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Fall Holiday Picture Book Round-Up

August 30, 2010

Review of Taslich at Turtle Rock by by Susan Schnur and Anna Schnur-Fishman, illustrated by Alex Steele-Morgan (Minneapolis: Kar-Ben, 2010), Engineer Ari and the Sukkah Express by Deborah Bodin Cohen, illustrated by Shahar Kober (Minneapolis: Kar-Ben, 2010) and Sammy Spider's First Simchat Torah by Sylvia A. Rouss, illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn (Minneapolis: Kar-Ben, 2010).

Three new picture books enlighten and entertain the youngest among us this season, with titles featuring Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah. It might be hard to believe it's already that time of year again, but these new releases are sure to help families ease into the spirit of holiday and renewal.

Tashlich at Turtle Rock book coverOf particular interest to interfaith families is Tashlich at Turtle Rock. Tashlich, which is Hebrew for "you shall throw away," is a ceremony that occurs on Rosh Hashanah at which observers walk to a body of water, be it a stream, a well, or, in my neck of the woods, the Brooklyn Bridge overlooking the East River, and throw in small pieces of bread. These crumbs represent one's sins from the previous year, and throwing them away serves as a kind of spiritual cleansing.

In the United States, this ceremony had fallen out of circulation with Reform and many Conservative Jews, but mother-and-daughter authors Susan Schnur and Anna Schnur-Fishman use this clever picture book to argue for an inclusive tashlich, amenable to everyone. Tashlich at Turtle Rock follows Annie, her brother and her parents as they set out on an autumn walk to cast away their transgressions in the form of bread crumbs into a stream. Alex Steele-Morgan's vivid illustrations bring the chilly, brilliant magic of autumn to life. Young Annie is put in charge of the ceremony and she incorporates some of her own ideas, including drawing pictures of what each family member is most proud of from the previous year, and finding items in nature that can be used to represent what they would like to "throw away" from the previous year: "When it's my turn, I say, 'I had a hard time making friends at camp last summer. I want to throw away being so shy.' The rock I toss into the creek looks like a bunkhouse--well, to me anyway." Tashlich at Turtle Rock skillfully inspires a revival of this obscure celebration into one that any family can tailor to their own circumstances, interests and needs.

Friendly and sweet Engineer Ari returns in Deborah Bodin Cohen's delightful Engineer Ari and the Sukkah Express. Young readers and their parents might remember Ari from last year's Engineer Ari and the Rosh Hashanah Ride. In this new adventure Ari once again uses his train, on route to Jerusalem, to help him and his friends celebrate an important holiday; as he travels through many towns in Israel, Ari gathers the tools he needs to build a sukkah. Like Tashlich at Turtle Rock, Engineer Ari and the Sukkah Express is written for kindergarteners through third graders, and these young readers (and listeners) will learn much here, including what goes into the building of a sukkah, the names of towns in Israel and even some basic Hebrew words. Engineer Ari and the Sukkah Express book cover

Cohen manages to convey a lot of information without being boring or overtly instructional. She writes: "'Here's a lulav and an etrog for you,' she [Ari's friend Tamar] said. 'We shake them in all directions to remind us that God is everywhere.' Engineer Ari smelled the sweet etrog and admired the lulav's palm, myrtle, and willow branches. 'Thank you,' he said, leaving the market. 'Todah rabah.' Engineer Ari headed back to Jaffa…" Illustrator Shahar Kober once again brings Ari and the burgeoning region of early Palestine to the page through her detailed and historically rich illustrations. In a fruit market, Arab shoppers and Jewish shoppers are shown side by side, some wearing Arab headgear, some wearing kippot and some, like Ari, wearing the kind of fez hat that was often worn in the nineteenth century, when this story takes place. The spunky breeziness of this book should hold the attention of most youngsters and, for those less educated in the Sukkot holiday, there is enough information to guide both a child and a parent throughout. Cohen, a rabbi and educator, has written a book that indeed informs, educates, and celebrates the importance of faith and friendship. While nothing in Engineer Ari and the Sukkah Express speaks specifically to interfaith families, anyone celebrating the festival of Sukkot with young children will enjoy the story and the fun plot twist at the end.

Even the very youngest children can listen to and enjoy Sammy Spider's First Simchat Torah. Many will already be familiar with Sylvia A. Rouss' curious little spider, after over a dozen books in the Sammy Spider series, a series so popular with kids that it has spawned its own plush toy. In this most recent offering for preschool-through-second graders, Sammy Spider, stuck to a candy apple on top of a celebratory flag, tags along with the Shapiro family as they attend synagogue on Simchat Torah.

Sammy Spider's First Simchat Torah book coverWhat makes the book so appealing to young ones is that Sammy's education unfolds as the reader's does; it is Sammy's "outsider" status that makes him relatable to his intended audience, including children and parents in interfaith families who may feel a bit alien or unsure about one of the lesser-known but very important Jewish holidays. Information about Simchat Torah is presented in a thorough, yet completely organic, way.

"At the synagogue," writes Rouss, "Sammy watched the rabbi open the ark and remove all the big Torah scrolls. He handed them to Josh's parents and other adults. They paraded in a circle, singing and dancing with the Torahs. Josh and the other children joined in, carrying their little Torahs and waving their flags. Sammy giggled as he clung to the apple atop Josh's flag."

Katherine Janus Kahn's illustrations are wonderfully colorful and expressive, even as they are reminiscent of the work of famous children's book illustrator Eric Carle (of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, among many other works), and the book overall is sure to delight its intended audience.

Sammy Spider's First Simchat Torah, Tashlich at Turtle Rock and Engineer Ari and the Sukkah Express all bring a range of ideas and feelings to many of autumn's most important Jewish holidays and festivals. While none of these titles are deliberately meant for interfaith families, all encourage an inclusiveness and adventurousness that is sure to be welcomed by today's diverse Jewish community.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." 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.
Plural of "kippah," Hebrew for "skullcap," also known in Yiddish as a "yarmulke," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Hebrew word for a yellow citron, used ritually in the holiday of Sukkot. 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.
Lynn Melnick

Lynn Melnick has reviewed books for Publishers Weekly and Boston Review, and has published poetry in Boston Review, Paris Review, Crowd, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and daughters.

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