New kids books offer gateway to the past

While we all would like our children to care about history, the truth is, if you set a child loose in a library or bookstore, he or she is unlikely to gravitate to the history section (particularly without a school assignment in hand).

Good works of fiction can often stimulate an interest in the past. As readers identify with the characters, they also come to care about the particular conditions they face. Here are four recent suggestions of books for younger and older children that seek to interest readers in long-ago worlds.

Richard Michelson’s picture book “Across the Alley” strains credibility, but is a gem nonetheless. Using economical prose, it tells the story of two boys — one Jewish, the other black — whose apartments are separated by a narrow alley. Abe’s grandfather, a violinist in Europe before the Holocaust, is determined to make Abe a great violinist, while Willie’s father wants him to become a major league pitcher.

Although the prejudices of the 1950s make it hard for the boys to play together in the open, they are best friends at night, communicating through their open windows. While the neighborhood sleeps, each boy shares his craft with the other: Abe passes his violin to Willie and teaches him to make music, while Willie shows Abe the secrets of good pitching (which Abe’s grandfather has dismissed as a waste of time). In the end, it is Willie who plays at Abe’s recital, and Abe who takes the mound in a baseball game.

Michelson’s understated telling evokes broader issues such as racism, slavery and the Holocaust only in brief revelations. It is up to an adult to flesh out these issues. In addition, young readers may take racial tolerance for granted, and may not recognize the courage it takes for Willie and Abe to make their friendship known in broad daylight at the end of the book. However, even without an appreciation of the larger social framework, kids will enjoy seeing how the two boys grow in ways that are counter to what their families expect, and manage to make everybody feel good in the process.

The setting takes inspiration from the author’s own childhood, as he witnessed his Brooklyn neighborhood change from largely Jewish to predominantly black. The gorgeous watercolors by Caldecott winner E.B. Lewis create a wonderful sense of place.

With lively illustrations, Heidi Smith Hyde’s “Mendel’s Accordion” is both one family’s immigration story and a primer in the bumpy path of Yiddish music in the 20th century. Mendel is an accordionist in Eastern Europe whose traveling klezmer band brings music to the surrounding towns and villages. When bad times fall upon the villages, Mendel sells all his belongings except his accordion, and joins the wave of immigration to America. On the ship he finds fellow musicians and creates a new band.

Eventually, with his descendents preferring jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, Mendel’s music is no longer heard. However, with Mendel long gone, his great-grandson discovers an accordion collecting dust in the attic, and eventually he brings the music to life again for a new generation.

Besides being an endearing introduction to emigration from Eastern Europe and the role of music in Jewish life, the book can be a jumping off point for intergenerational discussion. What traditions in your family have endured, changed, or been discarded? Are there any practices that warrant a breath of new life?

For older readers, Karen Schwabach’s “A Pickpocket’s Tale” is one of the more compelling works of historical fiction about Jews in recent years (it has even garnered an adult fan base). It begins in 1730, with 10-year-old Jewish orphan Molly Abraham picking pockets to survive on the mean streets of London.

After being arrested, she is incarcerated for months in unspeakable conditions until she is shipped off to the American colonies to be sold as an indentured servant (sharing the fate of more than 50,000 British convicts during the 18th century, in a little-known chapter of American history).

Upon her arrival in New York, Molly’s bond is purchased by a Jewish family. Molly despises New York and her new situation, and, although her standard of living greatly surpasses that of her life on the streets, she plots an escape to

return to her former life of thievery across the Atlantic. However, due in large part to the kindness and education the Jewish family bestows upon her (including teaching her about her Jewish heritage), she experiences moral growth that leads to a different course of action.

Based on good research, the novel offers a detailed depiction of 18th-century life in England and the emerging colonies. The modern reader will be amused that, when seen through the eyes of Londoner Molly, Manhattan is just a sleepy village. Schwabach also shows the challenges faced by the small segment of the population trying to build a Jewish life in the New World.

One of the book’s distinctive features is that much of Molly’s speech is loaded with the thieves’ dialect of London, known as flash or cant, which allowed common criminals to converse without being understood by prospective marks. Some readers may be turned off by the extra labor Molly’s speech demands, but most will enjoy navigating the secret language. There is a glossary in the back, and kids who have survived Harry Potter’s talk of Muggles and Squibs will probably be able to parse most of the vocabulary contextually.

Schwabach’s afterword is interesting, revealing some of what was invented and what was factual. We learn, for instance, that it was the practice of Jewish colonists to pay the price of bondage of Jewish servants — not to free them, but to ensure that they would be able to observe the laws of kashrut and Shabbat.

Moving back considerably further in time is Deborah Bodin Cohen’s “Lilith’s Ark: Teenage Tales of Biblical Women,” composed of first person narratives drawn from the lives of women in the Book of Genesis (or, in the case of Lilith, midrash on Genesis) during their teenage years. Each figure concludes her story by adding a lesson she learned to a figurative ark, creating a body of wisdom for Jewish women to call upon when facing challenges.

Beyond their moral power, the stories help readers imagine the interior lives of the featured women — who tend to have little voice in the classical texts — as well as their daily lives in the difficult conditions of the ancient Middle East. They also cast light on figures who receive little attention, such as Joseph’s wife Asenath.

Bodin Cohen, a Reform rabbi in New Jersey, keeps fairly close to the traditional texts and their commentaries. It is important to her to make the stories part of a journey of study and communication. The end of the book includes a discussion guide for each story that includes questions, resources for further study and prompts for a “Mother-Daughter Dialogue” to help teens and parents use the book as a vehicle to increase communication during the turbulence of adolescence.

Howard Freedman is the reader services librarian at the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.

“Across the Alley” by Richard Michelson (32 pages, Putnam Juvenile, $16.99)
“Mendel’s Accordion” by Heidi Smith Hyde (32 pages, Kar-Ben Publishing, $7.95)
“A Pickpocket’s Tale” by Karen Schwabach (240 pages, Random House Books for Young Readers, $15.95)
“Lilith’s Ark: Teenage Tales of Biblical Women” by Deborah Bodin Cohen (120 pages, Jewish Publication Society, $14)

Summer reading for adults

With summer only a month away, even adults should start making those beach reading plans! Here are three recent releases worth your attention. All are available at the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.

“Call Me by Your Name” by Andre Aciman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23)

The author of “Out of Egypt” and “False Papers” has received plaudits for his passionate first novel, released at the age of 56. The book expresses the intense feelings and revelations that emerge in an unexpected romance between a 17-year-old Italian Jew and the 24-year-old American scholar staying with his family over the summer on the Italian Riviera.

“The Palestinian Lover” by Sélim Nassib (Europa Editions, $14.95)

This one’s sure to raise eyebrows, chronicling an “impossible affair” between Golda Meir and Palestinian aristocrat Albert Pharaon during the 1920s. Yes, you read that correctly! Lebanese-Jewish writer Nassib achieves not only a plausible portrayal of an unlikely romance, but a vivid recreation of Palestine during the turbulent period of the British Mandate.

“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins, $26.95)

Local legend Michael Chabon’s long-awaited new novel is a feat of bold storytelling, and defies the art of synopsis. Its premise, as in Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” is history having taken an alternate course: As the result of both a Roosevelt Administration initiative to offer Alaska as a temporary haven for Jews fleeing Hitler, and the failure of the establishment of the state of Israel, several million Jews are now holed up in Alaska (earning the nickname “the Frozen Chosen”). Set against this environment is a hard-boiled murder mystery incorporating chess, heroin and Chassidism. Now go read the book already!

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.