Three Beautiful Books for Jewish (and all other) children

Three illustrated children's books

It takes some work these days to find children’s books that are not a bunch of rhyming words pasted onto computer generated, simplistic illustrations, a cash grab disguised as an attempt to teach our kids letters, numbers, shapes and the likes, or the tired expression of overextended brand name X or Y (looking at you, Dora).

The more I frequent public and community libraries, the more little gems I find, like the following three books, discovered hiding in plain sight on the shelves of the Greenberg Families Library at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre.

Why Noah Chose the Dove, by Isaac Bashevis Singer, illustrated by Eric Carle.

What to expect from a collaboration between the wonderful Yiddish author who gave us The Golem and Yentl, and the fantastic author-illustrator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Mixed Up Chameleon but a little marvel of a book?

Having heard that Noah is soon to take on his ark only the best of living creatures, all the animals set out to set themselves apart, boasting about their unique qualities and demeaning others’. All except the Dove, who humbly says: “Each one of us has something the other doesn’t have, given us by God who created us all”.

Noah then goes on to reassure anxious animals: he tells them that he loves them all and that they will all have a place on the ark: “I love all of you, but because the dove remained modest and silent while the rest of you bragged and argued, I choose it to be my messenger.” What a nice way to introduce the concept of humility to children, and to remind adults that, although we often experience it that way, life is not about competition.

Never Say a Mean Word Again, A Tale From Medieval Spain, by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Durga Yael Bernhard. This little story of two boys who started out as enemies and inadvertently become friends is part of the Wisdom Tales series, which is in itself a treasury of beautiful tales from different cultures and regions around the world, and a great source of unique children’s literature.

In this story inspired by the life of Samuel Ha-Nagid, Samuel is instructed by his impressive father to “make sure Hamza never says a mean word to [him] again”, after Samuel accidentally spilled water and food on Hamza’s tunic. Hamza did not want to believe it was an accident and called Samuel names before running away. As he tries to follow this difficult instruction, Samuel ends up spending a lot of time with Hamza, and the two become good friends. In the end, Samuel’s father asks “Then you did what I asked?”. And Samuel realizes that he did, in fact, do exactly that. A really lovely and timeless story.

The Hidden Artist, by Leah Chana Rubabshi, illustrated by Phyllis Saroff.

This is another take on explaining God to young children as the God of B’Rreshit (Genesis).This gorgeously illustrated poem about a little boy who marvels at the beauty of the world around him is a simple reminder of the abundance and beauty that surrounds us and that we so often forget to look at. Surely, only an artist can be behind such a wonderful world? It is published by Hachai, a Jewish Publisher, and God is called “Hashem”, but only once, at the end of the book, so don’t let it deter you if you are not Jewish: you can always explain that a Jewish person wrote the book, and that Jews call God “Hashem” 😉 There are so few quality books out there that appeal to our little ones’ sense of wonder, don’t deprive yourself of this one.

Another thing to love about this book is that the pages are laminated! They don’t tear, and you can wipe them off in a jiffy in case of accidental snack-time reading spillage. I do try to teach my kids to respect books and treat them well, but I am very grateful when I can let them enjoy a book by themselves, and they certainly appreciate the freedom as well.

What about you? Which books have enchanted your world, as a parent or as a child? I am always looking, so please share 🙂

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The God of Toddlers – Explaining God to my three year old

“Maman, what does “Adonaï” mean?”

I knew the question would come up at some point, when Samuel would start wondering what the Hebrew words we say every morning, most nights and on Shabbat mean. I had tried as best I could to prepare an answer that would suit his understanding of the world, but at that point, I did not feel I had found a good one.

I had looked at a few children’s books and websites on the topic (see below), but found that even the better ones of the lot tended to circumvent the answer rather than give one.  I had asked a few friends and family members how they did it with their kids, but knew that what had worked for them would not work for me:

I cannot explain God to my children as a sort of all powerful, omniscient, omnipresent human-like figure who watches, rewards and punishes everything they do, because that is not my understanding of God.

I find it creepy. It reminds of the disturbing Christmas song (“he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake…) that, for all the jolliness of its tune, is bound to elicit a few nightmares in young minds.  It makes God into a somewhat scary, authoritarian grandfather figure who must be obeyed, instead of a source of awe, moral fortitude and inspiration. Young children have enough anxieties as it is, I don’t need to give Samuel another reason to summon me in the middle of the night. Plus, it would take all of three days before his clever toddler mind found a way to use it to his advantage. (“Sam, what do you think you’re doing, going through my drawer?” “Don’t worry maman, God said it’s OK.”) Finally, even his young mind is able to see that bad things happen to good people, and that reality simply doesn’t jive with that representation of God.

So, I knew what I did not want to say, but I was not sure what to say when Samuel asked this all important question. I started with the simplest answer:

“That is one of the names we give to God, because we don’t know its real name.”
“What’s God??”

Oh boy, here we go… “Er… I…”

And then, a flash of inspiration hit. Out of my improvised answer, basically, came the God of B’rechit (Genesis). I didn’t have that far to look after all:

– “Well, we’re not sure exactly, but it is what created the plants and all the animals, the Earth and the sky, the rivers, the stars, the sun and the moon, and people too.”
– “And snow too?”
– “Yes, snow too.”
– “And also castles?”
– “No, actually, people build castles. God made all the things we need to build them, like sand and stones and water and wood, and people build castles.”

It’s not perfect, but it is simple enough to grow as his curiosity and intellect develop. For the time being, it did exactly what it was supposed to do:

When we say our brachot  (blessings) and prayers now, Samuel will have an idea of whom (or what) we are thanking: not an intimidating figure who is always watching him, but the source of all Life and of all the things people needs to build castles.

I figure this will hold until Passover comes around and we have to explain a God who sends things like pestilence and slays an entire people’s first-borns to free another (ours…) from bondage. That gives me a good, what, six weeks, to come up with something decent?  Oh boy, here we go…