Books coverage is supported by a generous donation from Anne Germanacos.
As a new decade arrives, one of my first impulses is to reflect on the one we have just left behind.
In the field of Jewish books, it was a decade in which American Jewry started to be reflected more accurately in books for young children. The decade saw the publication of books acknowledging families with same-sex parents, books portraying Jewish children with autism, and books with dramatically increased representation of Jewish ethnic and racial diversity. And we found more portrayals of strong women, including picture book biographies of Clara Lemlich, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Gloria Steinem directed at young readers.
Jewish children’s books can sometimes lag in the storytelling department, but I appreciate that they are often emphatic in communicating ethical aspirations. Here are a few examples from 2010s that are deserving of another look.
Two picture books from 2018 offered welcome depictions of friendships between Jews and Muslims. “Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam” by Fawzia Gilani-Williams introduces a Muslim woman and a Jewish woman, both religious, who are neighbors in Israel and take pains to care for one another when their lives become more difficult. The plot will be familiar to many, as it’s essentially a reworking of the oft-told story of the two brothers who secretly shower each other with the bounty of their farming.
Jane Breskin Zalben’s “A Moon for Moe and Mo” also explores Muslim-Jewish encounters, although this time in Brooklyn. Moses Feldman and Mohammed Hassan meet at a market and become friends. Their relationship develops as Rosh Hashanah happens to coincide with Ramadan — which, due to the different cycles of the Muslim and Jewish calendars, occurs only every three decades — and brings their families together.
I’m a sucker for stories that model people being kind and giving to one another. In “A Hat for Mrs. Goldman” by Michelle Edwards, Mrs. Goldman knits hats for her neighbors to keep their heads warm during winter — it’s her way of taking care of others. When her young neighbor, Sophia, notices that Mrs. Goldman doesn’t have a hat for herself, she takes it upon herself to create a hat, using what she has learned from Mrs. Goldman.
In Michael Herman’s “The Cholent Brigade,” a man named Monty Nudeman decides to shovel the sidewalks and driveways in his neighborhood during the snowy months (a behavior that will be exotic to most Bay Area kids). After his back goes out in the course of shoveling, he becomes homebound. Fortunately, the families at his synagogue are thoughtful, and a succession of children arrives to Monty’s home, each bringing a container of cholent — a slow-cooked stew traditionally eaten by Ashkenazic Jews on Shabbat. A delighted Monty invites the children to stay and enjoy the feast together.
And as long as you got me started with books about cholent, Mara Rockliff’s “Chik Chak Shabbat” is another book about helping and community that happens to revolve around the fabled dish. Goldie Simcha loves inviting the neighbors from her apartment building on Saturday afternoons to enjoy a lunchtime meal of cholent. When her neighbors notice one Friday that she’s feeling too ill to cook, they step up and help.
All three books model helping others, whether as individuals or as a community, and show how kindness can be infectious. Mrs. Goldman, Monty and Goldie have made it a practice to be giving toward others, and their acts are not only valued, but imitated (the children in “The Cholent Brigade” end up shoveling the snow in front of Monty’s house).
Another plus is that all three books model friendships across lines of race and ethnicity. In the case of “The Cholent Brigade,” the ethnic diversity is reflected within the synagogue members themselves.
Lessons in ethical living come not only from how people treat each other, but from how they relate to other creatures, as in the following three books focused on rescuing animals. In Lesléa Newman’s “Ketzel the Cat Who Composed,” which is based on a true story, a composer named Moshe finds a stray kitten on the streets of New York City. Moshe adopts him and calls him Ketzel, the Yiddish word for kitten. As Moshe is struggling to compose, Ketzel walks across the piano keyboard, creating a musical pattern that is just what Moshe needs for inspiration.
Ann Redisch Stampler’s “The Cats on Ben Yehuda Street” is one of several books portraying the many homeless cats found in Israel. Grumpy fishmonger Mr. Modiano resents the neighborhood’s cats. However, when the stray cat his neighbor Mrs. Spiegel has adopted goes missing, Mr. Modiano shows an unexpected side of himself.
Ellen Fischer’s “Latke, the Lucky Dog” is told in the voice of a dog who is adopted from a shelter by a Jewish family at the onset of Hanukkah. He is particularly disruptive to their rituals, and he comes to worry that he may not last in the home. The book helps reinforce the value of being forgiving, all the more important because every child has probably felt a bit like Latke.
I’m eager to see what books for young kids our new decade has in store.