New kids books gently address interfaith issues

Why is Grandpa Christian while I am Jewish?

Questions like this inevitably crop up in interfaith families, and many parents — or grandparents for that matter, find themselves unable to articulate intelligent answers to children’s queries.

Two new books use gentle storytelling to deal with this issue.

“Always an Olivia” tells the saga of how a Jewish man and woman end up settling on the Georgia Sea Islands in 1805. Written by Carolivia Herron, a black Jew, the story is framed by a woman’s conversation with her great-granddaughter.

“Great-Grandma Olivia, were you really alive back in slavery times?” the girl asks.

Yes, she was told, Great-Grandma Olivia was 10 when the Emancipation Proclamation was read and slaves were freed. “I saw all our black folks so happy, and I was happy right with them,” says the white-haired, dark-skinned woman. Her Great-Grandma Sarah was Jewish.

Thus unfolds the tale of a Jewish family that fled Spain during the Inquisition, escaping to a idyllic fishing village in Portugal. They hid their Jewish identity — observing Shabbat behind shuttered windows — but when the persecution of Jews reached Portugal, they packed up and fled, this time to Venice, where they lived happily for several generations.

But around the turn of the 19th century, young Sarah Sulamit was seized by pirates planning to sail to North Africa, to be sold for ransom to wealthy Jews who would pay to free “their brothers and sisters.” Luckily for Sarah, a young man aboard the ship — also a victim of kidnapping — hatched an escape plan. The pair schemed their way off the ship in Tripoli, took refuge in a synagogue and eventually were able to board a ship to America.

They landed on the Georgia Sea Islands, where they married and found a welcoming new community of Geeches, black people from West Africa. The couple lived among the black community and flourished, and their children — and children’s children — married Geeches.

It’s a fascinating story, mostly true, and certainly an unusual one among Jews. Plentiful illustrations, vibrant and warm, help pull all the distant pieces together.

“Papa Jethro,” in comparison, is a much simpler story. It looks to the Bible to help answer the question young Rachel poses to her grandfather one evening.

“Why do I go to synagogue and you go to church?”

Grandpa Nick’s response, that she is Jewish and he is Christian, doesn’t satisfy her.

“But you are my grandpa,” says Rachel. “Shouldn’t we be the same?”

Thinking a bit, Grandpa takes Rachel on his lap and relates the story of the boy Gershom and the grandfather he called Papa Jethro.

Gershom is Moses’ son, the offspring of Moses and Zipporah. She is a Midianite, and her wise father a Midianite priest. Though he lives near his grandfather as a young child, growing up Gershom doesn’t get to see his grandfather that often. But when the two do get together, they share a warm relationship — much like the one between Rachel and her grandpa.

Author Deborah Bodin Cohen, a rabbi, tries to gear down the story for young readers, but — for me at least — it took a while to understand how the characters fit together, both in terms of their relationships and religions. It may be that “Papa Jethro” fits better in Sunday school than at home.

Both books convey an important message to children — that love goes beyond religion, especially within families.

“Always an Olivia” by Carolivia Herron (32 pages, Kar BenPublishing, $17.95)

“Papa Jethro” by Deborah Bodin Cohen (32 pages, Kar-Ben Publishing, $17.95)

Liz Harris

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