Jews, it is said, are the people of the book, which may explain why Jews buy so many books, both to read themselves and to give to others. Book publishers know that the marketplace is full of Jewish customers with a high level of secular education, a reasonable degree of Jewish awareness and strong aesthetic sensibilities. And now they're having children.
So at BookExpo, the recent gathering of publishers from across the nation, mainstream publishing houses proudly showed off books geared toward today's American Jewish youngsters. Their fall 2004 children's lines predictably featured holiday activity sets ("The Hanukkah Candle Kit," Running Press), jolly shtetl stories ("When the Chickens Went on Strike," Dutton) and real-life tales of youngsters enduring the Holocaust ("Searching for Anne Frank: Letters from Amsterdam to Iowa," Abrams).
Meanwhile, those publishing houses that specifically serve a Jewish readership face the challenge of defining their own focus. Stuart Matlins, who heads Jewish Lights Publishing, Judye Groner, editorial director of Kar-Ben Publishing, and Rabbi Hara Person, editorial director of UAHC Press, are all leading figures in the Jewish book world. All three, operating outside of traditional Orthodox publishing norms, are looking to engage young Jewish readers raised on Dr. Seuss and "Sesame Street."
Their publications downplay shtetl and Lower East Side settings in favor of the here and now. It's been nearly 30 years since Judye Groner and Madeline Wilder co-founded Kar-Ben to give their own children an alternative to stories like the classic "K'tonton," in which all characters were observant Jews of the immigrant generation. UAHC's Person puts it bluntly: "Jewish life still happens today."
Still, all three publishers get frequent submissions in which grandma is a white-haired bubbe with knitting needles and a Molly Goldberg accent. Matlins counters, "Today's Jewish grandma has a college degree and plays golf."
In depicting contemporary Jews, the three publishers try to convey the range of modern Jewish religious practices. In this they part company with the Orthodox Jewish presses, like ArtScroll, which Matlins credits with "doing a superb job of meeting the needs of their audience." In books by Jewish Lights and Kar-Ben, women wear slacks, rabbis may be female and boys and girls pray together. UAHC Press, the official publishing arm of the Reform movement, conscientiously reflects the Reform tradition of accepting many viewpoints. Person reveals that an upcoming picture book, "Shabbat Shalom," in which a family welcomes the sabbath, ignited serious debate among UAHC's staff as to who should be depicted wearing a kippah. The final decision was to put kippot on the heads of the mother and son characters, while leaving father and daughter bareheaded. Person explains that the father's head was left bare to suggest that he might be a non-Jew or perhaps a classic Reform Jew who eschews the traditional headcovering on philosophical grounds.
Jewish Lights Publishing, based in Woodstock, Vt., mirrors its staff's commitment to what Matlins calls "vibrant, living, liberal Judaism. We are believers." Matlins makes clear that "the need we satisfy is for books that inspire and address a child's spiritual life." Ten years ago, the company published its first children's picture book, "God's Paintbrush," by Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. Since then it has continued publishing works by Sasso, Lawrence Kushner and others that facilitate parent-child conversations about the nature of God. It's consistent with the values of Jewish Lights that God, in such new books as Sasso's "Adam and Eve's First Sunset," is carefully kept free of gender and denominational bias. In fact, Jewish Lights describes itself as "for people of all faiths, all backgrounds."
At Kar-Ben, Groner says, "We keep away from God, pretty much." She feels that Kar-Ben and Jewish Lights serve "different needs of the same audience." For Kar-Ben, one big goal is to introduce Jewish youngsters to the sights, sounds, and smells of Jewish life. Early on, the assumption was that many parents, as well as their children, had little knowledge of Jewish tradition. Today, however, Groner presumes that families are comfortable with basic Judaism, so Kar-Ben books are intended less to teach rituals than to use them "as a backdrop for looking at problems and issues that children face as children." Groner cites "The Purim Surprise," an upcoming book in which the custom of giving shalach manot treats helps resolve the anxieties of the new girl in town. She describes Kar-Ben's mission as "looking at the issues young children face, but through Jewish lenses, in the context of Jewish time and space."
The concept of physical diversity is important to all three presses. The illustrations for UAHC Press' "The Perfect Prayer," a fable about the origins of the "Shema," deliberately include characters of various sizes, shapes, and ethnicities. In fact, all three publishers -- mindful of intermarriage, conversion and the large number of Jews adopting babies overseas -- strive to incorporate Asian, black and Middle Eastern characters into their pages. They also try hard to present stories from a wide range of Jewish traditions, not simply the Ashkenazic. Kar-Ben will soon publish "Apples and Pomegranates," a Sephardic Rosh Hashanah service complete with prayers, recipes and stories. UAHC's Person is excited about "A Year of Jewish Stories," a collection of 52 folktales from all over the Jewish world.
The quality of Jewish children's books is of serious interest to the Association of Jewish Libraries, which monitors new books and award-winners through its comprehensive new Jewish Values-finder Web site (www.ajljewishvalues.org). Its editor, Linda R. Silver, explains why Jewish children's books are important: "The dominant, non-Jewish culture offers many attractions and benefits. It is all too easy and all too tempting to cast off one's Jewish identity -- especially if a strong one has never been developed." She urges American parents to explore Jewish books for their children. So does Lisa Silverman, director of the Sinai Temple Library, which will hold its first Jewish Children's Literature Conference, open to the public, on Nov. 9.
For more information about the conference, contact email@example.com .
Recommended Reading for Children
Not all books mentioned in the accompanying article are currently on the market. Here are some new Jewish children's books that are more readily obtainable:
Holidays and Ritual:
"It's Sukkah Time!" by Latifa Berry Kropf (Kar-Ben).
For preschoolers: bright photographs of children celebrating Sukkot.
"The Perfect Prayer," by Donald Rossoff (UAHC).
A midrashic fable about the creation of the "Shema," complete with politically correct illustrations.
"Lots of Latkes," by Sandy Lanton (Kar-Ben).
A light-hearted shtetl Chanukah story.
Bible and Folk Tales:
"Adam and Eve's First Sunset," by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (Jewish Lights).
A gentle, gorgeously illustrated exploration of faith.
"Jerusalem of Gold: Jewish Stories of the Enchanted City," by Howard Schwartz (Jewish Lights).
Tales from many traditions.
"Tasty Bible Stories: A Menu of Tales & Matching Recipes," by Tami Lehman-Wilzig (Kar-Ben).
One example: the story of Jacob and Esau is followed by recipes for Jacob's Lentil Stew and Spicy Lentil Dip.
"When the Chickens Went on Strike," by Erica Silverman (Dutton).
A retelling of Sholom Aleichem's yarn about the Rosh Hashanah custom of kapores.
"Hana's Suitcase," by Karen Levine (Albert Whitman).
Award-winning true story of Japanese students' efforts to track down the owner of an empty suitcase.
"Searching for Anne Frank," by Susan Goldman Rubin (Abrams).
A chronicle of Anne Frank and her Iowa penpal, drawn from the Museum of Tolerance archives.
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