A first time for everything, and the blessing to go with it

The first day of school, a baby brother’s new tooth, lighting the Hanukkah candles — these are a few of the many firsts that young children experience. A new picture book by Oakland author Joanne Rocklin, “I Say Shehechiyanu,” helps children to see these wondrous firsts and appreciate them with a special blessing.

“The Shehechiyanu is a really beautiful concept,” Rocklin said of the Hebrew blessing traditionally said upon experiencing something new. “It’s giving thanks and being in the moment and cherishing new things.”

Joanne Rocklin

Though Jewish parents sometimes say the Shehech-iyanu when their child takes first steps or says a first word, Rocklin couldn’t find any book for children about the prayer. “I Say Shehechiyanu,” illustrated by Monika Filipina, charts a young girl’s life over the course of a year while she encounters new holidays, seasons and experiences. She gives thanks “when I see a curled up bud, waiting to open,” or “when I learn how to braid the challah dough.”

Rocklin has been writing children’s books for decades, but “I Say Shehechiyanu,” published this month, is only her second picture book. Most of her books are aimed at elementary-school children, and though they often contain Jewish themes and characters, she considers the new one her first “Judaic” book. Last year’s “Fleabrain Loves Franny,” which focuses on a Jewish girl recovering from polio in 1952 as the Salk vaccine was being developed, won the Association of Jewish Libraries’ Sydney Taylor Book Award for notable book for older readers.

“A lot of the Jewish books for children are very holiday-based, food-based or, for older kids, Holocaust-connected, but Judaism has some very gorgeous concepts [like] tzedakah and tikkun olam,” Rocklin said. “I wanted to write a book about a Judaic principle that incorporates all these things.”

Rocklin grew up in Montreal loving books and moved to Los Angeles as an adult, where she worked as an elementary-school teacher and a clinical psychologist. In L.A. she connected with members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and was able to take classes from authors and illustrators who helped her develop her craft. “It was wonderful place for me to end up as a writer,” Rocklin said.

She moved to Oakland in 2007 to be closer to her two sons and four grandchildren in the Bay Area. She’s now written more than 20 books and said that being a grandmother inspired her to write about the Shehechiyanu prayer.

“Even more than being a parent, you’re very much in the moment and aware of the first things that are happening; you’re not worrying about other things when you’re with your grandchild,” Rocklin said. “I thought, gee, what has been done using the prayer with children?”

The book is dedicated to Rocklin’s grandchildren and to Temple Sinai, where Rocklin is an active member. “A lot of my Jewish education was an adult and as an writer,” she said.

“I Say Shehechiyanu” by Joanne Rocklin (Kar-Ben, 24 pages). A book-release party will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 8 at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.