Three new kids’ books, and some poetry for adults

Books for the High Holidays.
September 18, 2014

“Apple Days: A Rosh Hashanah Story” by Allison Sarnoff Soffer. Illustrated by Bob McMahon (Kar-Ben, 2014)

Every year at holiday time, Katy looks forward to making applesauce with her mother. When she shares her excitement with her religious school classmates, she also mentions the other exciting news: Later in the month, she will have a new baby cousin. 

A well-written, preschool-appropriate story of a young child and her mother sharing the love of picking fresh apples and then cooking together, “Apple Days” blends the themes of the Rosh Hashanah holiday with the value of living as part of a warm Jewish community. When the baby arrives on the exact day Katy is planning to go apple picking with her mom, she is disappointed, and it makes her sad that her plans have been thwarted. But her caring community of friends, including the crossing guard, her teacher, principal, hairdresser, shoe salesman and rabbi, work together to make Katy’s applesauce-making day as enjoyable as she had hoped it would be. Katy learns how to work around disappointment with the help of her father and friends and shares her cooking success with her classmates and even the new baby. Alert readers may note that the illustrator has realistically depicted an ethnically diverse Hebrew school class — a nice change from other books for the Jewish preschool set. (Also, no biggie here: a woman rabbi.) An applesauce recipe at the end looks very tasty and would be easy to make with young children upon finishing this cheery, enjoyable book.

“Rabbi Benjamin’s Buttons” by Alice B. McGinty. Illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt (Charlesbridge, 2014)

Gastronomic Judaism is alive and well. This delightfully illustrated tale takes us around the Jewish year through the delectable meals consumed by kind (and adorable) Rabbi Benjamin. He and his little dog (kids can search for the pup somewhere on every page) welcome congregants to his synagogue with the motto, “A happy congregation is the sunshine of my heart.” The congregation loves him so much, they make him a special holiday vest, “fastened in the front with four shiny silver buttons.” And a great-looking vest it is: bright yellow, with appliques of various Jewish holiday symbols that can be seen even from the back of a crowded sanctuary. On the fall holidays, the rabbi’s grateful congregants shower him with delicious homemade goodies: honey cake and apple torte on Rosh Hashanah, sweet potato pie and stuffed cabbage on Sukkot. 

After visiting a different family’s Sukkah each night — pop! — one of the four shiny silver buttons pops off and lands in the etrog jelly. Uh-oh … Rabbi Benjamin is getting fat. Other buttons pop off after latkes at Chanukah and a bit too much charoset at the Passover seder. What to do? He has lost his silver buttons, but he does have an idea. Over the summer, he does extra gardening to prepare for next Sukkot’s harvest, hikes to the lake for next Passover’s gefilte fish and helps with the apple harvest for upcoming Rosh Hashanah. But having slimmed down a bit too much, his wonderful holiday vest now sags and looks terrible. He unsuccessfully tries tallit clips where the buttons should be. Even his dog is embarrassed. The tale ends satisfyingly as the always-happy congregants gather together to make a new, even more splendid holiday vest for the upcoming New Year. The laughter-inducing pen-and-ink watercolor illustrations of the overjoyed congregation happily offering delicacies to their beloved rabbi will delight any reader. And consider trying a few of the mouthwatering recipes at the back of the book.

“Goldie Takes a Stand: Golda Meir’s First Crusade” by Barbara Krasner. Illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley (Kar-Ben, 2014)

Picture-book biographies are gaining more and more popularity as publishers are embracing the Common Core curriculum goals of learning through reading nonfiction. When searching for a children’s biography of a well-known Jewish person, parents can generally find a bevy of Einsteins and a shelf of Houdinis, but nothing on Israeli political figures — not even Ben-Gurion or Herzl. So it is a pleasure to find this new release for very young children relating a specific incident in the life of young Golda Meir. Many little girls will find a kindred spirit in the story of Golda Mabowehz, a take-charge kind of kid (read: bossy; but that’s OK, considering her later career) who sees a need in her community and decides to fix it. 

In this case, author Barbara Krasner embellishes the true story of the American Young Sisters Society, a group of Jewish immigrant girls formed by 9-year-old Goldie, who naturally appoints herself president. She explains to the group that they are there to do something about the problem of kids in their school who do not have enough money to buy textbooks. They each need to raise 3 cents a week — a nearly impossible sum — the same price as a loaf of bread or a quart of milk. Goldie ingeniously comes up with a plan to add a 2-cent surcharge on groceries purchased by the patrons of her mother’s grocery store while mother is gone; but this backfires when customers object. Goldie masterminds another plan, this time more ambitious: She will secure a large hall and invite important people to a public meeting where she, a 9-year-old fourth-grader, will give a speech persuasive enough to secure funding for the cause. 

“Education is the only way to lift ourselves out of poverty … I ask each of you to look into your hearts and wallets and give what you can.” 

Krasner states in her afterword that this incident in Meir’s life is true and was written about in The Milwaukee Journal of Sept. 2, 1909. It may have also been related in Meir’s autobiography, which is listed in the useful bibliography, but this is not stated. The brown and gray palette chosen by illustrator Kelsey Garritty-Riley is historically appropriate, and the added touches of early 20th-century wallpaper patterns enhance the period feel. Black-and-white photos of a young Meir, age 6, alongside a much later picture of her as prime minister of Israel with the caption, “She never stopped taking a stand on important issues,” brings her life full circle.

“The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season” by Marcia Falk. Brandeis University Press, 2014.

Poet and translator Marcia Falk’s 1996 groundbreaking “Book of Blessings,” inspirational liturgy from a feminist perspective, has been a wedding gift staple for almost 20 years. Now she continues her translations of traditional Jewish liturgy, this time turning to High Holy Days prayers. Falk’s newest book of prayers, poems and reflections aims to appeal to those who have a deeper connection to their Judaism but feel uncomfortable with patriarchal imagery. Her gift for capturing the essence of holy days spirituality will be appreciated and admired — prayers can be read in English or Hebrew, with the layout and design appealing and easy to follow. The book is organized as a kind of alternative machzor — reimagining the prayers starting from the evening Rosh Hashanah meal to the Kaddish and the Unetaneh Tokef 10 days later. Falk describes it as a “companion for travelers on the to-and-fro journey of the Ten Days of Returning — inward to the self and outward to relationships between self and other.” She wants to be inclusive; she believes that these re-creations of Jewish prayer will appeal to anyone — believers or non-theists, religious or spiritual, secular or humanist. She writes, “The High Holiday liturgy, with this emphasis on sin and judgment, can strike a discordant note even for those who pray regularly during the year. My intention in this book is to bring fresh language and meaning to the seasonal liturgy and to speak to the widest possible spectrum of Jews looking for a new experience of the High Holidays.” Rabbis and lay leaders surely will find a treasure trove of beautiful readings to add to their services. This touching book can be used as either an alternative or a supplement to traditional liturgy, creating real meaning and adding a special vision of the High Holy Days as we open our hearts to forgiveness and teshuvah.

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