Two kids books may triumph over video games or TV

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In a mind-candy world ruled by Nintendo and Game Boy, Ninjas and Power Rangers, endless commercials and countless TV channels, two new books do the unthinkable — nourish knowledge.

"Starlight and Candles: The Joys of the Sabbath" grabs 4-to-8-year-old readers by starting not with rituals but food. Mama talks first of pickles, then a poppyseed challah.

After setting an example by having siblings Jake and Rosy participate in Shabbat preparations, Fran Manushkin's book (Simon & Schuster, $15) glides into tot theology: "So you see, it is God who kept the first Sabbath."

What blossoming readers might like best, however, are fictitious kids who inject perspective of their own.

When Mama talks of "how hard God worked creating the sun and the whales and the roses," her son Jake interrupts.

"And the dinosaurs," he adds.

The characters' adventures embrace '90s sensibilities: For instance, they place money in a pushke, a charity box, for homeless children. Yet tradition is here, too. One character announces, "Candles remind us that God said, `Let there be light!'"

Although Yiddish-speaking, flower-toting Grandpa and hug-and-honeycake-packing Grandma may come off as overly perfect role models, it is an imperfect and all-too-real world they enter:

The author describes Mama and Papa laying hands on the kids' heads. "Jake and Rosy love being blessed, especially if the family had any fights that week. Mama and Papa's blessings seem to erase all the bad feelings."

Jacqueline Chwast's colorful, simple drawings radiate family warmth, as does text that spoon-feeds information in a gentle way, so that young readers won't be overwhelmed or turned off.

The author adroitly touches on Sabbath angels, prayers, the Torah and synagogue attendance while maintaining a subtextual emphasis on family and a sense of Jewish togetherness replete with stories and singing and history.

The book ends with an English transliteration of Friday-night blessings over lights, wine and bread, and a glossary that defines the handful of Hebrew and Yiddish words that the author gracefully slips into the text — shul and yad, for example.

In "A Belfer Bar Mitzvah," author Gloria Teles Pushker is much more direct in delivering information to her readers. Explanatory phrases, set off with parentheses or dashes, often follow Jewish terms, as in "Hey, would you like the honor of saying hamotzi — the grace — before lunch on Saturday?"

Other crucial definitions are woven into the text: One character, for example, remarks that a check seems to have been written for an odd amount.

Another character replies that "in Hebrew, each letter of the alphabet is also a number. The eight is a cheth and the ten is a yud. Eight plus ten makes eighteen or chai (pronounced `hi'), the Hebrew word for life. So, when someone gives you eighteen dollars, they are really wishing you a healthy, happy life."

In case such explanations don't sink in the first time, a glossary follows the story, which is the straight-ahead tale of a Jewish girl in rural Louisiana who gets excited about her bat mitzvah while focusing on her cousin's rite of passage.

She decides, finally, to make her own exactly like his — "except maybe I'd like pink balloons instead of green!"

Although this book may lack the charm of "Starlight and Candles," it is crammed with more information.

The $14.95 volume, aimed at ages 5 to 7, is actually the third in a series featuring the same fictional character. "Toby Belfer Never Had a Christmas Tree" and "Toby Belfer's Seder: A Passover Story Retold" were, like this volume, illustrated sweetly by Judith Hierstein and distributed by the Pelican Publishing Co., 1101 Monroe St., P.O. Box 3110, Gretna, LA 70054.

For parents or grandparents wanting to give a youngster fundamentals about b'nai mitzvah (including, via a foreword, the history of the ritual), this book could do it.

Unless, of course, the kid is totally hung up on Mortal Kombat.