Kids books have different tones, markedly similar significance

At first glance, two new kids’ books look like day and night.

“Kibitzers and Fools,” with its off-kilter lettering and dancing zayde on the cover, encourages readers to come along for a fun time.

On the not-so-flip side of things, “In God’s Hands” portends a more serious reading experience.

Yet both succeed in touching readers young and old, and teaching them about very different aspects of Judaism.

Simms Taback’s “Kibitzers and Fools: Tales My Zayda Told Me” offers a little bit of this, a little bit of that — some silliness, amusing illustrations, and wise and whimsical sayings.

But mostly it has Yiddishkeit and stories from the Old Country that often still ring true.

As writer-illustrator Taback, who won a Caldecott Medal for his “Joseph Had a Little Overcoat,” explains in the introduction, many of us speak some Yiddish without even knowing it.

“Have you ever called someone a klutz?” he asks. “Or said something was schlock?

“Or said yadda yadda when someone was talking too much?”

Yiddish, he explains “has become such a part of everyday English that there are some five hundred Yiddish words in the English dictionary.”

Yiddish was “the everyday language of the Jewish people who lived in Eastern Europe.”

“Kitibtzers’ offers 13 tales, some of them adaptations of the stories Taback’s grandfather brought to the United States from his village in Poland. Most have a bit of Yiddish and humorous twists, and all end with a saying.

Take “A Philosophical Dispute.” It begins:

Two kibitzers (smart alecs, know-it-alls) got into an argument.

“Since you think you are so klug (smart),” said the first kibitzer, “try to answer this question: Why is it that when a slice of buttered bread falls to the floor, it always lands on the buttered side?”

They go through a whole megillah (an ordeal), which of course I won’t give away. But here’s the saying at the end, if that helps:

“Just because you can talk, it doesn’t mean you’re making sense.”

“Kibitzers” is recommended for ages 3 and up, but I suspect only the most precocious preschoolers would appreciate the wit. The book is a romp, even for adults.

On the other hand, “In God’s Hands” by San Francisco Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and writer Gary Schmidt tackles a much heavier subject: the mysterious ways in which God works.

To do this, they wisely choose to retell a traditional Jewish folktale about two men who go to shul.

Jacob, the rich man, was always thinking about how to make more money, and habitually slept through the morning service.

David, the poor man, also spent his days at synagogue, working as the caretaker. But his mind was constantly focused on how to feed his family, as he earned very little.

One day at shul, though, Jacob woke up briefly during the reading of the Torah. He stayed awake long enough to hear one verse from Leviticus: “You shall bake twelve loaves of challah, and set them before Me in two rows, six in each row.” Though he fell back to sleep, those words still rang clear hours later.

And so, when he got home, he began baking.

How the loaves of challahs bring the two men together is a secret I’ll decline to share. Let’s just say both learn that God works through human hands, in unexpected ways.

Their journey is a parable worth reading, made all the more enjoyable by Matthew Baek’s beautiful illustrations.

With all of that being said, here’s a saying (one of dozens and dozens) from Taback’s book that I certainly took to heart: “It is easier to be a critic than an author.”

“Kibitzers and Fools: Tales My Zayda Told Me” by Simms Taback (48 pages, Viking Children’s Books, $16.99).

“In God’s Hands” by Lawrence Kushner and Gary Schmidt (30 pages, Jewish Lights Publishing, $16.99).

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.