Posts Tagged ‘Yeshiva University’

Jewish Children’s Books: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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As a mom of young children, I am always on the lookout for quality children’s books with Jewish content. Unfortunately, they are too often few and far between. So I am taking this opportunity to review some of the books I have on my shelves in the hopes that other parents might enjoy the good ones and stay away from the weird ones. I am also hoping to inspire the Orthodox community to publish more books for mainstream Orthodox kids.

So here they are: the good, the bad, and the ugly:

The Good

For Babies and Toddlers:


Roni Shotter / Illustrated by Marylin Hafner / Publisher: Little, Brown and Company / Board book, Winner of the National Jewish Book Award

Between the words and the pictures, you actually really get the feeling of warmth from the book. And you get to know and like a fun-loving family. Very well done.

What do you See? In Your Neighborhood

Bracha Goetz / The Judaica Press / Board Book, Part of a Series

This book shows every day things babies and toddlers see in their neighborhoods including things they might see at the store, at school, at the doctor, or in the street. The book ends with things you they might see in shul. I like that they integrate “regular life” with shul and Jewish life. The photos are bright and colorful, the kids look Jewish, and the boys are all wearing kippahs (only black velvets, but ok). It makes me feel like I’m reading a book my kid can relate to.

Dinosaur on Shabbat

Diane Levin Rauchwerger / Picture by Jason Wolff / Kar-Ben Publishing

Cute poem about a dinosaur who visits a family and stays for Shabbat. It’s very cute and very well illustrated.

For Ages 4-7:

Mendel’s Accordion

Heidi Smith Hyde / Illustrated by Johanna Van Der Sterre / Kar-Ben Publishing

Excellent story about Mendel, who comes to America on a ship with his accordion. The book traces Mendel’s family, their musical interests, and what happens to the accordion after Mendel is gone. It is a very poignant story about friendship, family, immigration, and the meaning of music in Jewish life. Really, really good book.

The First Gift

A.S. Gadot / Illustrated by Marie Lafrance / Kar-Ben Publishing

“The very first gift my parents gave me was my name….” This is a great book about names, and how we are all called different things by different people throughout our lives. It talks about a boy named David, who was later named King and called Your Majesty, but his son Solomon just called him Daddy.

The book ends with,

Even though I’m not a king, they named me David after my great-grandfather. But I, too, have many names. My baby brother calls me Dave-Dave. My savta in Israel calls me Dah-veed, my Hebrew name…. When I grow up I might also be called Doctor or Rabbi or Coach or even Mister President. And maybe someday I’ll have a son, but he’ll just call me Daddy.

The book is very well written. The themes are Jewish names, names from different cultures and countries, the different roles we play in life, and the importance of family.

Once Upon a Time

Draizy Zelcer / Illustrated by Vitaly Romanenko / Hachai Publishing (Chabad)

This is probably the best Jewish book I’ve come across so far. Romanenko is an incredible illustrator and the book is really well-written. As we turn each page, we meet funny Jewish characters and follow them throughout their day. Each page has a clock on the top, so we can work on learning how to tell time. The vignettes are cute, and each one teaches good Jewish values like tzedakah, bikur cholim, davening, saying brachas, etc. At the end of the day, all the characters go to sleep.

The book ends, “ And now you know the secret / Time was not just meant to tell. / It’s a gift that’s full of meaning / If you use each moment well.” The book is genius.

It Could Always Be Worse

Margot Zemach / Farrar, Straus, and Girouz / Caldecott Honor Book

This is a great story to begin with. You probably know it already.

A simple shtetl man lives in a tiny hut with his large family and begs the rabbi to help because the children keep growing and fighting, and the house isn’t getting any larger. Each time he visits the rabbi, the rabbi insists that he bring more and more of his animals into his home. He doesn’t understand why, but he does it anyway. The house becomes a balagan, with animals making their lives very difficult. Finally the rabbi tells him to get rid of all the animals. That night the house is quiet and he sleeps much better. He tells the rabbi at the end, “…you have made life sweet for me. With just my family in the hut, it’s so quiet, so roomy, so peaceful…what a pleasure!”

It’s a funny book and well-written. The illustrations are good, but I think there is way too much brown and gloominess. I would have liked to see some more color. Also, I’m not sure that with young kids we want to directly suggest in a book that the rabbi (or anyone) might be crazy. But otherwise, it’s a fun read and definitely worth picking up.

The Bad

I’m sure some people worked very hard producing these books and I thank PJ Library for sending them to me, but they just don’t make sense for my Orthodox kids:

For Babies and Toddlers:

Gathering Sparks

Howard Schwartz / Illustrated by Kristina Swarner / Roaring Book Press / The PJ Library

A child asks where the stars came from. The answer is given that,

Long, long ago, before this world was created, God sent forth ten vessels, like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. If those vessels had reached their destination, the world would have been perfect. But the further they traveled, the more fragile they became. Finally, the vessels shattered, scattering sparks of light throughout the heavens. And that is how the stars came into being…. That’s why we were created—to gather the sparks, to gather the sparks no matter where they are hidden…. Every time you do a good deed, one of the sparks is set free. When you plant a tree, a spark rises up. When you help your baby sister, a spark can be seen in her eyes.

The parents’ blurb at the end of the book says that the story was “a central teaching” of the Arizal, Rabbi Isaac Luria. While it is a nice story, last I checked, we didn’t have Kaballah on our two-year-old’s curriculum. And whatever good things you would say about the Arizal, I would not call this book mainstream.

Here’s another book by the same author, equally weird:

Before You Were Born

Retold by Howard Schwartz / Illustrated by Kristina Swarner / Roaring Book Press / The PJ Library

Based on the Midrash Tanchuma, this book tells children that,

…the angel Lailah led your soul out of the Treasury of Souls and brought you down to this world. Once you were here, Lailah told your soul to enter a seed. Then Lailah brought that seed to your mother, and you started to grow inside her. While you were growing there, Lailah lit a lamp inside your mother’s womb and read to you from the Book of Secrets.

Ok, this is sounding very, very odd. I’m not reading this book to my kids. …I might as well stop quoting it!

For Ages 4-7:

The Only One Club

Jane Naiboff / Illustrated by Jeff Hopkins / Flash Light Press / The PJ Library

A story about a girl who is sad because she discovers that she is the only girl in her class not celebrating Christmas. I read this one to my daughter, but I had way too much explaining to do. The whole book was like Greek to her. Maybe the book will be less odd for her when she grows up, but by then, she will consider it a “baby book.”

The Hardest Word: A Yom Kippur Story

Jacqueline Jules / Illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn / Kar-Ben Publishing / The PJ Library

This is a weird story about a fantastical large bird called a Ziz. In the story, the Ziz bumps into a star and it falls down, burning a hole in the earth. The Ziz goes to talk to God at Mt. Sinai. God asked the Ziz to “search the earth and bring back the hardest word.” After a few failed attempts, he comes back to say he’s sorry he can’t, and then learns that the hardest word is actually “sorry.” More bizarre than cute.

The Ugly

Bubbe Isabella and the Sukkot Cake

Kelly Terwilliger / Illustrations by Phyllis Hornung / Kar-Ben Publishing / The PJ Library

The pictures are dark and ugly, Bubbie is a loner who talks to bugs, animals eat up most of Bubbe’s sukkah, and a huge bear sits on her cake. Yuck and weird.

Another odd thing about this book is that the text of the story mentions the “harvest” and the “holiday procession” but avoids using the words “Sukkot” and “Simchat Torah.” I find that very strange and a little insulting to those who actually do observe the chagim.

Lastly, for those of us familiar with Jewish history, Isabella was certainly not a bubbe!

There is one other book I am tempted to put into this Ugly section, but I hesitate because it is actually an incredible book. The problem is that the book was illustrated in pencil and never colored. It’s a great book, but my daughter won’t read it because it’s black and white!

In case you are a budding writer, here are a few lessons learned:

  1. No weird midrashim please. Nothing nobody has ever heard of.
  2. Use color—and lots of it.
  3. Be funny, have characters we can love.
  4. Convey the feeling and the relevance of Judaism.
  5. Relate to kids and their personal experiences.

Here are my thoughts on some of the publishers:

  • PJ Library – this new up and coming non-profit is part of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and sends Jewish books to Jewish kids through the Federation system. Sounds great, but they send out (and now put their label on) some pretty odd selections. There are some sad attempts at retelling weird midrashim, and some books simply do not make sense for the Orthodox child. PJ Library is an incredible service, but the books they send are a mixed bag—some are great, some are not.
  • Chabad – they actually have the best books of the lot. Their works are some of the most creative and they have the best illustrators. Downside: all content has to be reviewed. There is always a chance the book raises way too many questions about the Rebbe and/or Mashiach that you can’t answer.
  • Judaica Press – looks like it might have good potential. I’m looking forward to reading more of their books. One downside: they need a new website to better display their publications.
  • Artscroll – they should have cornered the children’s books market, but they aren’t really serious players. They have a small bunch of successful titles, but they just aren’t the leaders in kids’ books that they are in other areas of publishing.
  • OU Press or YU Press should consider children’s book publishing. I would love to find books that I immediately know are appropriate for my kids – books I can trust without having to read them through first. But neither press has made such a move, and that’s a shame.

If you got to the end of this review, and happen to be a publisher of Jewish children’s books, I did write a great book that is yearning for the light of day. Please contact me at

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Maccabeats’ “Candlelight” was Tremendous, but WHY?

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A review of Maccabeats “Candlelight” (YouTube) Based on Mike Tompkins’ a cappella version of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite.” Video created by Uri Westrich. Production Assistant – Rivie Shalev

So what was it that inspired 3.5 million YouTube views of the Maccabeats’ “Candlelight” video in the last 3 weeks?

What made the video so viral?

I think there are a number of factors at play here. First of all, Chanukah came well before Christmas this year, giving Chanukah a chance to shine before “O’ Holy Night.” I think this factor was just luck.

Second, the Maccabeats picked a great song. It’s catchy, has great rhythm, and is brimming with energy. It’s the kind of tune that just sticks in your head. (I mean, who hasn’t been singing, “I flip my latkes in the air sometimes,” since Chanukah ended on December 9th?) Also, Mike Thompkins’ YouTube version was an excellent a capella rendition of the song, and gave the Maccabeats the whole split-screen idea. This wasn’t luck. They were clever and picked a very good song.

But the calendar and a good song does not alone make a YouTube video great. What was it about that video that was so unique and entertaining?

If I had to sum it up in one word, I would have to say it was their personalities. They were cute, they were quirky, they were goofy, and they entertained while you listened to the music. They used costumes, pantomime, color, creative videography, and loads of humor. There was non-stop action, and it “went on and on….” until the song was over.

Kids loved it because between the sound and the visuals, it was constantly stimulating. They watched it 15 times in a row with their mouths wide open, and then asked to watch it again.

Adults loved it because it made Chanukah fun, something they wanted to be part of. It made Chanukah accessible, understandable, and upbeat. And, in its weirdness, it made Chanukah “normal.”

As a result of the video, people have blogged about it, made “candlelight” videos of their own, and invited the Maccabeats to sing in their city. More interestingly, it also inspired some people to identify more closely with Judaism, Jews and Israel. It has been a very positive PR story for the Jewish community—not to mention for Yeshiva University, which was kvelling at its annual Chanukah dinner.

The Maccabeats never thought it would spread beyond the religious Jewish community. And certainly they never expected the kind of big-time national press they received (CNN, CBS, etc). Even people in the business of making Jewish-content music for the masses did not predict this explosion. On November 30, just four days into the Maccabeats’ YouTube video, Matisyahu wrote on that,

“Jewish musicians might feel more inclined to make Hanukkah music if they knew that someone would actually want to listen to it. Until the holiday music market shows it can support Hanukkah songs, it’s highly unlikely that we will ever hear Jewish holiday music at the mall, or the gas station, or the DMV, or on every radio station that Santa currently rules…it would take a real Hanukkah miracle.”

I guess that miracle happened for the Maccabeats.

Matisyahu’s own Chanukah song, ironically called “Miracle,” has only half a million views so far on YouTube. Also ironically, he had been invited to perform at Yeshiva University’s annual Chanukah concert, where the Maccabeats and their “Candlelight” were the opening act. They all performed to a packed house with great success, but I can’t help wondering if Matisyahu was concerned that the Maccabeats were winning the YouTube wars.

To complicate their relationship, the Maccabeats were probably thrilled to meet Matisyahu, as he was the inspiration for the “One Day” video they did back in March.

This whole episode has taught us a few new things:

  1. People do want to listen to Chanukah music on the radio.
  2. You don’t need the self-deprecating humor of Adam Sandler to make it happen.
  3. Jewish-content music for the masses might actually work for others besides Matisyahu.
  4. The new Jewish music competition is on YouTube and iTunes, not in CD sales.
  5. YouTube has tremendous power, and along with other social media venues, will continue to impact the Jewish community in a big way. This is just the beginning.
  6. We’re going to see more from this band. Hopefully they can match (or almost match) this success.
  7. You can be clean-cut, religious, sing a capella—and still be really cool.

The 3.5 million views are probably the same 2 million people, but we admit, we too keep watching it over and over again. Chanukah is long gone, but we’re still sayin’ “ayyo, spin the dreidel….”

Why do you think the Maccabeats’ video went viral?

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