Cheryl F. Coon is the author of Books to Grow With: A Guide to the Best Children's Fiction for Everyday Issues and Tough Challenges. Cheryl lives with her husband and children in Portland, Ore.
Two Books That Teach about Judaism
Reviews of Tastes of Jewish Tradition, by Jody Hirsh et al, Jewish Community Center of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2002. 298 pages. ISBN 0-9713461-0-0. $26.95 and Look What I See! Where Can I Be? AT THE SYNAGOGUE, by Dia L. Michels, Platypus Media, 2003. Unpaged. ISBN 1-930775-16-4. $16.95.
Several years ago, while teaching third-grade at Congregation Beth Israel here in Portland Oregon where I live, I was asked to introduce my class to our synagogue and to Jewish holidays. It was a daunting challenge, even with the resources with which I was provided. Now that I've read Tastes of Jewish Tradition, I wish it had been available to me for my class!
Both for families already familiar with the Jewish holidays and especially for interfaith families, this attractive book provides helpful yet simple descriptions of individual Jewish holidays, their meaning and significance, and ways to celebrate with foods, crafts and stories. The recipes are easy to follow and very forgiving for non-cooks. For example, while encouraging families to try their hand at making challah (and providing a variety of appealing recipes), Tastes of Jewish Tradition also suggests that frozen bread dough can be used to make the experience more child-friendly. There's no sense of a right or wrong way to do things that might put off an interfaith family. Rather, the tone is welcoming, reassuring and cheerful.
Little snippets of useful information are slipped into the text in a simple and straightforward manner. Did you know that the Jews of North Africa have a seder at Rosh Hashanah that includes food puns? Or that it's a tradition on Tu B'shevat to drink four glasses of wine ranging from all white to dark red, reflecting the changing nature of the land in Israel? Tastes of Jewish Tradition is a resource well suited to an interfaith family that is interested in dipping its collective feet into Judaism or even to a non-interfaith family that is less familiar with the details of holidays or is seeking new ideas for recipes and crafts. The layout of Tastes of Jewish Tradition is attractive and easy to use, and the organization of the book is logical and consistent. The bright illustrations, including an appealing cover, are a bonus.
Unfortunately, another offering for families is much less helpful. Look What I See! Where Can I Be? AT THE SYNAGOGUE purports to be an introduction to the synagogue and ritual objects, so I examined it with special interest as a former teacher of this subject matter. It's clear from the language that the narrator is supposed to be a very young child. Yet the voice we hear is not that of a young child and that makes it confusing. The simplicity of the information and the tone suggest that the book is aimed at a very young audience, so it would have been nice to have stiffer (and sturdier) pages, such as a board book format.
The authors introduce various symbols, such as a kiddush cup and a chuppah, but you have to go to the glossary at the end of the book for a small-print explanation of the actual significance of each symbol, somewhat akin to having to look at footnotes. It's very unlikely that a toddler would sit still for the explanations. What's more, these explanations are written at a more sophisticated level, yet an older child would reject the extremely simplistic tone of the book. It's difficult to see who would find this book useful.
For your money, the better choice is Tastes of Jewish Tradition--it will be useful over and over again throughout the year and you might even learn something new!