Children's Books about Jewish Religion and Culture (including interfaith stories)

A Notes from the Windowsill annotated bibliography by Wendy E. Betts. Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008

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Last Updated 04/09/08

Books on specific topics:

  • Bar/Bat Mitzvah
  • Hanukkah
  • Passover
  • Purim
  • Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kipuur

  • The Holocaust

    Picture Books

    (Click for fiction, ages 5-12, young adult fiction and nonfiction, including general Holiday collections)
  • The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate by Janice Cohn. Illustrated by Bill Farnsworth. Albert Whitman, 1995 (0-8075-1152-8) $16.95

    This picture book tells the true story of an inspiring event: when windows with Hanukkah menorahs become targets for rock throwers in Billings, Montana in 1993, thousands of non-Jewish people put pictures of menorahs in their windows, dramatically reducing the number of hate crimes in their city. Although this telling is somewhat dry and didactic—and not helped much by muted, photo-realistic style illustrations—the story itself is so compelling and heartwarming it has its own power. (5-10)

    A Mountain of Blintzes by Barbara Diamond Goldin. Illustrated by Aink McGrory. Gulliver/Harcourt, 2001 (0-15-201902-2) $16.00

    A poor family's plan to earn extra money for a mountain of Blintzes for Shavuot seems doomed to failure when both mother and father think the other is taking care of it--but luckily, the children of the family have their own plan for a happy and delicious ending. A fun story, cheerfully illustrated. (4-8)

    Night Lights by Barbara Diamond Goldin. Illustrated by Louise August. Gulliver, 1995 (0-15-200536-6)

    As they build their sukkah, Daniel's Papa tells him why it's important to keep it open on top, to remember the ancestors who had to sleep in huts as they wandered in the desert. But Daniel wishes that just this once they could have a real roof--because this year it will be just him and his older sister Naomi in the sukkah. And he knows she won't sing to him like Granpda did last year, when he thought he heard wolves and bears outside. But when the wind starts howling, Daniel unexpectedly discovers another side to his oh-so grown-up sister.

    This sympathetically told story about childhood fears and scoffing siblings has a general appeal which makes it an especially nice introduction to this often neglected holiday. The resolution is satisfying both in terms of the conflict and the nature of the Sukkot celebration. The illustrations leave something to be desired however: picture books about Jewish holidays are notoriously prone to visual cliche, and this one is particularly egregious, with a family right out of a 1950's sitcom and such pronounced "Jewishness" about everything, it's surprising Daniel doesn't wear his yarmulke to bed. Aside from that, the pictures are fairly expressive and appropriately vibrant and lively, especially in the scenes of imagined terror in the sukkah, but I prefer Jeanette Winter's drawings for The World's Birthday (see Rosh Hashanah books) in which the old-fashioned look is consistent and logical. (4-8)

    Kaddish for Grandpa in Jesus' Name Amen by James Howe. Illustrated by Catherine Stock. Atheneum, 2004 (0-68980185-8) $16.95

    If you can get past the mind-boggling title, this tender story shows a real understanding of a young child's perspective on ritual. Five year old Emily, whose father was born into a Christian family but converted to Judaism, describes how it feels to go to a Christian funeral for her grandfather, and then to share in a Jewish ceremony of mourning as well. Meanwhile, she forms her own way of remembering her grandfather, by keeping his glasses case under her pillow and putting together the parts of ritual that spoke to her heart. "It wasn't the Christian way and it wasn't the Jewish way. It was just my way, My Kaddish for Grandpa in Jesus' name amen." Adults may well cringe, but the story rings true. Soft-focused but expressive pen & ink and watercolor illustrations depict both sadness and celebration in the families as they confront their loss. (4-7)

    Light the Lights written and illustrated by Margaret Moorman. Scholastic, 1994 (0-590-47003-5) $12.95

    One of very few pictures books about interfaith holiday celebrations, Light the Lights is the story of a little girl named Emma whose family happily celebrates both Hannukah and Christmas. Hannukah is visiting relatives, playing dreidel and eating latkes, and watching the glowing lights in the menorah, set by the living room window where "all the neighbors up and down the street could catch a glimpse of it." Christmas is singing "Joy to the World" with friends, cookies and hot chocolate, and the beautiful glow of the Christmas tree lights, turned on by Santa Claus as he left the presents. Although neither the text nor the bland, almost textbook-style watercolor illustrations are particularly inspired, in these warm family and neighborhood scenes Moorman has captured some of the essence of what interfaith winter celebrations can mean—not so much the teachings of specific religions as a celebration of comfort, friendship and most of all, light in the darkness, the common thread of all solstice holidays. (3-7)

    My Two Grandmothers by Effin Older. Illustrated by Nancy Hayashi. Harcourt, 2000 (0-15-200785-7) OP

    Lily loves celebrating Silver family traditions with her Bubbe and Lane family traditions with her Grammy. But one thing seems sad to her: "Grammy Lane never gets to light Hanukkah candles or sip a Donald Duck drink... Bubbe Silver never gets to sing Christmas carols or look for animal tracks in the snow." And so she creates a brand new tradition: the Traditional Grandmothers Party, to share with both of her grandmothers. Although the illustrations are a bit stodget and conventional, all kinds of families can enjoy this warm story, which is light on the message and filled with little details that are fun to read about, like three-color Donald Duck drinks and red flannel hash. (3-8)

    Day of Delight by Maxine Rose Schur. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Dial, 1994 (0-8037-1413-0) $15.99

    For Menelik and his family, life in their Ethiopian village is a rigorous struggle for survival. Nonetheless, once a week the family stops its work for a day--to celebrate the Sabbath. Menelik and his family belong to a small, almost vanished group: the Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jews. Like many Jews before them, they continue to celebrate their religion in spite of their isolation from other Jews--and the people around them. Muted yet vibrant scratchboard pictures illustrate this fascinating look at Jewish life in a very different context, a vivid reminder that the harder life is, the more important the Sabbath can be. (5-9)

    The Flying Latke by Arthur Yorinks. Illustrations by Willim Steig; photo illustrations by Paul Colin and Arthur Yorinks. Simon & Schuster, 1999 (0-689-82597-8) $16.95

    A decidedly weird, and occasionally very funny story, in which an arguing family accidentally turns an ordinary latke into a UFO circling the earth. Photo collages of typical--or even stereotypical--members of a large Jewish family are staged against a background drawn by Steig (with some odd cameos by famous illustrators Vladmmir Radunsky, Maurice Sendak and Steig himself.) Be sure not to miss the back cover, for the hilarious "players" credits. (5 & up)

    Fiction, 5-12

    Molly's Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen. Illustrated by Daniel Duffy. William Morrow, 1983; Beech Tree, 1998 (0-688-16280-0)

    Weaving a gentle message about learning from other cultures into an easy-to-read story, Molly's Pilgrim is a thoughtful look at the problems of a young immigrant. Third-grade Molly is miserable in her new school, where she is constantly taunted about not speaking English perfectly and being Jewish. When her mother makes a doll for the class Thanksgiving project, Molly is even more humiliated: the doll looks like a little Russian girl, not a Pilgrim. But as Molly and her classmates learn, "Pilgrim" can mean anyone who travels to find freedom: like Molly and her family. Although set around the turn of the century, Molly's sympathetic narrative could be that of any "pilgrim" today. (5-8)

    Make a Wish, Molly by Barbara Cohen. Illustrated by Jan Naimo Jones. Doubleday, 1994; Dell Yearling, 1995 (0-440-41058-4)

    The follow-up to Molly's Pilgrim is a similar yet somewhat richer and more sophisticated story, intended for slightly older readers. Several months have passed for Molly and she's much happier, because she's found a friend named Emma. But when Emma has a birthday party, Molly can't eat any of her wonderful birthday cake: it's Passover, and regular flour is forbidden. For Elizabeth, Molly's old enemy, it's the perfect chance to make trouble between Molly and Emma by spreading nasty rumors about Jewish customs. Molly's too shy and embarrassed to explain--but how can she keep her friend? This longer narrative gives Molly more depth than the previous book, making her and even more sympathetic and understandable character. (6-10)

    While the Candles Burn by Barbara Diamond Goldin. Illustrated by Elaine Greenstein. Viking, 1996 (0-670-85875-7) $15.99

    Taking an unusual and interesting approach to Hanukkah stories, this collection features eight tales which aren't specifically about Hanukkah, but which express some of the traditional themes and meanings of the holiday. As introductions to the stories point out, Hanukkah is celebrated in different ways by Jews around the world: one of most interesting stories, an original, modern-day tale, is set at a bilingual Israeli/Arab school to express a theme of reconciliation and peace—a part of Hanukkah celebrations in Greece. (This school, Oasis of Peace, actually exists in Israel!) Goldin's smoothly crafted retelling of six traditional tales, plus two original stories, skillfully combine lively details with an atmosphere of reverence. The scratchboard-style illustrations are warm and expressive; an especially nice touch are the eight different Menorahs which decorate the beginning of each chapter—each, of course, holding the appropriate number of candles. * (5 & up)

    The Hopscotch Tree by Leda Siskind. Bantam, 1992; Dell Yearling, 1995 (0-440-40959-4) $3.50 pb

    Every day, Edith dreads the sight of the Purple Sweater, aka Zandra Kott. Being Jewish, Edith is a prime target for Zandra and her bullying gang, and even talking to her favorite tree can't seem to help her figure out what to do about it. But when Edith discovers a secret about Zandra, she has to grapple with an even more important problem: whether she can stop Zandra's cruelty without becoming cruel herself.

    Set in the 1960's, this is a strong portrait of what it's like to be an outsider among people who are hostile at worst, ignorant at best: the complete obliviousness of Edith's teachers that cutting out angels and singing religious carols might make her uncomfortable is a pertinent comment on what anyone outside of the standard mold has to deal with. There's no miraculous happy ending, but a believably positive one that shows the value of standing up for yourself and keeping your integrity. (8-12)

    Love from Your Friend, Hannah by Mindy Warshaw Skolsky. DK Publishing, 1998; HarperTrophy, 1999 (0-06-440746-2) $5.95 pb

    I hope it may be a sign of a change in the mood of children's fiction, that the two happiest books I've read in ages are set in a poor urban neighborhood (Jonah the Whale) and during the Great Depression. If there's one thing this book is not, it's depressing; I smiled all the way through it.

    Hannah Diamond is looking for someone to write to: her best friend Aggie has moved away and never answers any of her letters. But trying the "pen pals" box at school only gets her "two measly lines and an unfriendly P.S." from a BOY. So Hannah decides to take her problem straight to the top, asking President Roosevelt to help her find a pen pal. It's the beginning of some wonderful correspondences, as Hannah finds herself writing to the president, his wife and his secretary, as well as to her grandmother, a friendly drifter who stopped by her parent's restaurant, and the recalcitrant Aggie. And by the end of the book she has found the pen pal she most wanted, a true friend, in a most unexpected place. Writing about the world around her--her parent's roadside diner, her secret spot on top of a mountain, her Jewish grandparent's candy store--as well as her thoughts and feelings, Hannah creates a distinctive time and setting. It's a world that has its share of troubles, but the mood of the times is optimistic--and we see the ultimate benefits of that optimism played out throughout the story.

    Hannah's letters, and their replies, also create relationships; even the characters who never write letters themselves, like Hannah's mother and father, acquire clear personalities, seen through Hannah's eyes. Hannah herself is the most vivid personality: her warmth, imagination and sincerity are unmistakable. Her reluctant pen pal Edward Winchley is a match for her, a wryly funny boy whose letters slowly reveal the sadness of his life. When Edward begins to change, in response to Hannah's letters, we believe it, because we believe in both of them.

    I can't wait to read more books about Hannah. I wish she would write to me. * (8 & up)

    There's No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein by Susan Sussman. Illustrated by Charles Robinson. Albert Whitman, 1983 (0-8075-7862-2)

    An important and often ignored consequence of celebrating Hanukkah is explored with realistic humor in the short chapter book. "It isn't easy being Jewish at Christmas time", thinks Robin—and when your entire school is making ornaments and singing carols, it sure isn't. Robin is torn between despising Sandy Goldstein—a Jewish classmate who has a "Chanukah bush"—and envying her. Her longing to be part of the Christmas experience is satisfied when her grandfather tells her, "There's a difference between celebrating something because you believe in it, and helping friends celebrate something because they believe in it"—making it okay for her to spend Christmas day with her friend Heather, after Heather has celebrated Hanukkah with her.

    Not surprisingly, the book ducks some of the more complicated, philosophical issues about public celebrations of Christmas, and I disliked the implication that the heavy focus on it in school is okay. And, of course, Robin's solution to the problem is not for everyone. But it's an enjoyable book, as well as a fairly honest one. (7-11)

    The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. Viking, 1988 (0-670-81027-4); Puffin, 1990 (0-140-34535-3) $2.98 pb

    Twelve-year-old Hannah hates the Passover Seder at Grandpa Will's. She hates his strange fits about the tattoo on his arm, and the long boring speeches, and everything she's expected to remember. "All Jewish holidays are about remembering," she tells her mother. "I'm tired of remembering."

    Then she goes to open the door for Elijah--and suddenly finds herself being called Chaya. She has travelled through time and space to a Jewish village in Nazi-occupied Poland, the only one there who knows the fate that awaits them. At first Hannah urges people to fight, but her efforts are useless; her foreknowledge is too little and arrives too late, and she, along with everyone she has met, winds up in a concentration camp. There she is befriended by a girl named Rivka, who teaches her the tricks of survival in a place where every day of survival is a victory over evil; it is Rivka who tells her, when she rages against the passivity of the prisoners, that "it is much harder to live this way and to die this way than to go out shooting... We are all heroes here."

    Reading it with a critical eye, The Devil's Arithmetic seems awfully heavy on the lessons; practically every line of dialogue starts to seem like a sound bite of profundity. Nonetheless, it is deeply moving story of both staggering evil and goodness, and the vital importance of remembering them. (10 & up)

    Young Adult Books

    Real Time by Pnina Moed Kass. Clarion, 2004 (0-618-44203-0 $15.00; Houghton Mifflin, 2006 (978-618-69174-6) $7.99 pb

    Present-day Israel is a dangerous place to live, yet it's filled with people. For sixteen-year-old Tommi from Germany, it's the place to find out what his grandfather did during the Holocaust. For Vera Brodsky from Odessa, it's a place where she can reclaim her Jewish heritage, unlike her father who changed his name to Ushakov. To the Israelis who've lived there for decades, it's home. And for the Palestinians, it's the place that should be home.... and some of them will do anything to fight back.

    Written from multiple points of view, Real Time is a tense, tragic story of violence, relating the events immediately before and after a terrorist attack as seen by the victims, observers and the terrorists themselves. Kass presents the different perspectives fairly, albeit without much depth of characterization. It is a sobering look at an continuing horror that, until 2001, few Americans could comprehend. Winner of the 2004 Sydney Taylor Book Award. (12 & up)

    If I Should Die Before I Wake by Han Nolan. Harcourt, Brace, 1994 (0-15-238040-X) $16,95; 2003 (0-15-204679-8) $6.95 pb

    Hilary, a young member of the "Aryan Warriors," a Neo-Nazi organization, lies in a coma after a motorcycle accident. Seemingly lifeless, her mind still works furiously, ceaselessly spewing a torrent of hate for her mother and for Jews, whom she blames for her father's death. Then she finds her consciousness slipping away--into the body of a girl called Chana, a Jewish girl who lived during the Holocaust, 50 years before. At first Hilary thinks her visions are a meaningless dream and refuses to accept their significance, but they keep coming. Inside Chana, Hilary experiences the fear, pain, loss and despair of the Jews in the Nazi ghettos and concentrations camps, becoming one with her in her suffering until she can no longer tell where Chana's life ends and hers begins.

    the inherent power of this story is somewhat marred by an ambitious narrative style that isn't completely successful. Hilary's torments inner voice, half watered-down expletives and half confused flashbacks, does not give a convincing explanation of her anti-semitism. Chana's narrative works better, especially as it becomes the focal point of the novel: the recreation of the physical and emotional horrors of the Holocaust is vivid and soul-wrenching. (At one point, Chana realizes that the smell of Auschwitz is that of "human flesh, human hair and bones burning. I was drenched in it, choking with it, but I knew that in order for me to live, I had to breath, I had to inhale this residue of someone else's life.")

    Chana's story, describing in bitter detail her efforts to keep both her body and spirits alive, builds in power until finally the war is over and she has survived--in part, as her intuitive grandmother tells her, because Hilary's spirit was with her. "She was the brave Chana, the strong Chana, the Chana who could cry and mourn so many deaths, so much destruction, so that you wouldn't have to... Your shvester, your other self, kept your soul alive. In a deeply moving ending, the separate spirits of the two girls talk to each other for the first time--only now Chana is the old woman she is in Hilary's time, another patient in the hospital. By sharing her experiences with Hilary she has saved her life, just as Hilary's spiritual presence saved hers in the past. And now, she tells Hilary, it is her turn to share what she knows with others, to be a witness: "I reached out to you. I touched you. I screamed, and you heard. In hearing me, in understanding me, you have given my past new meaning. It will change to meaning of your past as well, and someday your life as an angry child who has turned her hate to love will change still another life." (12 & up)

    A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt. Random House, 2006 (0-385-90940-3)

    Simone's ordinary life of high school, family, friends, and trying to find a boyfriend grows increasingly complex after she meets her birthmother for the first time and becomes aware of her Jewish heritage. A well-balanced mix of joy and sadness, this book also offers particularly appealing family and friend relationships, a feeling for the beauty of Jewish ritual and identity, and a strong sense of emotional truth.


    Jewish Holidays All Year Round by Ilene Cooper. Illustrated by Elivia Savadier. Harry N. Abrams, 2002 (0-8109-0550-7) $18.95

    I started out liking this book for its fresh and lively cover illustration of a multicultural Passover gathering, and I continued liking it for its fresh and lively text. The stories of the Jewish holidays have been retold so many times, it's a pleasure to hear them in a distinctive voice, as well as to see portrayals of less conventional Jewish families. In addition to the bright pen & ink and watercolor illustrations, the book also contains photographs of artwork from the Jewish Museum in New York City, offering many different expressions of Jewish life and art: four different menorahs, for example, range from a delicately wrought metal lamp from North Africa to a modern interpretation using eight small Statues of Liberty and the American flag.

    The Jewish calendar has a number of holy days which are difficult to explain to children, like Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Rememberance Day. Jewish Holidays All Year Round includes those emotionally charged holidays, but its descriptions are pretty minimal (also a little confused: "six million Jews and other people died during the Holocaust"), leaving parents or teachers to decide how much of the story to tell. A short bibliography of Holocaust fiction for children and young adults is included.

    The least successful portion of this book is the activities contained in each chapter: most are recipes requiring a lot of adult help, and the illustrations of items like an elaborate mechanized purim noisemaker from Russia will not satisfy children making groggers out of empty coffee cans.

    Overall, this is an excellent resource for Jewish families; it's enjoyable to read, and the range of illustrations from the joyfully simple to the intriguingly sophisticated gives it visual appeal for a wide age range. (4-12)

    The Family Treasury of Jewish Holidays by Malka Drucker. Illustrated by Nancy Patz. Little, Brown (0-316-19343-7) $21.95; 1999 (0-316-9313-5) $12.95 trade pb

    Anyone looking for a way to teach children about Jewish celebrations and observances will find this large compendium invaluable, not just for imparting information, but for helping children understand and assimilate the spiritual meanings behind the rituals. Each of the holidays (including modern ones such as Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Rememberance Day) is thoughtfully described, in terms of its history and its celebration today. Accompanying stories by authors such as Janice May Uldry ("A Tree is Nice") and Barbara Cohen ("The Carp in the Bathtub") highlight the different atmosphere and meaning of each holiday, while songs, recipes and craft projects give children a chance to fully participate in the occasions. The information appears (to my admittedly unexpert eye) to be accurate, and the design of the book is lovely, with appropriate colorful motifs for each section. Not only will parents and teachers find this book useful, I think children will genuinely appreciate it. * (4 & up)

    Dance, Sing, Remember by Leslie Kimmelman. Illustrated by Ora Eitan. HarperCollins, 2000 (0-06-027726-2) $14.00

    The bouncy, slightly abstract look of cover of this book is enticing, seeming to promise a livelier, perhaps even hipper look at Jewish holidays than usual. The text is pretty standard though, describing eleven Jewish holidays, plus shabbat, with simplified versions of the complicated stories. The telling of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust remembrance day is shortest of all, tactfully leaving it for parents to decide how much to elaborate; in a nice touch, the text refers back to the story of Purim, saying "This time, there was no Queen Esther to change his [Hitler's] mind. There was no Queen Esther to help save the Jews."

    Impressionistic pictures catch the tone of each holiday nicely: the design of a dark bird on a grey background for Yom Hashoah and a picture of a child tenderly planting a tree for Tu B'Shevat are particularly lovely. A story or activity follows the description of each holiday, generally pretty obvious ones like playing dreidel or making groggers. (Purim noisemakers.) Parents or teachers looking for a very basic introduction to the Jewish holiday year may find this useful. (4-8)

    Milk and Honey by Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Louise August. Music arranged by Adam Stemple. Putnam, 1996 (0-399-22652-4) $21.95

    Milk and Honey is a reader for all of the primary Jewish holidays and Shabbat. Richly colored paintings by the illustrator of In the Month of Kislev (see Hannukah books) accompany poems, stories and songs in the spirit of each holiday. Yolen also discusses the history and customs of the holidays, taking a scholarly yet commonsensical approach to the various theories and legends surrounding different customs: "One explanation offered for this [the challah cover] is that in this way the bread won't be insulted because the wine has been blessed first. More probably, it keeps the bread warm."

    Milk and Honey doesn't offer as much of the specific, concrete details about celebrating the holidays as some readers might want: a better choice for that is The Family Treasury of Jewish Holidays (see above.) I also felt it doesn't express the spiritual connection Jews feel to their holiday celebrations as much as some books on this subject (including The Family Treasury .) Its candid, almost impartial tone can be seen as a strength however, especially for older readers who want to learn more than the standard versions they've heard all their lives, or for non-Jewish readers wanting a straightforward introduction to the subject. Yolen's poems and story retellings also contribute some fresh, new approaches to the familiar themes. (8-12)

    To Every Season: a Family Holiday Cookbook written and illustrated by Jane Breskin Zalben. Simon & Schuster, 1999 (0-689-81797-5) $19.95 (OP, but easy to find)

    This isn't specifically a book about Jewish holidays, but it does offer more about them than generally found in a standard holiday collection, including five recipes for Passover and four for Chanukah. Recipes for sixteen popular American holidays are included. Some are traditional: mulled apple cider for Christmas, corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick's Day, black-eyed pea cutlets and collard greens for Kwanzaa. Others are a little more imaginative, such as black and orange pasta for Halloween and "laid-back" banana bread for labor day. Each holiday is given a basic introduction, and there's also information about the traditions, if any, behind the recipes; I was particularly pleased that Zalben goes into some of the variations in Jewish traditions, including both an apple-and-walnut haroset, eaten by Askenazi Jews, and a date-and-almond haroset, eaten by Sephardic Jews. There are a number of vegetarian versions of traditionally meaty foods-- vegetable kabobs and "virtual" burgers--and also a few "lightened" recipes.

    This doesn't strike me as a cookbook kids will much want to try: the type is on the small side and the recipes aren't specifically written for beginners. But younger children might enjoy looking at the illustrations and helping to choose recipes. Small pen & ink and watercolor pictures decorate practically every page; they have a playful nursery-rhyme feel to them, showing lots of animal-people--including Pearl the lamb, whom children might recognize from Zalben's other books. A pleasant book to share

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