Background illustration by Josh Baum, from "Malkah's Notebook"
Background illustration by Josh Baum, from "Malkah's Notebook"

Children’s books by local Jewish authors educate and delight

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J.’s coverage of books is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

When the San Francisco dietician and chef Micah Siva searched last summer for a Jewish counting book for her new niece, she was disappointed by the choices. So Siva, who writes a food column for J., and her husband Josh, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, decided to write and publish one themselves.

“1, 2, 3, Nosh With Me” (30 pages, for children under 5) teaches counting with traditional holiday foods, including matzah balls, sufganiyot and hamantaschen. The Sivas’ dog, Buckwheat, also makes an appearance in the book, which was illustrated by artist Sviatoslav Franko, who lives in Ukraine.

Cover of '1, 2, 3 Nosh With Me' by Mica and Joshua Siva“I grew up in an Ashkenazi family, and my husband grew up in a Sephardic family, so the main decision we had to make [for the book] was which cuisine did we want to lean towards,” Micah Siva, 30, told J. “We chose Ashkenazi cuisine because that was my personal experience growing up.”

Siva, who hails from Calgary, Canada, said she has been surprised by how many non-Jewish parents have bought the book to diversify their children’s bookshelves. “Some people have messaged me on Instagram to ask how to sound out words,” she said. “The more that we can show Jewish joy and excitement around Judaism these days, to both Jews and non-Jews, the better.” (Siva will read the book at the JCC of San Francisco on Sept. 17, and she will lead a challah baking class at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette on Sept. 18.)

Another new food-related children’s book, “Just Try One Bite” (Dial Books, 40 pages, ages 4-8), is a clever role-reversal story about unusually health-conscious children who stage an intervention with their junk-food-eating parents. The kids attempt to bribe the adults into trying broccoli, kale, quinoa and other whole foods — “not fast food but slooow foods.”

Don’t be fooled by the fact that one of the authors is Berkeley resident Adam Mansbach, who is best known for his profane children’s books that are actually intended for adults. This is a real kid-friendly book, featuring an adorable multiracial family illustrated by Mike Boldt.

Mansbach co-wrote “Just Try One Bite” with healthy eating advocate Camila Alves McConaughey, who came up with the role reversal idea. “I was brought in to figure out a fun way to do it, and make the words rhyme,” Mansbach wrote in an email to J. “I hope kids and parents will get some laughs — putting the kids in charge is kind of a humor cheat-code, at least in my house — and also be inspired to move past the kinds of stalemates we all have and into more fruitful (and vegetableful) territory.”

Two phenomenal Jewish women in history get their due in new nonfiction biographies.

Bonnie Lindauer recounts the life of the founder of the National Council of Jewish Women in “Hannah G. Solomon Dared to Make a Difference” (Kar-Ben, 32 pages, ages 5-9). Born to German immigrant parents in Chicago in 1858, Solomon lived through the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 — which is dramatically illustrated by Sofia Moore — and organized events for Jewish women at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Cover of 'Hannah G. Solomon Dared to Make a Difference' by Bonnie LindauerAs the first president of the NCJW, she worked to improve the lives of immigrants and children by agitating for safer housing, free nursery schools and public playgrounds. She also pushed for work training for women and was involved in the women’s suffrage movement, alongside her friend Susan B. Anthony.

“[She did] all of this while she was still a devoted mother and wife,” Lindauer, a San Francisco resident and member of Congregation Am Tikvah, said during a Jewish Community Library virtual event in December. “Indeed, like some women of her time, she helped recast the Jewish mother from a quiet guardian of the house to a woman who could be deeply committed to her home life and also make important contributions to society.”

“The Woman Who Split the Atom: The Life of Lise Meitner” (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 264 pages, ages 10-14) is about a Vienna-born physicist who worked with Albert Einstein and discovered nuclear fission with Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in 1938 — shortly after she fled the Nazis and settled in Sweden. Yet only Hahn was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery. It is an injustice that Marissa Moss of San Francisco highlights in this engaging book, which includes Moss’ own illustrations at the beginning of each chapter.

The cover of “The Woman Who Split the Atom: The Life of Lise Meitner” by Marissa MossA prolific children’s book author who is best known for the “Amelia’s Notebook” series, Moss told J. she learned about Meitner from her son, who is studying astrophysics in graduate school. “I fell in love with her,” Moss said. “She was born at a time when women in Austria couldn’t even go to high school, and yet she crammed in high school and went to college when the law was changed. She was so determined to study science, which was not something women did. She just had a force of courage and conviction that I find inspiring.”

How did Meitner feel about her inadvertent contribution to the creation of nuclear weapons? “She was very clear that she never wanted it to be used for weapons,” Moss said, noting that Meitner refused to collaborate on the Manhattan Project. “After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she talked about how there was a duty to make sure this didn’t happen again.”

Finally, for young readers who are excited by the supernatural, there is much to savor in two Kabbalah-inspired picture books.

“Malkah’s Notebook: A Journey into the Mystical Aleph-Bet” (The Collective Book Studio, 312 pages. all ages) follows a young girl in an ancient city as she learns the Hebrew alphabet and explores the secret meanings behind the letters — first with her father’s help, and then, as she grows older, on her own. Author Mira Z. Amiras, an anthropologist who retired from San Jose State University in 2012, draws on sources as diverse as the Zohar and archaeological reports on ancient Near Eastern deities.

Cover of “Malkah’s Notebook: A Journey into the Mystical Aleph-Bet” by Mira Z. AmirasA San Francisco resident, Amiras told J. the father character was inspired by her own father, Seymour Fromer, who founded the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley and who gave her her first alef-bet book. “I still have it, and to tell the truth, I think it shaped my whole life,” she said. “I wouldn’t have said it then, but what I learned was that the alef-bet is animistic, that is, each letter is alive.”

“Malkah’s Notebook” includes astoundingly beautiful illustrations by the Israel-based sofer and artist Josh Baum. A companion animated film, “The Day Before Creation,” can be streamed for free online. (Amiras will discuss and read from the book on Aug. 28 at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley.)

In David Fankushen’s “My Grandpa Has Superpowers” (Fulton Books, 28 pages, ages 5-9), a San Francisco grandfather gains mystical powers through his study of Kabbalah. He uses these powers to help his grandchildren overcome challenges in their lives.

Cover of 'My Grandpa Has Superpowers' by David FankushenHe helps one find his stolen bicycle by casting a spell over the thief, and he helps another win a basketball game by fashioning a new golem teammate out of the mud at Lake Merced.

“I’ve always enjoyed making up stories for my own grandchildren,” Fankushen, a retired physician and former board president at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley, told J. “I wrote this book as a fun read for children who have similar problems in their lives, and to teach several aspects of Jewish mysticism and kabbalistic history.”

All books mentioned in this column are available to order from Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and other online retailers.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.