Literary Offerings to Harvest Your Brain

As I write this article, Hurricane Isabel has come and gone; its destructive force headlined the news, offering a strange but appropriate counterpoint to writing about children’s books on Sukkot and Simchat Torah. In today’s world, these holidays, following on the heels of Yom Kippur, remind us of the swift changes life brings and underscore the fragile nature of our security. Through stories, we can find shelter in the joy of offering hospitality, in helping others, in relishing happiness when we can and in acknowledging human courage and endurance in the face of trouble. These are all themes to explore as you sit, rejoicing with your children and guests, in your sukkah.

Books About Booths, Building, Bonding and Blessing

Rochel Groner Vorst’s “The Sukkah That I Built” (HaChai, 2002, preschool) is a lively Sukkot story based on the rollicking rhythms of “The House That Jack Built.” Colorful illustrations by Elizabeth Victor-Elsby humorously contradict the young narrator’s version of how his family’s sukkah was built. The work introduces holiday vocabulary, shows how to build a sukkah and makes family dynamics pretty funny.

Cooperation is the underlying message in “It’s Sukkah Time!” by Latifa Berry Kropf, illustrated by Tod Cohen’s photographs of children in a synagogue preschool (Kar-Ben, 2004, preschool). Cute kids and their teachers build a sukkah and celebrate the season. Even when it rains, they don’t mind, thinking of next year’s good harvest.

Speaking of rain, for those in moister climes, Susan Schaalman Youdovin has written “Why Does It Always Rain on Sukkot?” illustrated by Miriam Nerlove (Albert Whitman, 1990, 4-8). In this fable, when all the Jewish holidays are blessed with special gifts by the chief angel, Sukkot, believing he has been overlooked, starts to cry. Then he learns his gift is too large to fit indoors. Everyone rushes outside to celebrate his lovely booth and the lulav and etrog it contains. Now, the story goes, each harvest time Sukkot remembers the sadness of feeling forgotten and weeps again, his tears falling as raindrops to the earth.

Aydel Lebovics concentrates on the mitzvot of lulav and etrog in his picture book, “Zaydie’s Special Esrogim,” illustrated by Dovid Sears (Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, 1991, 4-8). Though the illustrations are not enthralling, we’re provided with a thorough introduction to the assembly and use of these special symbols, as well as to the concept of tzedakah. Includes a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish words.

“Night Lights: A Sukkot Story” by Barbara Diamond Goldin (UAHC Press, 2002, preschool — 8) was originally published in 1995, but this new edition has softer illustrations by Laura Sucher. Daniel tries in vain to hide his fear when he and his big sister sleep in the sukkah alone for the first time. He finds courage when she encourages him to consider the stars overhead as eternal night lights, and falls asleep thinking of his ancestors looking at the same stars long ago.

Books About Hospitality and Helping

Welcoming the ushpizim introduces the idea of hospitality’s importance in Jewish life. One example is “Who’s That Sleeping On My Sofa Bed? A Tale About Hospitality” by Ruby M. Grossblatt (HaChai Publishing, 1999, 3-8) with simple pleasant pictures by Sarah Kranz. Yoni loves the comfy new sofa bed his parents bought but seldom gets to sleep on it because so many visiting rabbis, sofers and others stay overnight in the Block’s welcoming home. When he thoughtfully gives up his turn on the bed to his Bubbie, his parents decide he is ready for a bigger bed of his own.

“Pot Luck” by Tobi Tobias (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1993, 4-9) and “A Song for Lena” by Hilary Horder Hippely (Simon & Shuster, 1996, 5-9) emphasize the importance of sharing the best we have with others. In the first, a granddaughter helps prepare “pot luck” for a visit by an old friend; in the second, Lena’s grandmother tells of how sharing fresh-baked strudel with a beggar in Hungary brought her family a very special gift in return.

Two outstanding books for sensitizing children to the fragility of other people’s lives are “Fly Away Home” by Eve Bunting (Clarion Books, 1991, 5-10), the story of a homeless boy and his devoted father who find temporary shelter in Los Angeles’ airport, and “Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen” by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan (Morrow Junior Books, 1991, 4-8), a visit to a soup kitchen through the eyes of a young boy whose uncle volunteers there.

“Partners” by Deborah Shayne Syme (UAHC, 1990, 5-9) and “Mitzvah Magic” by Danny Siegel (Kar-Ben/Lerner, 2002, 8-14) both provide specifically Jewish ways to become God’s partners through acts of tikkun olam. Siegel provides a great variety of suggestions and organizational contacts.

Torah as the Source

Finally, celebrate Simchat Torah by reading “When Zaydeh Danced on Eldridge Street” by Elsa Okon Rael, illustrated by Marjorie Pricement (Simon & Shuster, 1997, 4-8), an Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Award winner. Take a joyous glimpse through young Zeesie’s eyes of her stern grandfather who is transfigured by his love of Torah and of her as he dances with the scrolls on Eldridge Street.