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Friday, April 24, 2015

Jewish Books for Kids: Less is More


Maybe I’m still a homeschooler at heart?

(Are you one, too?)

When I asked for feedback about the book I’m currently working on, Elephant Tisha b’Av, I got a ton of helpful comments. 

Sure, some were a little LESS than helpful, like one person who didn’t think we should be observing Tisha b’Av at all:  “In my opinion it is time to stop mourning the past.” 

But others gave me fantastic inspiration.  More people liked the idea but asked for more about the elephants themselves, and I realized I’d jumped right into the “sad memories” part without showing how magnificant and fun these creatures are in their own right.  Some felt the connection wasn’t clear between the elephants and the observance of Tisha b’Av, and I did my best to tighten up that link so it’s clear without being smack-on-the-forehead obvious.  I like a little subtlety.

A lot of people wonder why I'm doing these animal books at all. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What do otters have to do with Pesach? (aka Passover)

image from Otter Passover, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod

What do otters have to do with Pesach?

Nothing, right?

Otters have absolutely nothing to do with Pesach.  Then again, pandas have nothing to do with Purim.  And penguins… well, totally not Rosh Hashanah critters.  And my best most popular book on Amazon right now (yes, even in March) is a little story called Penguin Rosh Hashanah.

It was tough thinking of a follow-up, though the first one, Panda Purim, came fairly easily. 

My husband figured I should try to find a connection between the animal and the yom tov.  Okay, actually, he suggested Cow Shavuos.  I told him if he wanted to read a story about cows on Shavuos, he could write it himself.  It just didn’t interest me.  Too obvious!

At last… after trying to find an animal that was cute but not cloyingly so, I came across this adorable otter.  And thus, Otter Passover was born.

Penguin Rosh Hashanah, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeodPanda Purim, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeodOtter Passover, by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod  

The thing is, even if the title is incongruous, I wanted a story that made sense.  And I wanted to bring in genuine elements of Torah and Jewish belief without teaching the basics of what Pesach is, which I usually steer away from. 

Somebody actually complained about this in a one-star review of Penguin Rosh Hashanah.  She wrote, “It left me wandering what Rosh Hashana was about.”

Why don’t I want to teach what the holiday “is about”? 

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Jewish Defense League – why they don’t speak for me (or you?).


I just got flamed on Facebook – now that’s something that doesn’t happen often.

(My life’s pretty boring, I guess.)

But when I saw this story in a Facebook group, about the Jewish Defense League setting up shop in Montreal, I mentioned that I found their tactics "disgusting."


JDL marshals at the Sephardic Kehila Centre in Toronto, September 24, 2014 (photo credit: JDL Canada website)

(photo credit:  JDL Canada website)

Apparently, it was the wrong thing to say.

Apparently, for criticizing those who hate the haters, I become hated myself.


I was attacked on all sides by my fellow Jews who offered such threats as:

  • "Wait until one of the savages comes after your kids and delivers their heads on platters to your front door,"
  • "[you are] the poor little Jew who skips into the cattle car excited to get to the spacious work camps," and
  • "[you] to Nazi officer: "Sir, which cattle car door should I use?'",
  • "[you] portrait of a Jewish lemming."

These comments tell me everything I need to know about the JDL, its supporters and their tactics – today and in the past.


Bloody track record

The JDL Canada website proudly brags about how they helped arrest Canadian Holocaust denier Nazi Ernst Zundel.  They should be proud.  But they don’t mention that they also tried to burn down and bomb his house.  They don’t mention Baruch Goldstein, a JDL member who murdered 29 praying Muslims.  Or many other JDL-initiated murders and murder attempts over the years.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Daddy and the Zhlub: Should baalei teshuvah be ashamed of their families?


I used to resent my parents for not being religious.

(Mommy, if you're reading this, keep going - there's a happy ending.)

It was a baal teshuvah thing.  One of those not-nice things they don't tell you about in the rosey-coloured-glasses books about being a baal teshuvah. 

Do we all (all of us crazy BT’s) resent our parents because they're not frum?  At the time, I thought it was resentment, but now, I think it was more like shame.

Are we, as BT’s, ashamed that our parents didn’t give us the advantages of a day school education?  That they didn’t teach us to keep milk and meat dishes separate?  That they sent us to inadequate Hebrew schools that taught us only to resent our Jewish identity and the loss of a sleep-in on Sunday?

I’ll admit it:  I was.

(If you weren’t, then you’re a better BT than me!)

I did my best to make up for lost time, in part by pretending my parents didn’t exist.  And I think I wasn’t the only one.  I think that the frum world encouraged us to turn our backs on where we’d come from.  My husband was a geir, so in his case, the feeling was less subtle, but even with my own Jewish family, we got the message on every side that we would have to make a clean break, a fresh start.

I remember telling someone about my Nanny once, after I’d become frum.  She was a devout Presbyterian and took care of our Jewish family for over 60 years.  For Nanny, there was no contradiction in this.  She loved her own faith, and she loved ours as well.  (That was Nanny; she could love everybody.)

And the person I was telling said, “Well, you never know.  Maybe she was secretly serving you non-kosher food.” (I didn’t bother explaining that there would have been no point bringing in non-kosher food… coals to Newcastle, as they say.) “…Or trying to get you to convert.  Unless they’re Jewish, you really never know.”

Believe me, I know.  With Nanny, you knew where you stood.

But I got so many variations on that message that I couldn’t help absorbing it.  Unless they’re Jewish, the right kind of Jewish, Jewish like us, they’re simply not part of what you’re doing in your life now.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sydney Taylor Award 2015 BLOG TOUR: Goldie Takes a Stand, with Barbara Krasner and Kelsey Garrity-Riley


Welcome to the SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD 2015 BLOG TOUR, hosted by the Association of Jewish Libraries, in which authors and illustrators of new books share their stories with the world.  The book tour is going on all this week, with tons of great new Jewish kids’ books to discover.  Dig up all the details, including a schedule of events, over here.

So what’s this all about Goldie?

If you know anything about Golda Meir, you’ll know that she was one tough cookie, even before she became Israel’s fourth Prime Minister, and the first woman (and to date, the only woman) to serve in the role.  But you may not know much more than that.

I was surprised when I first heard a recording of her speaking perfect English; I’d assumed that she was either born Israeli (rare in those days) or obscurely European. 

I had no idea that, although born in 1898 in Kiev (today, in Ukraine, but then part of the Russian Empire), Meir grew up in the heartland of the U.S., in Milwaukee.  Now, English-speaking kids have a rare chance to find out more than most adults about one of Israel’s most beloved leaders with a new book by children’s author Barbara Krasner:  Goldie Takes a Stand (Kar-Ben Publishing:  2014).

The Association of Jewish Libraries namedGoldie Takes a Stand, by Barbara Krasner Goldie Takes a Stand as one of six Sydney Taylor Honor Books for 2015, and I was excited to have the chance to interview Krasner, along with illustrator Kelsey Garrity-Riley, about the book.

Before I had a chance to get to that, though, I asked Naomi Rivka (age 9) to tell me what she thought of the book.  “I like it a lot.  Like, ten stars out of five.”  (I think she may have been exaggerating a little!)

What’s the story about? (a kid’s perspective)

I didn’t want to let her get away with such a vague review, however, so I asked her to tell me what she liked.  I was pretty impressed with what she remembered of the story: 

“It has an interesting story about helping the poor.  It tells you that she was a great tzadekes and she had to help the poor.  It was her job and if she didn’t do it, who else was going to do it?  So she set up a group of girls to buy books for poor people.  If the poor people got the books, they would be very happy.  So Goldie thought she would help the poor so much and make them happy, so that they can learn what they need to learn and they don’t have to just sit there bored.”

(I guess all those years of homeschool narration have sort of paid off after all, even if she isn’t using it at school.)

author Barbara Krasner Interview with the author, Barbara Krasner

Barbara has written so many Jewish kids’ books.  I actually just had a chance to flip through another new one, Liesl’s Ocean Rescue (Gihon River Press: 2014), when I met with its illustrator, Avi Katz, at the Jerusalem Book Fair on Monday. 

Here’s my Q&A with Barbara, to tell you a little about the process of creating Goldie Takes a Stand.

Q:  I love the idea of a story about a Jewish role model acting as a role model and community leader even as a child.  How did you come across this story?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Refuah Sheleimah? What we can daven for when someone is dying.


Many years ago, my coworker’s mother was very, very sick.  She was in a coma.  I asked him his mother’s Hebrew name.  And here’s the thing that stopped me in my tracks.

This guy wasn’t religious.  At all.  He knew very little about Judaism and I only knew because it came up in conversation once.  Still, he hesitated.  

He said, “She’s really very sick.  I don’t know if it would be a good thing for her to live any longer.” 

On some level, even if he didn’t know exactly how, he must have believed that our prayers actually work.  So do I.  But what are we talking about when we talk about prayers “working”?  About Hashem “answering” them?  And what are we asking for, to begin with?

In that situation, I explained that we’re not just asking for the person to live longer.  But this is something a lot of people don’t understand – even those of us who are doing the davening ourselves.

Sure, we all have that impulse, when we find out someone’s sick, to say something automatic like “refuah sheleimah,” a complete recovery, a speedy recovery, a long life.  These are the generic things we wish for everybody, and saying it comes as easily as saying “bless you” after a sneeze.

But for a person who’s clearly dying, there are other prayers we can and should be offering instead.