By Penny Schwartz
(JTA) —This year’s crop of High Holidays books for children offers a globe-trotting exploration. Friendship and family are the themes that run through five new titles that entertain and inform young ones and older readers. Turning the pages of a new book is the perfect way to usher in the holidays.
Celebrating Rosh Hashanah can be tough for a young penguin in Antarctica. There are no bees to make honey and no apple trees — just a lot of snow. This is a warmhearted, offbeat introduction to the Jewish New Year, illustrated with photographs of penguins and their natural habitat. In simple rhythmic verse, the Israeli-based writer conveys the themes of Rosh Hashanah – reflection, forgiveness, faith and family. Bonus: There’s a penguin origami craft project at the end.
This High Holidays story features a contemporary haredi Orthodox family getting ready to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, from apple picking to harvesting honey to hearing the shofar. The author is a kindergarten teacher at a Jewish day school in Charlotte, N.C., where she grew up.
It’s Yom Kippur and Talia, who sometimes confuses grown-up words that sound like others, is visiting her grandparents on their farm, where she helps her grandmother prepare kugel for the family’s break fast. Merry mayhem follows when Talia mistakes the Hebrew word “yom” (meaning “day”) for “yum” — and she begins to grow impatient for her family’s “breakfast” as she wonders why a “fast day” is moving so slowly. Grandma comes to the rescue by explaining that on Yom Kippur, people pray, fast and ask for forgiveness for any wrongdoings, leading to a heartfelt set of apologies between Talia and Grandma. A truly yummy break fast ends the tale — and there’s a kugel recipe at the back of the book.
Tamar, the spunky heroine of this tale, is on a mission to make her plain family sukkah just right — older kids in the neighborhood are invited, one by one, to lend a hand. The award-winning artist Katherine Janus Kahn, whose books include the hugely popular Sammy Spider series, brings the action to life with bright illustrations that depict a pleasant, suburban multiracial neighborhood filled with squirrels, puppies and bunnies. In the final double-page spread, the kids gather to admire their handiwork and share a simple snack. “A sukkah full of friends is just right,” Tamar exclaims.
Thius Sukkot story imagines the experiences of a family that fled Nazi Germany to Shanghai in the early 1930s. Despite their overcrowded neighborhood, young Marcus is eager to build a sukkah in his new country. Marcus and his Jewish pals, helped by their new friend Liang, build a simple rooftop sukkah using ingenuity. But Marcus is disappointed that it is too plain. To cheer him up, Liang invites Marcus to the Chinese Moon Festival, China’s traditional autumn harvest festival. A puzzling riddle that Marcus finds inside a glowing paper lantern leads to an unexpected act of kindness by his new friend. Marcus discovers a deeper meaning to the holiday.
Illustrations by the noted Hawaiian artist Jing Jing Tsong vividly portray daily Jewish life in Shanghai in shades of browns and grays — in contrast to the red, gold and orange that pop on two double-page spreads depicting the holidays, both Jewish and Chinese. An author’s note explains the heroism of Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who helped thousands of Jews escape Nazi Germany by obtaining visas to travel through Japan and eventually settle in Shanghai.