As an emerging picture-book writer, I’ve been immersing myself in the world of Jewish children’s literature for a while now. And I’ve been especially happy to encounter multiple books that have broadened my own, grown-up appreciation for Israel.
For reasons perhaps better left to speculation elsewhere, Israel-infused kidlit doesn’t appear on as many book lists as it should, in both mainstream and Jewish contexts. But given the current emphasis on diversity and inclusion within both broader cultural discussions and the Jewish-book world itself, stories set in Israel—many of which feature Jews of color, Sephardic and/or Mizrahi Jews, disabled Jews, and more—are particularly worth acknowledgment and amplification. Moreover, the latest data reveal that the plurality of the world’s Jews (6.93 of 15.2 million people) now lives in Israel. Lists that neglect Israel-infused books thus suffer from a dual flaw: They present incomplete pictures of contemporary Jewish life and identity while also foregoing valuable opportunities to enrich important, ongoing conversations.
Here are just five new or recent picture books worthy of attention in this regard, whether during Jewish Book Month (the 5782/2021 version of which concluded just as the Hanukkah holiday began), or throughout the year.
- A Sweet Meeting on Mimouna Night by Allison Ofanansky, illustrated by Rotem Telpow (Groundwood Books, 2020). A beautiful book set in both Morocco and Jerusalem, highlighting a holiday that this Ashkenazic Jew didn’t know about until well into adulthood. As the back matter explains, Mimouna, which takes place just after Passover ends, “was first celebrated about two hundred and fifty years ago by Jewish communities in Morocco and other parts of North Africa.” This book also celebrates friendship between Jewish Moroccans and their Muslim neighbors, while remaining true to the history of Jewish Moroccan immigration to Israel.
- Pumpkin Pie for Sigd by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod, illustrated by Denise Damanti (Apples & Honey Press, 2021). This one also spotlights a holiday that I learned about only in adulthood: Sigd is an Ethiopian Jewish holiday that takes place 50 days after Yom Kippur—often quite close to American Thanksgiving. (Since the Jewish holy days came “early” this year, Sigd was observed November 3-4.) In this story, a new immigrant to Israel, an American child named Maddie, experiences homesickness as Thanksgiving approaches. Another immigrant, an Ethiopian-born friend named Orly, invites Maddie to join in her family’s Sigd celebration. Maddie’s quest to contribute something akin to pumpkin pie requires assistance from many of her new neighbors, including people who hail from Ukraine, India, and Mexico. The Sigd celebration itself introduces Maddie to food, language, and other customs from Orly’s native country. The book offers a lovely introduction both to Sigd and to Israel’s “ingathering of the exiles” from diverse corners of the Jewish Diaspora. A note explains the influence of the author’s immigrant experience on the story.
- Itzhak: A Boy Who Loved the Violin by Tracy Newman, illustrated by Abigail Halpin (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2020). Focusing on the early years of famed violinist Itzhak Perlman, this picture-book biography opens in the Tel Aviv of Perlman’s 1945 birth, depicting the child’s growing enchantment with the music emanating from the radio; his early, less-than-auspicious experimentation with a toy violin; his polio infection and rehabilitation; a move to the suburbs; the child’s subsequent rededication to the violin; and a fateful audition with Ed Sullivan when the famous TV host came to Israel. The book ends with Perlman’s first trip to New York, at the age of 13, to perform on Sullivan’s show.
- I Am Hava: A Song’s Story of Love, Hope & Joy by Freda Lewkowicz, illustrated by Siona Benjamin (Intergalactic Afikoman, 2021). The “Hava” of this gorgeous picture book is the now-famous Hava Nagilah song, personified by a blue-skinned character (the illustrator explains the factors behind this choice in a thoughtful note about the universal and specifically Jewish resonances of the color). The story details the history of the song from its origins as a Hasidic niggun, to its development as a Hebrew song in Ottoman and British Mandatory Palestine, to more recent and contemporary worldwide performances.
- My Israel and Me by Alice Blumenthal McGinty, illustrated by Rotem Teplow (Kalaniot, 2021). Juxtaposing an especially child-friendly verse narrative with sidebar blocks of nonfiction text, and featuring vivid illustrations, this book presents an array of people who call Israel their own, including city-dwellers, kibbutzniks, Bedouin and other Arab citizens, and immigrants and refugees “from places around the world, including Russia, America, France, and many countries in Africa.” The book also addresses the religious diversity of residents and tourists who follow observances and or visit sites from Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
Erika Dreifus is the author of two books for adults (Quiet Americans: Stories and Birthright: Poems). She is currently seeking a home for her first picture-book manuscript. A fellow in the Sami Rohr Jewish Literary Institute, Erika teaches at Baruch College/CUNY. Visit her online at ErikaDreifus.com.