour and hilarious illustrations (particularly the one of cleaning the kitchen). Lots of Latkes by Sandy Lanton is the story of when the preparations for a Chanukah party go wrong, and each guest brings the same food to the party. The story is a sweet tale, but presupposes knowledge about the festival. Engineer Ari and the Hanukah Mishap is part of a series of adventures of Ari and the Jewish festivals, but can be read as a stand-alone story. Ari is travelling home for Chanukah, gathering what he needs on the way and meeting a host of people who inform him about the story and traditions behind the festival. He’s delayed by a camel on the line at Modi’in though, and invited in by a local Bedouin, with whom he celebrates the first night of Chanukah. It aims to show that miracles, such as that which happened in 165 BC, still happen and that sharing the festival is a good way of celebrating it.

Dinosaurs Hanukah
Those of you who like the series of How Do Dinosaur books by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Mark Teague, will be delighted to learn there is even a Chanukah version – How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah?, including such gems as:
“Does he fidget and fuss through the candlelight prayer?
Does he blow out the candles when no one is there?”
Perhaps a touch contrived, but actually the familiar format is a winner for me.

National Geographic Hanukkah
Lastly, National Geographic have a series of books that aim to show how different holidays from different religions are celebrated round the world, without going too far into the religious aspects. Celebrate Hanukkah: with Light, Latkes and Dreidels (Holidays around the World) by Deborah Heiligman highlights the main components of the festival, including the story, the food, the games and the lights, but what sets it apart is the beautiful photos of people celebrating the festival around the world. Good for Jewish people who already understand the festival as well as newcomers who are learning what Chanukah is for the first time.

A note of warning: if you’re searching online for books on the festival, you will find that the festival is spelled many ways in English, so one search may not bring up every book.