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New Perspectives on Israel From Three New Picture Books

October 19, 2009

Reviews of Zvuvi's Israel by Tami Lehman-Wilzig, illustrated by Ksenia Topaz (Kar-Ben, 2009), When I First Held You: A Lullaby from Israel by Mirik Snir, illustrated by Eleyor Snir (Kar-Ben, 2009), and The Man Who Flies with Birds by Carole Garbuny Vogel and Yossi Leshem (Kar-Ben, 2009).

If and when I finally get my children to Israel, we will probably not be relying on Tami Lehman-Wilzig's Zvuvi's Israel to guide us around. The conceit's a bit tired--a fly that zips around Israel that children have to find on every page--but Ksenia Topaz's illustrations have a whimsy and detail that made me willing to give it a try. One read was enough, however.

Zvuvi's Israel coverBecause I am an annoying English-major type person, I dog-eared every page on which I found a grammatical or spelling error. I had a collection of five pages at the end, which is evidence of shockingly poor copy editing. It's particularly bad in a children's book, marketed to readers whose eyes might not decode errors as easily as adults. But I was confused too--not by the errors, but by the whirlwind multiplicity of places little Zvuvi was flying. Even for an audience young enough to find a fly wearing a blue sweater amusing, 30 pages is a bit long, and by about page 20, I was peering ahead to see just how many more places we were going to go: dude ranches, the Manara Cliffs, Dizengoff Center, Hamat Gader … it was too much information, particularly if your reader is just getting familiar with Israel. And a book that treats Dor Beach with the same amount of attention as the Kotel would not be the best "welcome to Israel" starter book, I think.

Worse, there were a few cringe moments. A running gag of the book is that wherever Zvuvi goes, people try to swat him. Most of them are Arabs, who are apparently less tolerant both of insects and of poorly designed books. Nor did I care for the book's introduction to the Kotel. Yes, the Kotel is front and center, right there on the first page, but the chapter title is "A 'Wail' of a Time in Jerusalem," and the text itself defines the Kotel as "the Wailing Wall." That's certainly not the name I teach to my children when we talk about the Wall, and not the name most Jewish educators or academics would choose. All in all, both the text and illustrations seem oddly outdated, like a 1960's children's book that somehow landed in 2009, and by the end, I was rooting for all those people trying to smack Zvuvi.

The biggest recent hit in our house was When I First Held You: A Lullaby from Israel. It reminded me of Debra Frasier's On the Day You were Born, which a friend gave to me on my eldest daughter's birth 12 years ago, so I was expecting this to be something of a retread of that book. But Eleyor Snir's illustrations of Mark Snir's text took my breath away, and transfixed my 5-year-old. Each page shows a different animal or element of nature rejoicing in the birth of the child, as the universe joins together in a simple and sweetly phrased lullaby of celebration.When I First Held You

The colorful, highly stylized illustrations are the real centerpiece here, and each page has a fresh delight: the in-utero baby giraffe curled safely up inside his mother, the monkey family nesting in a menorah-tree, baby snakes twining and writhing like calligraphic curlicues. It was the fetal giraffe that did it for my kid, however, and I think she got the message the illustrator intended, which is that love began at a time before your life and will extend after it. It's an irresistible message for little ones, and ends with the saying of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in both Hebrew and English: "The day you were born is the day God decided that the world could not exist without you." I was as charmed by the Snirs' imaginative recasting of that saying as my 5-year-old, and this one goes to the top of my baby gift list for new and expectant parents.

If the Snirs' book is a great find for early readers and their parents, The Man Who Flies With Birds is an equally strong choice for the young adult in the family. I would hesitate to call this a children's book; it's far beyond the capacity of my 8-year-old, and of more interest to my middle-schooler, although the truth is that it's an absorbing and well-written story for adults as well. Carole Garbuny Vogel tells the true story of Yossi Leshem, the Israeli biologist who cared about the millions of birds whose migratory path crosses Israel. In caring so passionately, he revolutionized Israeli aviation. His simple techniques for avoiding bird strikes helped reduce the death rate of Israeli pilots due to bird strikes by 76 percent, and once the effectiveness of his ideas became clear, he was no longer a nuisance that Israeli generals brushed away, but a voice they heeded and honored. Poignantly, the book is dedicated to three Israeli pilots who lost their lives in bird strikes, and I was moved by the story of Leshem's devotion to human as well as avian life.

Man Who Flies with Birds coverThe book was full of information that was new to me. Who knew that Israel was a sort of planetary crossroads for bird migration, as nesting birds from Europe cross Asia on their way to winter in Africa? I certainly didn't. I suppose it's easy, for both young readers and older ones, to let the "facts on the ground" in Israel become literally that--stuff on the ground. I never thought about the importance of looking up to the amazing things that happen in Israel's skies. The carefree borderlessness of the storks, the honey buzzards and the pelicans is humbling. They don't know Jordanian air space from Israeli, and can't be taught to care. So Yossi Leshem taught the humans to care: His extensive research into migratory patterns taught pilots throughout the region and from all nations how to keep themselves--and birds--safe. In so doing, he helped create the bird-watching eco-tourist movement in Israel that brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue, and inspired similar research and protection measures in neighboring countries. How cool is it when a Jordanian air force general sits down with his Israeli and Egyptian counterparts to talk not military strategy, but storks?

There are recommendations in the back for further reading: some simpler stuff for younger kids, and some more complex stuff for adults. I can't think of a higher recommendation than to say I'm going to go check out Leshem's Flying with the Birds and curl up with it this fall to read about the birds winging their serene way over the turbulent land below.

Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Mimi DuPree

Mimi DuPree lives and works in Atlanta, Ga., where she teaches Latin at The Westminster Schools and raises her three children. She is a member of Temple Sinai, where her children will be attending Sunday school in the fall.

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