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Three Books About Jewish Diversity

March 1, 2010

Review of I Love Jewish Faces by Debra B. Darvick (New York: URJ Books and Music, 2009), Tower of Babel by A.S. Gadot, illustrations by Cecilia Rebora (Minneapolis: Kar-Ben, 2010) and The Remarkable Journey of Josh's Kippah by Barbara Elissa, illustrations by Farida Zaman (Minneapolis: Kar-Ben, 2010).

I Love Jewish Faces is a delightful photograph book by Debra B. Darvick. As you might expect from the title, this is a book that attempts to dispel that hurtful old canard about who "looks Jewish." It contains cheerful, well-framed photographs of Jews who look just about every way a Jew can look: Ashkenazi, Yemeni, African-American, blonde, brunette, special-needs, in family groups and alone, in pajamas and in special holiday clothes, praying and playing, etc.

Debra Darvick I Love Jewish FacesBut I Love Jewish Faces also introduces, or reinforces, more Jewish breadth and depth than simply what we look like. It mentioned several holidays and shows Jews celebrating them. There is a beautiful shofar in one photo, an Israeli marketplace in another. Many of the Jews inside wear kippot. It opens with "bubbe faces, zayde faces," terms I had to define for my own children, as we are not a Yiddish-speaking household, even to that small degree. Speaking of Yiddish, the last photo is of an adorable toddler in a pink "shayna punim" T-shirt, which led to a family story about how my own grandmother, who died before any of my three children were born, used to call me that.

I Love Jewish Faces is a good book in part because you can spend as much or as little time as you want on it and still gain. The page "mourning faces" could lead to a long conversation about shiva, what it means, how we do it and perhaps give one an opening to talk about a death in one's own family. The little boy in the Spider-Man costume could lead to a conversation about Purim and what the children want to wear to the next Purim carnival.

The book is not perfect. It is fine that plenty of the book is very specifically Jewish: "just-brissed faces," and plenty of the book is pure humanity: "just-kissed faces." That is a great jumping-off point for explaining to Jewish children how we are different from other folk and how we are the same. But in addition to that it is a slightly strange mish-mash of serious: "fasting faces," and silly: "blissed and prissed." I also would have preferred more consistency in the wording. Why "simcha faces" on one page and "mourning faces" on the next? Why not use the word "shiva" instead? Or "yartzeit?" Was Darvick attempting to make a point about diversity of language and religious practice? It didn't work for me--I would have preferred another opportunity to reinforce Jewish vocabulary.

All in all, however, this is a most enjoyable little book that my 5- and 7-year-old daughters enjoyed very much, and my 10-year-old son thought more than tolerable. I suspect we will be reading this for years to come.

The Tower of Babel by A. S. Gadot with illustrations by Cecelia Rebora didn't please me nearly as much. To be fair to the author, my children think the book is wonderful. The drawings are colorful and goofy, it was easy for my precocious 7-year-old to read out loud to the family and plenty of it made my kids giggle. But the story goes nowhere, tells nothing and teaches nothing.

Brueghel's Tower of Babel
Brueghel's The Tower of Babel is a painting that captures the mystery of the original biblical story.

The original biblical tale can be read as an exhortation against arrogance, against Godlessness, even against pure foolishness. A modern take that Gadot seems to vaguely steer toward and then drop is the intriguing idea that this story is heroic as it leads to the great positive of diversity, and a world where everyone lives in the same valley and speaks the same tongue is dull.

Any of these themes, completely taught, would have been welcome. Frankly, any lesson at all would have been welcome. Instead I reached the end frustrated and annoyed.

First, the Land of Shinar seems idyllic. I envied the residents! Then in contrast to both the text and pictures, suddenly life there is declared "very boring." When the residents begin to imagine doing something exciting, their plans are gently ridiculed and then the tower is suggested. By a child, no less. (I had thought turning a child into a "villain" in a children's picture book was taboo!) This tower will become their complete downfall as a people and a society, but essentially no foreshadowing is offered us. There is a mention of how the tower will make them "important and powerful," but since we have already been assured--twice--that they are the only people on Earth, it comes across as far sillier than it does arrogant.

At first, building the tower goes incredibly well, despite a stated lack of any planning whatsoever. The people manage a full 100 floors before the wrath of some unnamed, unexplained, uncommunicative something does the magic that turns them into people who speak multiple languages. In the original Torah story, that something was God. But God is not a part of this book. The closest we get, other than the crazy rain/thunder/hail storm that magics their language away and puts other languages in its place, is a throwaway line about Purim early in the book. Why is Gadot afraid of mentioning God in the retelling of a Torah story? This book was published for a religious audience by a religious publishing house. A complete absence of God in it is a real disappointment, second only to the lack of a point.

After everyone's language is magically replaced, Gadot explores this briefly, making rhymes that amused my children but bothered me. If I am speaking Japanese to a person who speaks only Dutch, it is nothing like becoming hard of hearing. Yet Gadot illustrates the way people misunderstand one another after the language switch with uninspired English rhymes.

"Hand me a hammer and nail!" one said. "Did you say you needed a pail?" another answered. This is described as "fighting." This is not fighting; this is a lack of communication caused by a magical language switch. The people keep attempting to build the tower, but now that they cannot speak with one another, the tower gets "lopsided and shaky," despite the town having managed 100 straight, tall, true stories with no previous planning or experience. You would think they all know how to build a story by now.

Josh's KippahSo many ideas could have been communicated to children with a better retelling of this strange little tale; it's a pity this one falls short. It's not worth the price of the book.

In contrast, The Remarkable Journey of Josh's Kippah by Barbara Elissa and illustrated by Farida Zaman is a real pleasure. Again, this book has multiple layers hidden in its brightly colored pages. At first glance, it is a story of diversity. Jews live all over the world! Jews come in lots of colors! Look at all the different, celebrating, happy Jews!

But as we follow Joshua's bar mitzvah kippah around the world, we also explore a year full of Jewish holidays and some of the ways we observe them. The ways people can know each other, and even a bit of geography. The book ends with a map and reminder of the kippah's unintentional itinerary. Elissa even throws in a little of the English alphabet, giving everyone an alliterative name in alphabetical order: Avi Abelson, Benjamin Brody, etc.

I should admit this book had a subtext for me that the author almost certainly never intended. If you have ever fought head lice, you, like me, will watch that kippah float from head to head, city to city, continent to continent, and you will yelp pathetically inside your skull: "Don't put that thing on! It could be infected! This is how head lice spreads!" As you read, you could of course choose to address this annoying issue with your children. My children knew just what I was talking about, I am sorry to say.

The illustrations are simpler and messier than I would have liked. Kar-Ben has hired some incredible illustrators for other books, and Zaman does not appear to be up to that level. The map I mentioned, for instance, makes South America look a bit like a mangled pickle. But ultimately that is a very slight criticism. This book is a winner. If you wanted only one book for the Jewish child in your life who loves to share books with you, this is the one I would recommend.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Having Jewish family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Hebrew for "time of [one] year," referring to the anniversary of the day of a relative's death. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. 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. Simple musical instrument made from a ram's horn that is blown in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as each morning after daily services during the Hebrew month of Elul (the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Hebrew for "gladness" or "joy," it is often used to refer to a festive occasion or celebration, like a wedding, bat mitzvah, or bris. Yiddish for "grandmother." Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. Hebrew for "seven," refers to the seven days of mourning following the funeral of a family member. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Yiddish for "grandfather."
Vicki Streiff

Vicki Streiff married a convert to Judaism in 1995 and they have three children who all love books. They all live together in Indiana and love it there, to her everlasting surprise.

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