The books read to you when you are a young child stay with you forever. These days there are an overwhelming number of Jewish picture books, and it can take some dexterity to avoid the vast swamps of kitsch, treacle or outmoded role modeling. But there are some gems that should be read, kept, hoarded if out of print and set aside for the next generation. Here are five reliable favorites that will enliven storytime at home or in school.--Amy E. Schwartz
Sarah Somebody (1969) by Florence Slobodkin illustrated by Louis Slobodkin
This practically forgotten book is a shtetl tale with the very modern theme of female empowerment. Sarah, living in a Polish village with her large family, longs to be "somebody" and is presented with a rare opportunity for her, a girl, to learn to read and write. Her wise grandmother, with whom she spends her days, is wistful; she never learned to write her own name. When she asks Sarah to write it for her, the two share a piercing realization: Sarah has never actually heard her grandmother's name, since everybody calls her Grandma. This beautiful book deserves to be reissued and rediscovered.
The Carp in the Bathtub (1972) by Barbara Cohen illustrated by Joan Halpern
The Carp in the Bathtub is a crowd-pleaser that recounts the story of a brother and sister on the Lower East Side who try to save the Passover carp from its inevitable fate. Reissued for its 30th anniversary, it is still in print today. Adults remember it with pleasure, but the ending may be too much for some children. After all, we live in an era when even the wolf in "Peter and the Wolf" productions for children is generally rescued at the end. If you have junior vegans in your household, or would like to avoid inspiring any, proceed with caution.
The Always Prayer Shawl (1993) by Sheldon Oberman illustrated by Ted Lewin
Children love this story of a grandfather, a grandson and a prayer shawl, which is told in incantatory, Yiddish-inflected prose, with the repetition small children love. Adam grows up in a shtetl, comes to America, moves to the suburbs and grows old in a changing world. But he keeps his grandfather's tallit, which wears out and is replaced piecemeal in the manner of that other classic tale, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. Late in the book, Adam tells his grandson that the prayer shawl "has changed many times... It is just like me. I have changed and changed and changed. But I am still Adam." The book is a lyrical evocation of Jewish continuity.
Matzah Ball (1994) by Mindy Avra Portnoy illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn
Far from tales of the shtetl, Passover asks for a more contemporary treatment--though there's still a sly miracle at the end of this story. Kids who like sports love this tale of Aaron, who is invited to an Orioles game during Passover and struggles with the prohibition on ballpark treats. He meets an old man who shares his bag-lunch matzah, helps Aaron catch a miraculous fly ball and then disappears. "And come to think of it," Aaron asks, "how did he know my name?" Hanukkah at Valley Forge (2006) by Stephen Krensky illustrated by Greg Harlin
Two years into the American Revolution, on a cold, snowy night, General George Washington is walking the camp at Valley Forge when he spots a young Jewish soldier, a Polish emigre, lighting Hanukkah candles in his tent. He questions him and is deeply moved by the story of a long-ago revolution and a people's struggle to be free to worship in their own way. The story is based on an anecdote that Washington himself recounted to a Jewish family; they were describing their Hanukkah customs to him over lunch and were surprised that he already knew of them. For older children, especially for those starting to put American and Jewish identity together, this is a captivating and affirming tale.
German journalist Heinrich Heine famously wrote, "Where books are burned, in the end, people will also be burned." This may seem like history, but today there is still tension between the belief that the free and creative expression of ideas is important and the anxiety that ideas are threatening and potentially harmful. At its extreme, this results in books being banned and writers persecuted. Sometimes books written by Jews have been banned by non-Jews; in other cases, Jews have censored and repressed the words of other Jews. Read the following books and then judge for yourself whether they should have been banned.--Marilyn Cooper
Ethics (1677) and Theologico-Political Treatise (1670) by Baruch Spinoza
Spinoza's brilliant Ethics and Theologico-Political Treatise were banned for labeling common Jewish beliefs and practices as superstitious and ignorant and for denying the existence of the biblical God and the divinity of Torah. He was put under herem or excommunication and, at age 23, expelled from the Amsterdam Portuguese Jewish community for his unorthodox opinions. Israel's Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion asked the Chief Rabbi of the Portuguese community to posthumously pardon Spinoza, but the request was denied.
Life Goes On (1933) by Hans Keilson
Keilson's semi-autobiographical Life Goes On was the last novel by a Jewish writer to be published in Germany before Hitler's anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws came into effect. It was banned by the Nazis the following year, and in 1936, Keilson fled to the Netherlands, where he joined the resistance movement after the Nazi invasion. A few years before his death in 2011 at age 101, Keilson's novels were translated into English; novelist Francine Prose describes him as "one of the world's greatest writers."
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (1947 in Dutch, 1952 in English) by Anne Frank
Frank kept the diaries that were later compiled into a book between 1942 and 1944 while in hiding from the Nazis in occupied Amsterdam. Although it is one of the most famous recountings of the Holocaust, the book has been banned in some American public school systems for being "anti-Christian" and because of Frank's explicit discussion of her emerging sexuality. The definitive later edition of the diary, which has drawn most of the recent objections, contains sections that were edited out of the original by Frank's father, such as, "There are little folds of skin all over the place, you can hardly find it. The little hole underneath is so terribly small that I simply can't imagine how a man can get in there, let alone how a whole baby can get out!"
Howl (1956) by Allen Ginsberg
An iconic poem of the 1950s Beat Generation, "Howl," from Ginsberg's 1956 collection Howl and Other Poems, was considered obscene for its raw imagery, openly sexual content and pronouncements of a cultural revolution. Lines such as, "who blew and were blown by those human seraphim" caused 520 copies of the poem to be seized in March 1957, and Ginsberg was accused of trying to flood the U.S. with filth and dirt. The book's publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was arrested and brought to trial on obscenity charges. Ferlinghetti was acquitted, and the trial turned the poem into an international sensation.
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