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Kids’ Books that Matter: The Jewish New Year

As we set about raising our children in the Jewish faith, I insisted they attend a Jewish pre-school. While on one hand, I wanted to have a support system for any questions I might have along the way (having been raised Catholic and not yet converted to Judaism) I also needed good childcare. I do remember thinking, at one point, that we shouldn’t have to pay tuition in September/October as it seemed the school was closed most of the time for one holiday or another. I was not working at a Jewish place of business, so arranging for babysitting or explaining my need for days off was no easy task.

The cycle of the Jewish year starts with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which in 2017 begins on the evening of Wednesday, September 20. (Sometimes it seems so early because it does seem early to those of us who mark time by the Gregorian calendar.) Of course, Rosh Hashanah is on the same day as always – on the Hebrew calendar – the 1st day of Tishrei starting the 5774th year since creation.

Rosh Hashanah is followed ten days later by Yom Kippur, the holiest and most solemn day on the Jewish calendar: a day of fasting, repentance and prayer. Three days after that we are building sukkahs, (booths) in which to eat, sleep and wave our lulavs (palm fronds, myrtle and willow branches) and etrogs (rather like a large lemon), as we celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, and seven or eight days after that we are marching around the synagogue with Torahs and Israeli flags celebrating Simchat Torah (the Joy of Torah). That is a lot of holidays in a bit shy of a month, each having their own foods to prepare, rules to follow and traditions to create.

I always found it easiest to enjoy these holidays after immersing myself in books. I knew that good pictures, easy instructions and good stories would help me understand where the holiday had come from and what its message was about. From there, I would prepare recipes, find crafts and games or create rituals that would be interesting for our children and the group of interfaith friends who shared the holidays with us, as we all learned together.

This is a list of some of the books I have used and new books I am currently recommending for this festive time of year (check back soon for Sukkot book suggestions):

The Jewish Holidays: a Guide & Commentary by Michael Strassfeld.
William Morrow, ©1993. Adults.

My go-to book for all things Jewish holiday related. Not only does it clearly explain the how-to’s of each holiday, but it provides the whys and the possibilities as well. Whether you are an observant Jew who just wants some additional insight or are new to Judaism and want to understand what is going on, this is the book for you.

Celebrate Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur: with Honey, Prayers, and the Shofar by Deborah Heiligman.
National Geographic Children’s Books, ©2007. Ages 3-9.

Part of the Holidays Around the World Series, this introduction to the High Holidays (as the ten day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is often called) provides a multi-leveled look at how the New Year is welcomed by Jews all over the world. With large lettering, very young children can look at the beautiful pictures (it is National Geographic after all) and be read to. Additional text provides older readers a more thorough understanding of the Holidays’ traditions. Finally, the back of the book contains more information – facts, recipes, resources and even a short explanation by a rabbi.

Talia and the Rude Vegetables by Linda Elovitz Marshall, illustrated by Francesca Assirelli.

Kar-Ben Publishing, ©2011. Ages 4-8.

In this fun story, with a delicious recipe, Talia learns the difference between a “rude” vegetable and a “root” vegetable and in the process learns about Teshuva (repentance/apology) and Tzedakah (Giving charity to those in need) two of the important themes of this holiday season.

Tashlich at Turtle Rock by Anna Schnur-Fishman and Susan Schnur, illustrated by Alex Steele-Morgan.

Kar-Ben Publishing, ©2010. Ages 4-8.

Tashlich (casting off) is the ceremony performed following Rosh Hashanah when Jews traditionally “cast off” their sins, in the form of bread crumbs, small stones, etc. into water. The family in this book has created their own Tashlich tradition, a hike in the woods following Rosh Hashanah services. While not “traditional,” I find the creativity and uniqueness of this idea to be intriguing and one that families from many traditions might adopt for any new beginning.

Sammy Spider’s First Yom Kippur by Sylvia A. Rouss, illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn.

Kar-Ben Publishing, ©2013. Ages 3-6.

Hot off the press and just in time for 5774, Sammy Spider returns for his 20th birthday with his 20th book! How perfect that Sammy and his friend, Josh, are learning to say, “I’m sorry,” since the big theme of the High Holiday season is repentance. According to Jewish tradition, God will forgive hurts between God and each individual, however God will not forgive hurts between individuals. For that, each individual must go to those s/he has hurt and ask for forgiveness – a task always a little difficult for the very young. So nice to have Sammy Spider’s help.

What a Way to Start a New Year! A Rosh Hashanah Story by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Judy Stead. KarBen Publishing, ©2013. Ages 4-9.

All Dina wants is a round challah and some honey cake to start her New Year. Instead, it looks as though she will be eating pizza surrounded by boxes in the new home her family just moved into. Until her Dad, who isn’t even Jewish, arranges for the family to meet his coworker at their nearby synagogue. From there, the New Year just gets better and better. A fun story illustrated with cute, brightly colored art, about an interfaith family who makes the most of life’s changes by embracing new adventures.

L’Shana Tova/Happy New Year/Happy Reading!

Kathy Bloomfield