Jewish Journal

Spectator - Young Historians Find Their Genre

by Gaby Friedman

Posted on Feb. 16, 2006 at 7:00 pm

When Erica Silverman was looking for a subject for her latest children's nonfiction book, she decided to seek inspiration from one of the most famous Jewish writers of all time, Sholom Aleichem.

With pathos and humor, Sholom Aleichem amused generations of fin-de-siecle Jews with his Yiddish stories exposing the idiosyncrasies of shtetl life. His writing found its place in the canon of Yiddish literature, but today many Jews are familiar only with the most popular adaptation of his work, the musical "Fiddler on the Roof."

"I think Sholom Aleichem has a spirit of mischief in him that has a natural appeal to children," said Silverman, whose book "Sholom's Treasure, How Sholom Aleichem Became a Writer" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) is being showcased this week at the Jewish Literature for Children conference at Sinai Temple. "His writing captures a pivotal moment in Jewish history, [when Jews] were at a turning point between the past and modernity, and I think [this book] is a good way to introduce children to that part of Jewish culture."

"Sholom's Treasure" is adapted from Aleichem's autobiography, "From the Fair," and tells the story of a mischievous boy who wants only to please his indigent father by finding a treasure to solve his woes. Beautifully illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein, the book introduces young readers not only to Aleichem, but also to a time when Eastern European Jews lived in poverty in tiny villages, always scrambling to make ends meet.

At the conference, Silverman will be joined by others who write Jewish history for kids, including Boston-based Norman Finkelstein, who recently published "Ariel Sharon," (Lerner Publications, 2005) a young-adult biography of the Israeli prime minister. Finkelstein said he was drawn to the Jewish children's nonfiction genre when, as a public school librarian, he couldn't find any books geared to a younger audience about the Holocaust or some of the great Jewish historical figures.

"I wanted to find a book that [spoke about these subjects] in very simple, non-threatening and nonfrightening language, and I couldn't find [them]," said Finkelstein, who spoke to The Journal by phone from his home in Boston.

For these authors, children and young adults represent a fresh audience.

"I know it's a cliché, but children are our future," Silverman said. "I remember the effect that reading had on me [growing up], and I want to share that experience with another generation."

The "2006: Focus on Non-Fiction" -- Jewish Literature for Children, Third Western Regional Conference," will take place Feb. 20 at Sinai Temple's Blumenthal Library, 10400 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. For more information and registration, contact Susan Dubin (818) 886-6415 or e-mail Lisa Silverman lsilverman@sinaitemple.org.


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