Immigration Stories

OK, let’s not talk about  how long it’s been. The point is, I’m writing again, right?

So, I’m inspired by my 2nd grader who is studying immigration, but probably more so by his wonderful teacher and the creative ways she is introducing this topic to her class. As I looked at her book box of immigration stories for the kids, I was surprised by how few Jewish titles she had. Now, some were in the hands of happy children, but it did make me think, what are the best Jewish immigration picture books? So, here’s the list:

Best for the Ellis Island experience:

The Memory CoatThe Memory Coat by Elvira Woodruff is probably my favorite for the Ellis Island experience. Rachel and her cousin Grisha have made it to Ellis Island, along with Rachel’s family. While horsing around (see, kids in the olden days did that too!), Rachel knocks into Grisha and causes his eye to get scratched. Wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the fact that a damaged eye earns Grisha the scary white chalk mark on his coat, the sign that he won’t be admitted to the United States and will have to go back home. Luckily, Rachel is a plucky heroine who saves the day with some quick thinking. Great for 7-9 year olds.

Best for younger kids:

Mendel's AccordionI’m sure I’ve written about Mendel’s Accordion by Heidi Smith Hyde elsewhere. Beautifully illustrated, it tells the story of Mendel from Melnitze who is a Klezmer player. When things get bad, Mendel leaves Melnitze with old his accordion. Everywhere he goes, Mendel makes friends and makes music. Mendel eventually has children in New York, and it’s his grandson Sam who finds his accordion one day and learns to play again. A simple (no Cossacks!) immigration story, with a lovely intergenerational feel, not to mention the accordion! For fans of Mendel’s Accordion, there is now Feivel’s Flying Horses by the same author and illustrator team. This time taking place at Coney Island, it’s a lovely quiet choice, though some will see sadness in the fact that Feivel has to go to America without his wife and children. Luckily, at the end of the story they are reunited! (Mendel’s Accordion is great for 4-6 year olds; Feivel is better for 6 & 7s.)

Best for older readers:

When Jessie Came Across the SeaWhen Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest is beautiful and really quite perfect. Jessie is chosen to come to America by the rabbi of her small village. Sadly, it means leaving her beloved grandmother. Luckily, in addition to settling in with her extended family and proving herself to be a great lace maker, she falls in love with Lou. She waits until finally she has enough money to send for her grandmother, before agreeing to marry Lou. Sigh. (great for 7-9 year olds)

Best Link to the Statue of Liberty:

Naming LibertyOK, this is a made up category, clearly. But I did want to talk about Naming Liberty by Jane Yolen. This book parallels the story of French artist Frederic Auguste Bartholdi’s creation of the Statue of Liberty, with the story of a Jewish family immigrating to America. The story goes back and forth between the two “stories,” finally coming together nicely at exactly the point when you’d expect them to come together. Throughout the story of the family though, Gitl, the young girl, is concern about finding the right American name. What does she decide on? Liberty! (But you can call her Libby.)  (Good for older readers 8-10 years old.)

Next post will be dedicated to all the great immigration stories I forgot to mention…

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Clever Rachel by Debby Waldman

Clever RachelOh dear. I just got linked to by the delightful folks at OyBaby! and I’m feeling the pressure to replace the Rosh Hashanah page with something new. Sigh.

So, great new book? Debby Waldman’s Clever Rachel. Same author and illustrator (the fantastic Cindy Revell) as A Sack Full of Feathers means same great art, text and town. This time, the story is based on the old story of the innkeeper’s clever daughter but more child-friendly. Here’s the book description:

Jacob was stunned. Rachel had devoured his best riddles the way his father’s customers devoured fresh rugelach. He was about to say so when he was distracted by a loud noise at the inn’s door. Standing in the entry was a young woman, who might have been beautiful had she not looked so distraught.
“I am Miriam,” she said. “I hear there is a clever child at this inn. One who is good at solving riddles.”
“I am happy to help you,” Rachel said, but Jacob’s voice was louder.
“My name is Jacob,” he announced, stepping in front of Rachel.
“But I’m the one you’re looking for,” Rachel protested.

In this retelling of a jewish folktale, Jacob tries to stump Rachel with his best riddles but fails repeatedly. When a young woman in need of help presents Rachel and Jacob with the trickiest riddles of all, they discover the only way to solve them is to work together.

One of my favorite things about this book? The list of riddles at the back of the book. Another favorite? I just love smart girls at the center of books.

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Even Higher by Eric Kimmel

This year brought a great new addition to Rosh Hashanah books: a new version of the Even Higher story. Last year I blogged about liking but not loving the version that was out there. The illustrations just didn’t do it for me.

Even Higher

Even Higher

This year, there’s a new Even Higher — this time written by Eric Kimmel and illustrated with the fantastic illustrations of Jill Weber. It’s a slightly different telling (and includes a dancing grandmother, a drinking song and a little more theology). Basically, borrowing and editing from last year’s post:

Based on a story by the great I.L. Peretz, It’s about a couple of boys skeptic who see the rabbi disappear the day before Rosh Hashanah every year. This year, they’ve he decides that one of the boys should to follow him to prove that he doesn’t go up to heaven to talk with God. When Reuven the skeptic sees him disguise himself as a woodcutter and bring wood for a bedridden widow, he realizes that one’s actions can actually bring you ”even higher” than heaven.

Even Higher is a wonderful story for Rosh Hashanah about the power of human actions and can be a fantastic conversation starter about the value of Tzedakah (charity). Rarely do we get such a wonderful portrait of charity being given without hope of recognition.

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The Secret Shofar of Barcelona

A lovely new addition to the world of Rosh Hashanah books is The Secret Shofar of Barcelonaby Jacqueline Dembar Greene (yes, author of the new Jewish American Girl Doll series).

The Secret Shofar of Barcelona

The Secret Shofar of Barcelona

Set during the late 16th century, The Secret Shofar of Barcelona tells the story of Don Fernando Aguilar, the conductor of the Royal Orchestra of Barcelona. A converso, Don Fernando has written a piece of music for the Duke that is set to debut on the night of Rosh Hashanah and plans to have a Rosh Hashanah dinner with other Jewish families on open night, disguised as a celebratory dinner for opening night.

His son Rafael however, has a better idea — an idea that will allow the Jews of Barcelona to hear the shofar in plain sight. But, as you might expect, it’s a dangerous plan, and one that a young boy might be the only person brave enough to do.

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Rosh Hashanah — A New Start

So, I fell off the blogging wagon. But, we’re coming up on a new year so instead of feeling lousy, I’m going to jump back in with a delightful new Rosh Hashanah title that I know you will enjoy.

Today Is The Birthday of the World

Today Is The Birthday of the World

Today Is The Birthday of the World by Linda Heller is the type of book that is just so nice to hold in your hand. It’s just all round dreamy — from the delightful illustrations to even the slightly heavier paper. The words are soft and the story so easy to read — it reminds me of Mem Fox’s Time For Bed in the way that it just flows so nicely. It’s a nice quiet story perfect for a hushed voice.

Sigh. It’s a nice book to get me back in the mood for blogging.

Want some other Rosh Hashanah options? Check out last year’s ideas.

Just a quick side note: the theme of this book is what does it mean to be the best that you can be. While the book is a great read for young kids, it will certainly prompt older kids into an interesting discussion of the values of Rosh Hashanah: what does it mean to be the best that you can be?

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Alef Bet by Michelle Edwards



DreamyReads is heading to Israel! For two weeks. With the two little readers (and the husband). On a plane. For many hours. With a stopover. Can you tell I’m excited/ totally freaked out?

To focus on the excited part, I want to give a big shout out to one of my favorite picture books, Michelle Edwards’ Alef Bet. This book, which has been out of print for a great many years too many, is a fantastic Hebrew alphabet book. And it has just been republished and is back to being available! Hurray for New-South Books!

Why is it so fabulous? Because, like all of Michelle Edwards’ books, it is fabulously illustrated with quirky people who look much more like people I know than most books. And, because one of the kids in the book happens to be in a wheelchair. And because you can learn a whole bunch of interesting Hebrew words (the word of the Hebrew letter Alef is ahm-BAHT-yah which means bathtub and the word for Gimmel is gar-BAH-yimwhich means socks). And, most importantly, this isn’t just an alphabet book — Michelle Edwards gives you all sorts of information about the family that is pictured in the book so you can actually talk to your children about what is happening in each picture. It’s actually quite cool.

So, I’m going to take out my old copy of the book, and the re-published copy of the book, and the kids and I are going to pour over the pictures, learn some funky words and prepare for an overnight flight. Oh dear. Wish us luck!

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Great Non-Passover Passover Boks

While this post can give you all the traditional Passover books you need (traditional means they actually refer to Passover) what about books that can give your children a window into the Passover experience without mentioning the words Passover, Exodus, Moses or even Jews?

The Passover Haggadah tells us that:

In every generation a person must see themselves as though they personally came out of Egypt. (Mishnah Pesachim 10:5, also in the traditional Haggadah)

Personally, I feel like the Passover Haggadah is a bit lacking in helping us get to that point. Frankly, even the Exodus story is hard to get our heads around, never mind the heads of young children. It took place so long ago and there’s all this magic (which makes it hard to really believe it happened).

However, if we take the central components of the Passover story (slavery, leaving home, wandering and reaching a new homeland), we might be able to put something together that actually helps our children understand the Exodus. So, here’s the book guide. You certainly don’t need all the books, but see what you can find for each category.

Understanding slavery

Understanding the Escape

Understanding the Wandering

Understanding the Arriving

  • The Memory Coat written by Elvira Woodruff and illustrated by Michael Dooling

Questions to think about with your child/ren

  • What is it like to be a slave?
  • What is it like to leave slavery?
  • What is it like to arrive in a new home?
  • How different is Egypt in Biblical times from any of these times?
  • How can we make a difference?

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