Shoshi the ox refuses to work on the Sabbath in "Shoshi's Shabbat" by Caryn Yacowitz.
Shoshi the ox refuses to work on the Sabbath in "Shoshi's Shabbat" by Caryn Yacowitz.

‘Shoshi’s Shabbat’ and ‘The Peddler’s Gift’: Children’s books by local authors celebrate Jewish values

Caryn Huberman Yacowitz of Palo Alto is the prolific children’s book author of “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel” and “Baby Moses in a Basket,” as well as a series about Native Americans. Her latest Jewish-themed book is a charming tale about a Sabbath-observant ox.

You read that correctly: In “Shoshi’s Shabbat,” a Jewish farmer in the Jerusalem hills sells his ox to a non-Jew, who runs into trouble when he tries to yoke Shoshi to plow his fields on Saturday. As Yacowitz writes in an author’s note, the story is based on a midrash found in Hayyim Nahman Bialik’s “Book of Legends.” The midrash concerns Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta, who was not born Jewish but who learned the importance of rest from his cow — a lesson that set him on the path to conversion. (Ben Torta means “son of a cow.”)

Caryn Huberman Yacowitz
Caryn Huberman Yacowitz

“There are things in the Torah that speak to Jewish respect for and protection of animals,” Yacowitz told J. “I feel that as humans, we have much to learn from other living creatures, and that other creatures in the world need our respect and our protection and our love.”

The lively illustrations are by Kevin Hawkes, who is known for his depictions of animals in books such as “Library Lion.” “I think he handles animals with so much compassion and so much humor,” Yacowitz said. Her favorite illustration in the book shows Shoshi with a can’t-be-bothered look on her face as Yohanan goads her to work on Shabbat. “That’s the teenage look,” she said. “Every time I see it, I laugh.”

Yacowitz dedicated “Shoshi’s Shabbat,” which was recently named one of the best children’s books of 2022 by Tablet, to two of her teachers at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills: Rabbi Janet Marder, who retired in 2020, and Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback, who is now the senior rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles.

Asked to share her interpretation of the book, Marder wrote in an email to J.: “The story is about a non-Jew who eventually converts to Judaism because he’s so moved by the cow’s devotion to Shabbat, and so inspired by the concept of a day devoted to rest, renewal, and family relationships. I mentioned to Caryn that I thought it could also describe the transformation I’ve seen when less-observant (or non-observant) Jews encounter Shabbat, and come to appreciate its beauty. I’ve seen people who discover what Shabbat can be when they have meaningful personal experiences of Friday night dinners, Torah study, worship, leisurely Shabbat lunches, or time spent in nature with a supportive Jewish community.”

“Shoshi’s Shabbat” by Caryn Yacowitz, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Candlewick, 48 pages)

Maxine Rose Schur’s recently reissued “The Peddler’s Gift” is about an eccentric shtetl salesman from Pinsk, in the Pale of Settlement, who has a penchant for self-sabotage. For example, he tells one prospective buyer, “Nu? You really want to buy these handkerchiefs? The cloth is thin, and the stitching poor. Better you keep your money.”

On a trip to the fictional village of Korovenko, Shnook — as the peddler is mockingly known by the village’s children — accidentally leaves behind a wooden dreidel at the home of a boy named Leibush. The boy struggles with the decision of whether to keep the dreidel or return it, ultimately learning a lesson about honesty and forgiveness.

Originally published in 1999, “The Peddler’s Gift” won a Sydney Taylor Book Award, given by the Association of Jewish Libraries.

A resident of San Rafael and the author of 19 children’s books, including a biography of Hannah Szenes, Schur said “The Peddler’s Gift” was inspired by stories her Polish-born mother told about the Old Country and other Jewish folk tales she read. “I had always loved the good but misunderstood, mistreated and hapless characters of Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer and I.L. Peretz, such as Tevye, Shlemiel, Gimpel and Bontsha the Silent,” she said. “I wanted to create my own character in this vein.”

The moral of “The Peddler’s Gift,” which is illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root, is that “we mustn’t judge people by outward appearances, and everyone has a light within them,” Schur said.

Her next children’s book, “When Zissel Got Rich,” about a vain Jewish woman who learns the value of family, will be published in April.

“The Peddler’s Gift” by Maxine Rose Schur, illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root (Lawley Publishing, 36 pages)

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.