September 14, 2009
Reviews of Sukkot Treasure Hunt by Allison Ofanansky, illustrated by Eliyahu Alpern (Kar-Ben, 2009) and The Secret Shofar of Barcelona by Jacqueline Dembar Greene, illustrated by Doug Chayka (Kar-Ben, 2009).
I tend to judge a children's book by the things that happen after the book is closed. What questions does it raise? What conversations does it lead to, if any, or is it destined to be cast aside after one read in favor of another round of My Little Pony: A Very Minty Christmas? (Don't look for diversity from the Little Ponies is all I have to say.)
Picking up Sukkot Treasure Hunt to test-market on my two youngest, I was skeptical. A book about an earnest young Israeli family hiking into the woods to find their four species? I wasn't sure that my kids, who are just beginning their Jewish education, would much see the point of this. In fact, I was pretty sure my 5-year-old would ask why they didn’t just drive to the mall to pick up something at the lulav store.
Instead, they were enthralled. Maybe it was Eliyahu Alpern's vivid photography as he documents an afternoon spent with a young girl and her Abba and Ima, clambering over rocks and through streams in the countryside of the Galilee. Or maybe it was Ofanansky's text, which takes delight in the shiny leaves of the bay tree, the scurryings of the hyrax and the spicy richness of the myrtle smell. Young readers see myrtle, willow and date palm in the natural world and they also get a glimpse of Israel at its most beautiful, with the golden afternoon light spilling over every page of Alpern's exquisite photographs. We even get a glimpse of city life as the family takes a bus back from their successful hunt.
Of course, my children now assume everyone in Israel wears a hat, since the observant family and all their friends cover their heads. But while I was puzzling over things like, Why does the little girl have to cover her head in some pictures and not in others? my kids were immersed in the fun of the treasure hunt. The explanatory "fun facts" section goes into more detail about each of the four species, and the holiday of Sukkot in general, but my test-marketees were too impatient to sit through anything remotely educational. They were too busy using their older sister's graph paper to sketch out their plans for the family sukkah, and after that, my 8-year-old led the expedition into the backyard to hunt for four species. Sukkot Treasure Hunt sparked their enthusiasm for the holiday and their interest in the wealth of its details, and at the end of the day, I did not have the heart to tell my son that yellow jasmine is not one of the four species. Maybe Southern Jews could get a pass on that one?
It was The Secret Shofar of Barcelona, though, that led to the most interesting conversations. Jacqueline Dembar Greene tells the story of Rafael, son of the conductor of the Royal Orchestra of Barcelona, who helps his father with a celebratory composition to be performed before the Duke and Duchess and all the nobility. This is not a storybook for all ages, unless you really want to be explaining things like the Inquisition just before bedtime. It faces head-on the problems of being a hidden Jew in 16th-century Spain, and in my house led to uncomfortable questions like, "Why did Catholics hate Jews so much?" This would be a tough question in any family, but especially in mine: I was Catholic until my conversion, and was bringing up my three young kids in the Church as well, though my husband is Orthodox Christian. It could be difficult to deal with this book in a Jewish-Catholic family.
The historical danger associated with being Jewish is not exactly the Rosh Hashanah message I wanted for my kids, but the story itself focuses on the resourcefulness of young Rafael, whose idea it is to incorporate the blowing of the shofar into the concert, so that all the secret Jews will know it is really Rosh Hashanah that is being so joyously celebrated. Rafael's outwitting of the authorities will delight young readers, and older ones will enjoy the frisson of impending menace. I found myself thinking about what it must have done to young children to bear the weight of their family’s secret, to know from a young age what it was to wear a mask in public and to see adults and parents dissembling for fear of their lives. But the charm of the story transcends the darker psychology of it: Doug Chayka's broad, lush brushstrokes in the illustrations evoke the beauty of Barcelona, from marketplace to town square under lantern-light to the festive Rosh Hashanah table, hidden behind curtains from prying Inquisitorial eyes. Everything is bathed in ochre Mediterranean light. I admit I fell in love with the beauty of this story and these pictures, and as long as you're prepared to take on the issues it raises, it's a sure win with young readers.
And the story did, in the end, lead to some great conversation in our house about what it means to hear the shofar. Barcelona's Jews long to hear it, but haven't been able to in 100 years. What does it mean that we get to? That inspired my little audience to talk about hearing the shofar as a privilege, as something we get to do that other Jews have not always been able to. In a houseful of converts of all ages, that led to even more great talks about the privilege of Judaism, along with some of its perils.