Over the years I’ve been at Tablet, I’ve discussed my anxiety about Israel, and about my distress at some American Jews’ knee-jerk and non-nuanced support for Israel. (Also my irritation at anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism, which is why a fun thing about writing for Tablet is constantly getting called both a self-hating Jew and a Nazi.) For years, I did not talk to my children about Israel at all, because, as a liberal Jew, I felt both uncomfortable and undereducated. Then, when my kids were exposed to a variety of perspectives on Israel at Hebrew school and at summer camp, including views far to the right of my own, I knew I had to address the subject. Israel is like sex: You gotta talk to your children about it, even if you’re uncomfortable and even if you think they’re too young, because otherwise someone else will do the educating.
I struggled. But over time, I have come up with a narrative I can work with, which is how I tell the story to my children. It goes something like this: The Jewish people have a profound historic connection to Israel. It is the land where Jewish history began. It is a historical truth that the Jewish people were booted out of their land in around 70 CE, after the destruction of the Second Temple. For centuries after that, they roamed the Earth, like Caine in Kung-Fu, frequently getting massacred and/or kicked out of various countries, because lots of people have hated Jews, for lousy reasons that are the subject of a whole other conversation. What’s relevant here is that for centuries Jews dreamed of returning to this land. That’s why we sing “Next year in Jerusalem,” at the Seder.
But various Arabs, Muslim, and Christian, have also had a connection to this land. And when Israel was officially made the Jewish homeland after the Holocaust—after it had become clear that a) many countries did not want Jewish refugees or, y’know, Jews at all, and b) many countries felt guilty about letting 6 million Jews die—this was bad for the Arabs. People whose families had lived in their homes for generations were suddenly ordered to move. We can argue about motives and fault, but let’s just say that sharing turned out to be not as simple as breaking a cookie in half.
I don’t want to read my kids bright, sunny, primary-colored children’s books that present Israel as an unblemished hero in its own story. I am ill at ease sharing relentlessly chipper, relentlessly chirpy books that make Palestinians invisible.
But this does not mean parents need to stick their heads in the sand, literarily speaking. If you look, you can find nuanced portrayals of Israelis and Palestinians in middle grade and young adult literature. Picture books, though, are tougher. Not only do they tend to be for younger kids, but also they tend to have fewer pages. That means less room for complexity and ambiguity. Here, fortunately, are three picture books published in 2017 that I’d be comfortable reading to my own children.
Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam by Fawzia Gilani-Williams, illustrated by Chiara Fedele, is an age-appropriate, wishful fable. The story is based on a folktale that’s similar in both Jewish and Muslim traditions. Gilani-Williams, a British-born author of children’s books about Islamic culture, changes the brothers in the original tale to female friends, one Jewish and one Muslim, who live across the fields from each other. “Yaffa loved Fatima’s shwarma,” the book says. “And Fatima loved Yaffa’s schnitzel.” Yaffa prays in a synagogue; Fatima prays in a mosque. Yaffa reads from a siddur; Fatima reads from a Quran. Yaffa fasts on Yom Kippur; Fatima fasts during Ramadan. “They both loved God, and they both loved to follow God’s way,” Gilani-Williams writes. Yaffa and Fatima each grow dates to sell in the marketplace; when they see one another there, they wave, and Yaffa calls, “Shalom! Peace!” and Fatima calls back, “Salaam! Peace!” But then a drought comes, and there are fewer dates, and each woman worries that the other might be hungry. Late at night, they sneak across the fields and leave dates in a basket on their friend’s porch. One night, they bump into each other where the fields come together and hug and laugh. Each thanks the other for thinking of her, and they share a meal of dates and tea.
The book is boldly, expressionistically illustrated in warm beiges and browns, shot through with teal blue and brick red. Teal is Yaffa’s color; red is Fatima’s. Many of the pages are split in half, with similar but not identical images on each side—Yaffa’s teal ribbon bookmark lies next to her Hebrew-printed siddur, on a table adorned with teal flowers in a vase; the other half of the vase, with a different pattern, holds brick-red flowers and sits on a table with an Arabic-printed Quran and brick-red tasseled bookmark. The same palm trees and grasses surround both women.
The story and art are lovely. But the book requires parents to do some work: What is a folktale? How is it different from a “realistic” story? Why are folk and fairy tales, with their universal themes, so resonant to people in different cultures? Can we make the sweetness of this story real in our daily lives, in our interactions with other people?
If you and your kids are more comfortable in the world of nonfiction, you may prefer
A Concert in the Sand by Tami Shem-Tov (a creative-writing teacher at the University of Haifa) and Rachella Sandbank (a children’s book editor in Hod HaSharon), illustrated by Avi Ofer (an artist and animator in Barcelona). It tells the true story of the 1936 performance of what would one day become the Israel Philharmonic. A little boy named Uri and his mysterious, melancholy grandmother walk around the nascent city of Tel Aviv. They gaze at the waves, get an apricot seltzer from a street vendor, peer in a bookstore window, watch the progress of a building under construction. All around them are people carrying big cases. Are they spies? No, they’re musicians. Uri and Grandma follow them into an auditorium, and a man named Toscanini conducts a violinist named Huberman (who somehow knows Grandma) and a full orchestra. “The notes enter my ears, and go straight to my heart,” Uri says. “I turn and see that the same thing is happening to everyone. I didn’t know that music could create such a feeling.” An afterword explains that Bronislaw Huberman (1880-1947) was a Polish Jewish violinist who took heed in the 1930s as Jewish musicians were expelled from German orchestras. He held auditions for Jewish artists across Europe, brought 70 of them to the land of Israel, and formed what was originally known as the Palestine Symphony. (I wish the book explicitly said that Uri and Grandma are fictional characters, but you can’t have everything.) The illustrations are Jules-Feiffer-esque, waver-y line drawings with washes of pastel; the only bright color is Uri’s red sweater. Many of the illustrations are indistinct and impressionistic—but we always see Uri and his sad-faced Grandma clearly. I admire the narrow focus of the book and the ambiguity about Grandma’s history. It doesn’t address Palestinian identity, but because it looks at just one real incident, rather than a sweep of history or a purported portrait of a country, it feels OK. And the power of music to soothe sorrow is a universal story.
Finally, there’s The Language of Angels by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Karla Gudeon, the fascinating story of the reinvention of Hebrew as a modern language. When the Jewish people were scattered to the winds after the destruction of the Second Temple, they started speaking the languages of the countries in which they wound up. Hebrew was relegated to sacred texts. The Language of Angels is the story of how linguist Eliezer Ben Yehuda brought Hebrew back to life. It’s told from the perspective of Ben-Zion, Eliezer’s son. “Ben-Zion didn’t speak Yiddish or Arabic, Spanish, or Ladino,” the book says, early on. “He didn’t speak Turkish or Russian or English or any of the many languages spoken in Jerusalem in 1885.” All because his single-minded father insists he be the first modern-day child to speak Hebrew. Eliezer goes so far as to yell at his wife for crooning Ben-Zion a Russian lullaby and to cover Ben-Zion’s ears when donkeys bray, so he won’t even hear animal language. “You will be the first child in more than 2,000 years who will grow up speaking only the beauty of our ancient tongue,” Eliezer says. (To its credit, the book does not treat this as awesome. The first line of the text is, “Once there was a child without a friend.”)
Some adults are dismayed by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s mission, too. They say Hebrew is for prayer, and “we should never use sacred words to talk about taking out the garbage or to ask for the bathroom!” (Eliezer points out that presumably the ancient prophets also used the bathroom, and had a word for it.) Gradually, though, Ben-Zion is pulled into his dad’s mission—plus he gets a dog, an instant friend—and helps his father create words and teach other kids. Within a single generation, Hebrew is revived.
If your child is at all interested in language, they’ll love learning how some words came to be. “Words are related to one another,” Eliezer tells Ben-Zion. “Making a new word is like solving a mystery or putting together a puzzle.” To coin new Hebrew words, Eliezer searches for ancient Hebrew roots first, then seeks out ideas from other languages. When naming “ice cream,” he realizes that “gelidus” is Latin for ice-cold, and that the Hebrew root “glid,” means “to freeze water,” and he comes up with glida. (By the time he figures it out, though, dessert has melted.)
I love all the anecdotes about the real Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. I appreciate the ambiguity; Eliezer seems like a brilliant but terrifying father. And I like Michelson’s careful description of how Hebrew atrophied: “‘A long time ago,’ Eliezer told Ben-Zion, ‘all Jewish people spoke Hebrew. They lived near Jerusalem in a kingdom they called the Holy Land. But there were wars, and their country was defeated. The people lost their homeland and moved to places all over the world. They continued to say the Hebrew prayers that their parents had prayed in the temple, but they learned to speak the language where they lived. Eventually, they forgot how to speak Hebrew except for the words in prayers.’” This sounds a lot like the way I choose my own language when talking to my children about Israel and Palestine; it avoids the Chosen People/entitlement narrative.
I wish I loved the book’s art. It’s an odd, clumsy mash-up of medieval illuminated manuscripts and 1970s Fisher-Price Little People. The faux-naif result is bright but grating. And I loathe the babyish not-quite-but-almost-Comic-Sans font. Worse, I’m no expert in Jewish history or lexicography, but I have some factual concerns. Michelson says repeatedly that Hebrew is only for prayer, but that’s not true. The Torah, for example, is not a prayer. It’s a text. We read from it during prayers, but not only during prayers. He writes that Hebrew had begun to die out by around 200 BCE, but there’s evidence that it was in wide use well after that. (Perhaps Michelson meant 200 CE?) Still, I have endless admiration for the ambition and complexity of this story, and the way Michelson manages to remind us that Jews have always disagreed with each other and that Israel was never only for the Jews … and he does this without being an ahistorical, simplistic, BDS-y jerk about it.
The upshot: With any picture book, it’s up to parents to provide perspective and context. It’s on us to share our values and how they dovetail (or don’t) with what we’re reading aloud. It’s our job to teach kids that real life is complex. Books like these—entertaining, thought-provoking and edifying—can help.
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Marjorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.