Thursday, March 31, 2011

Books for the (Jewish) Holidays

While there are many, many books available about Jewish holidays, I have found most of them merely adequate.  Since my children and I are already familiar with the holidays, I'm usually not looking for books that explain their historical background or how to observe them.  I'm really seeking books that simply take place during a certain holiday, transmit Jewish values and, most importantly, tell a good story.  Here are my two favorites and one series I just can't stand.

In Barbara Cohen's The Carp in the Bathtub, Leah, now an old woman, relates how, as a child she and her brother Harry once tried to rescue the eponymous carp from his destined fate - to become gefilte fish which will be eaten at the Passover seder.  Although she and Harry fail in their mission (vegetarians and those with sensitive children, consider yourselves warned), the book is delightful.  Bringing details of the early-twentieth-century Jewish immigrant experience to life (Leah and Harry have a bathroom in their apartment, rather than down the hall, meaning that they have the burden of bathing twice a week, rather than once, at least until the carp takes up residence), the book has humor and warmth (and, some - but not me - might say, verges on kitsch).  It is also wordier and a bit longer than most picture books, almost a picture novella.  That and the subject matter make it more appropriate for kids approximately ages 5 and up.

In my other favorite, The House on the Roof by David Adler, an old man keeps dragging objects he collects off the street into his apartment, without the reader (or his landlady) knowing why.  Each time his landlady spots him with his haul, she yells at him.  When he brings his grandchildren up to the building's roof to see the sukkah he built with the ephemera, she follows him there and is not pleased to discover that he's erected a structure on her roof.  In fact, she is so offended that she takes the old man to court, insisting he has no right to build anything on her property.  The old man begs the court's mercy, explaining that he built the sukkah so he could observe the holiday of Sukkot which  lasts only another 4 days.  The judge agrees with the landlady.  "You're right," he tells her.  "It is your building."  Then, in a stroke of Solomonic wisdom, he tells the old man "I'll give you just ten days to take your sukkah down."  With its courtroom setting (which I love, both because I work in one and because it's not only the only depiction of a courtroom in a picture book that I know of, but one of the few depictions of a workplace) and sophisticated ending, it's also for the 5-and-up set.  It would be great paired with a visit to Sukkah City, an annual exhibit of sukkahs created by artists and architects which meet the technical, religious-legal requirements of sukkah-dom but which look nothing like traditional sukkahs.  My whole family went to the first Sukkah City in 2010 and we were all fascinated, kids included.

Now, for my least favorite Jewish holiday books: the popular Sammy Spider series.  They are pedantic, condescending and simply boring.  I especially can't stand it when, every time Sammy expresses interest in celebrating a Jewish holiday along with the Shapiros, whose home he and his mother inhabit, she scolds him, "Spiders don't celebrate [insert holiday here].  Spiders spin webs."

What is your favorite Jewish holiday book?


  1. It's not a holiday book, but my girls and I love All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor, which contains several Jewish holidays, and the preparations that go into them.

  2. @mouseprints: one of my favorites! I wrote about it here:

  3. If I remember correctly, the Sammy series is explanatory and has a bit too much hard sell (rah-rah Jewish holidays) while The Carp and The House on the Roof just tell good stories, simply describing the holidays warmly.