This year’s Jewish-themed children’s books span centuries and continents. While holidays and golems remain popular themes, new trends include books set at the height of the Cold War, tales from lesser-known Jewish communities, fictionalized biographies in verse, and books about Orthodox life (modern and not). If you’re looking for the perfect Hanukkah present for the young reader in your life, here are the best of the bunch from 2022.
While Hanukkah usually gets most of the picture-book love, probably followed by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this year two books about Sukkot make the cut. The Stars Will Be My Nightlight: A Sukkot Story is a simple, tender tale of a sukkah sheltering a mother and son from the elements—and of the mother sheltering her son as well. When the mother points out that the boy can’t have his nightlight in the sukkah, he utters the title phrase. But be warned: Children who hear this book will undoubtedly request that they sleep in their sukkahs as well. In The Very Best Sukkah: A Story from Uganda, author Shoshana Nambi and illustrator Moran Yogev introduce us to the Abayudaya people of that country, who have only been practicing Judaism for the last century. While the details of the sukkahs the Abayudaya people build may differ from what many of us are familiar with—the types of branches used for schach, the types of fruits used to decorate them, and the food eaten inside them, all depicted in vibrantly colored woodcuts—the fundamentals of the holiday remain the same. When a storm destroys many of the sukkahs, the villagers work together to repair them, even at the risk of losing the sukkah-decorating competition.
As for the most important holiday of all, so important it comes every week, we have Shoshi’s Shabbat by Caryn Yacowitz. Shoshi, endowed with plenty of personality by illustrator Kevin Hawkes, is a “beautiful young ox” who lives near Jerusalem and works for a Jewish farmer. When she is sold to a non-Jew, she refuses to work on Shabbat. The non-Jew’s frustration and anger give way to understanding as he begins to use his newly free time to rest and appreciate the world around him.
Much of Eastern European Jewish life and history has been completely erased, but one woman, Yaffa Eliach, did her best to resurrect the shtetl of her youth. Chana Stiefel’s biography The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs tells her amazing true story. The happy colors of life between the two world wars give way to the angry and sad red-and-black of war, with touches of yellow that show “how a glimmer of light can chase away darkness.” Yaffa survived and became a historian. She was ultimately asked to contribute a memorial to be displayed in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and decided to focus on the lives that were lived in prewar Europe, rather than death, by collecting photographs of her prewar home. The book’s final double-page spread requires that you turn the book vertically to see the tower of photographs that Yaffa collected. A bittersweet book.
You can almost smell the pita baking in Shoham’s Bangle by Sarah Sassoon, which tells the story of the exodus of the Jews of Iraq in the early 1950s, airlifted to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. Not permitted to take anything of value, like Jews fleeing so many countries in so many eras, Shoham’s grandmother manages to smuggle one family heirloom, a reminder of all they have lost … and gained upon arrival in Israel. Noa Kellner’s illustrations give us the warm colors of Iraq, the tilted perspective of a plane about to take off, and a family losing their (literal) footing. A grandparent-grandchild story, a diaspora story, a family heirloom story, and a food story, all in one.
Kathryn Lasky gives us a new take on the old Jewish immigrant story by changing up the destination in Yossel’s Journey. The eponymous Yossel is a Jewish immigrant from Russia who moves to a remote location near a Navajo reservation and becomes friends with a Navajo boy. When we think of Jews in the American Southwest, we probably think of crypto-Jews, but there were also Jews, albeit not very many of them, who settled there directly upon emigrating from Eastern Europe. The lush, painterly illustrations in warm colors, with the figures outlined in black, by Navajo artist Johnson Yazzie, bring this unique backdrop to life.
We come back to the very recent past in Alone Together on Dan Street, in which Erica Lyons gives a hopeful but not sugarcoated retelling of the first spring and Passover of the pandemic. While people in New York City banged on pots with their windows open daily at 7 p.m. and Italians sang out their windows, Israelis moved their Seders on to their balconies so that anyone who lived alone could have a Seder surrounded by other voices. Lyons captures the monotony and claustrophobia of those early days of the pandemic perfectly, in recounting the story of Mira: “[n]ow the days were all mixed up … [a]nd seasons were only things that happened on the balcony. Every picture [Mira] drew was of the same building across the street.” She also juxtaposes the fact that, while for people who lived by themselves, the pandemic was especially isolating, for those who lived with families in small apartments, it could, somewhat ironically, be hard to find a place to be alone. A lovely reminder of how the pandemic that separated us also brought us together.
Ziva’s twin brother Pesah is dying of leprosy. She will do anything to save him, including run away from her home in the Khazar Empire (located in modern-day Ukraine), fight demons, and even bargain with the Angel of Death. With exciting storytelling, a unique setting, and fantastical elements, Black Bird, Blue Road by Sofiya Pasternack is sure to appeal to fans of her previous books—such as Anya and the Dragon and its sequel, Anya and the Nightingale—as well as readers who don’t mind a little fantasy mixed in with their historical fiction.
Jumping ahead nine or so centuries, The Prince of Steel Pier by debut author Stacy Nockowitz is a thrilling, atmospheric story of how nice Jewish boy named Joey Goodman gets mixed up with gangsters in seedy, past-its-prime, but pre-casino Atlantic City. Nockowitz somehow makes this story both timeless and very much of its time and blends Joey’s Jewishness in seamlessly. This is a story of family (Joey is one of four brothers and his grandparents own an Atlantic City hotel), a search for identity and a moral compass, and growing up, yet it doesn’t veer into treacle territory.
A classic friendship story, Honey and Me by Meira Drazin (another debut author) is set in the modern Orthodox world. Eleven-year-old only-child Milla is thrilled to learn that her best friend Honey is transferring to her school. But when Honey actually arrives, with her larger-than-life personality, Milla has to learn to step out of Honey’s shadow. Drazin describes a nuanced range of Orthodoxy: Milla’s mother works and doesn’t cover her hair, while Honey’s mother does the opposite; Honey takes the radical step of reading Megillat Esther at an all-women’s service for her bat mitzvah, while Milla studies the text privately. A subplot about a beloved teacher adds to the drama. But it’s the friendship that takes center stage and it is one that any reader from any background can relate to.
There are two middle-grade books about physicist Lise Meitner out this year, both of them worthwhile reads, and even more worthwhile if read together. Marissa Moss’ comprehensive cradle-to-grave biography The Woman Who Split the Atom: The Life of Lise Meitner focuses on how Meitner was doubly excluded from the world of science—first by being female, then by being Jewish (and then again by being female). She brings to life Meitner’s love of physics, her fear and isolation living in Nazi Germany, her nerve-wracking escape from the country, and her subsequent years in exile. Extensive quotes from Meitner’s own letters let the reader feel the terror, despair, and loneliness Meitner often felt. Moss goes light on the science but gives us the historical backdrop and ethical quandaries surrounding the atomic age and Meitner’s own anguish at the unintended consequence of her discovery. A must-read for any children interested in physics, women in science, and/or the Holocaust. Hidden Powers: Lise Meitner’s Call to Science by Jeannine Atkins is a lightly fictionalized version of Meitner’s life, told in verse. The framing device of Noah’s ark, including the concept of punishment for humanity’s sins, and Noah’s unnamed wife is effective but a bit of a stretch given Meitner’s lack of religiosity. A wonderful book but one that doesn’t give the full picture of the bigotry, antisemitism, and misogyny Meitner faced, and one that lets her scientific partner, Otto Hahn, off much more easily than Moss’ biography does. Read together, the two paint a compelling portrait of a female scientist facing existential threats as well as exclusion from the scientific work she loved, without ever, as her gravestone states, “los[ing] her humanity.”
Yehuda (“Hoodie”) Rosen, a mild-mannered yeshiva bocher with the best nickname ever, finds himself accidentally causing an uproar after he befriends a local Catholic girl in The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen by Isaac Blum (yet another debut author). With tensions in town already rising as locals fear an “invasion” by the Orthodox Jews who are moving into the community, the situation spirals out of control, culminating in a shocking—yet all too familiar—act of violent antisemitism. While I enjoyed this book, I’m crossing my fingers for a sequel focused on Hoodie’s sister Zippy. Hoodie is an accidental and yet notorious rebel in his community; Zippy is an intentional yet quiet one. Hoodie goes outside the system, while Zippy works within it. It is more than time for another mainstream book about this community, since the last ones are Chaim Potok’s work; his two most famous books, The Chosen and My Name Is Asher Lev, were published in the late 1960s and ’70s. The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen is a worthwhile successor.
Just as Sofiya Pasternack puts a magical realism on the 11th-century Khazar Empire in Black Bird, Blue Road, Katherine Locke does the same for the short-lived Hungarian uprising against the Soviets in 1956 in This Rebel Heart. Here, the Duna River that divides Budapest possesses magical powers, the main characters create a golem, and the Angel of Death appears in human form as gender and sexually fluid. This Rebel Heart tells the story of Jewish teenager Csilla, whose parents were executed for the alleged crime of being an “enemy of the people.” Now Csilla has to decide whether she should join the uprising against the Soviets and fight for the very country that betrayed her.
Another fictionalized biography in verse is Barbara Krasner’s stunning Ethel’s Song: Ethel Rosenberg’s Life in Poems, which recounts Ethel’s life from her difficult, unhappy childhood on the Lower East Side, to her happy marriage to Julius, to her fight for workers’ rights, and finally, to her getting caught up in Julius’ political activities and scapegoated in the hunt for communists. Using a variety of different poetic forms, Krasner brings Ethel to life as a full, independent person, not merely as Julius Rosenberg’s wife.
Rachel J. Fremmer is a lawyer turned children’s librarian who loves crossword puzzles and baking.