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Republished September 19, 2011
Reviews of Papa Jethro by Deborah Bodin Cohen, illustrated by Jane Dippold (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2007), ages 4 to 8; Always an Olivia: A Remarkable Family Story by Carolivia Herron, illustrated by Jeremy Tugeau (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2007), ages 9 to 12; and The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Lisa Brown (McSweeney's Books, 2007), ages 4 and up.
Many books for children of interfaith families focus on parent-child relationships. But interfaith families also include extended families and grandparents.
In Deborah Bodin Cohen's Papa Jethro, Rachel wants to know why her Grandpa Nick goes to church while she goes to synagogue. “Shouldn't we be the same?” she asks. In the time-honored tradition of grandparents everywhere, Grandpa Nick answers her question with a story, or rather midrash, as this story is based on Torah. Once upon a time, he assures Rachel, a Jewish boy named Gershom also had a beloved grandfather, Papa Jethro, who followed a different religion. Papa Jethro was a Medianite. Whenever he came to visit Gershom they would play games, eat candy and share stories just like Rachel and Grandpa Nick. And like Rachel, Gershom wondered why they couldn't share the same religion. “Being Medianite is important to me,” Papa Jethro tells him, just like “Being Jewish is part of you.”
Of course, Gershom is no ordinary boy. He's the son of Moses, who married Zipporah, Jethro's daughter, during his exile from Egypt. Torah describes Jethro as a wise and just man who often came to help the Israelites while they lived in the desert. Though scripture says little about his relationship with his grandson, this story provides a gentle reminder that interfaith families have been part of Jewish tradition from the beginning. Cohen's language is sometimes a little didactic, but the overall feeling is one of tenderness and love between grandparents and grandchildren, past and present. When Rachel asks, “Does it matter to you that I am Jewish and you are Christian?” her grandfather says, “Rachel, you are my granddaughter. Nothing else matters.”
Carol Olivia Herron also reaches back into history to demonstrate how interfaith families can be found in unexpected places. Subtitled “A Remarkable Family Story,” Always an Olivia is based upon the life of Sarah Shulamit Ben Asher, who settled in Georgia's South Sea Islands with her husband James in the early 19th century. An Italian Jew of Spanish descent, Sarah had been kidnapped from her home in Venice by pirates, an unfortunately common danger for Jews at that time. James, who had been forced into service aboard the pirate ship, fell in love with her and helped her make a daring escape. When they finally reached America, the Islands proved a safe haven. Their children grew up there and intermarried with the indigenous population of free Blacks known as Geechees. Still wary of persecution though, Sarah Anglicized her middle name to Olivia, in honor of the olive branch signifying peace, and relinquished most of her religion except for the practice of lighting candles every Friday night.
Those two things — the name Olivia and the candle lighting — were passed down to the women of every subsequent generation until they reached Herron who first heard this story from her own great-grandmother in 1957. The inherent drama of Sarah's adventures will make this book especially appealing to older children. Some younger children may be a bit frightened by the kidnapping scene and parents should use their discretion when reading out loud. Children in the recommended 9-12 age group, however, will recognize Sarah as a worthy heroine: brave, passionate and resilient. Herron, who describes herself as “a Jew of African ancestry,” has written frequently about both sides of her family. Her brief historical note at the end reveals that Jews were not actually considered “white” in this country until the 20th century, an intriguing fact that parents can use to spark further discussions about ethnicity, religion and race.
On a completely different but timely note, the holiday season is here and we all know that Hanukkah is not the “Jewish Christmas.” Don't we? If you need a quick refresher, Lemony Snicket will be glad to give you one. It all starts in a little house, in a little town where one snowy night a little latke is born. And the first thing it does is jump out of the frying pan screaming. Wouldn't you if someone dropped you in hot oil? Speeding down the streets the latke encounters various Christmas decorations who invite him (it's a boy!) to stop and join the festivities. This forces him to explain the defeat of the Greeks by the Maccabees, the eight days of light, and why he's not a hash-browned potato for a Christmas ham. At last, he ends up deep in the woods nestled at the foot of a comely pine tree where he's discovered by a family out in search of the perfect... latke.
Snicket, author of the popular middle grade novels, A Series of Unfortunate Events, brings his trademark off-beat humor to this small book which carries a big message — it's great to share holidays, but sometimes sharing means honoring all the things that make traditions different rather than alike. At a budget friendly $10, The Latke Who Wouldn't Stop Screaming might be that ideal last minute gift for the proverbial “children of all ages” — whether you're stuffing a stocking this year or spinning a dreidel.