Kar-Ben woos kids, adults with clever Jewish books

In Alaska, December is a month of darkness. The sun sleeps all day just below the horizon. Sudden winds kick snow into house-sized drifts.

Could this be a scene in a Jewish children's book? Yes; the book is called "Northern Lights, A Hanukkah Story," it's published by Kar-Ben Copies and it's about a Jewish family whose plane is grounded in Alaska. They stay with a Yupik Eskimo family and discover that both cultures share many customs. The book ends with a multicultural ceremony–the lighting of an ancient stone Yupik lamp to celebrate the Jewish holiday.

If you know something about children's books, you've heard of Kar-Ben Copies. The company publishes some 90 other titles including the classic million-seller "My Very Own Haggadah" as well as storybooks, craft books and holiday books. Also newly available is an Israel family travel book, a family Haggadah and a series of family prayer services now used by congregations nationwide.

Kar-Ben's books are notable for their accessibility, interesting and never-didactic story lines and willingness to deal with controversial subjects.

Feminists love the books because they are both Jewish and egalitarian. Pick up a Kar-Ben edition and you're likely to read about a mommy who's a rabbi, a deer who wears a dress and carries a Torah scroll, or grandpa making soup for Shabbat dinner. Seniors are grateful for the books' large print, glossaries, clear story lines and useful holiday explanations.

And children feel comfortable with the books, regardless of their parents' backgrounds.

Twenty years ago Judye Groner and Madeline Wikler, both of Rockville, Md., pooled their capital and expertise to launch the business, which has grown into one of the largest firms of its kind.

"We showed up at the right place at the right time," Groner says, recalling those early days. "It was a time when Jewish family education was being born. Publishers underestimated the market for Jewish children's books created by a new generation of parents in the '70s, who may not have had a Jewish education, but were looking for simple, concrete ways to begin to express their Judaism and instill Jewish values in their children. Readable Jewish books on how to celebrate the holidays and other Jewish themes fit the bill.

"Kar-Ben also rode the wave of multiculturalism, which created a demand for religious and ethnic books in the schools," she adds.

With the publication of "The Jewish Catalogue" in the mid-1970s, Wikler notes, young families previously lacking in Jewish education were told, "`You can be Jewish. You can bake a challah, build a sukkah. Here are some blessings you say on Shabbat and Chanukah.' Our books for children are in that tradition."

For Groner and Wikler, who raised their own children on Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak, too many Jewish children's books were boring and didactic. Kar-Ben's books often use Jewish themes as backdrops for stories that delve into other issues.

Many of these works might never have found a place with other publishers, either Jewish or mainstream.For instance, in "Daddy's Chair," by Sandy Lanton, a child experiences shiva and copes with loss and separation. "Grand-`ma's Soup" by Nancy Karkowsky deals with a grandmother suffering from Alzheimer's disease: She puts cloves in her chicken soup for one Sabbath meal and doesn't recognize her grandchildren the next.

"Some people don't like our `sad stories,'" says Groner. "But sometimes life is sad or unfair or confusing. It's part of a child's reality. And there are Jewish contexts to sadness, injustice and confusion."

That goes for laughter, too. "Fins and Scales" explains the laws of kashrut in rhyme: "Don't eat bears or snakes that creep. Our meat can come from cows and sheep. Their hooves are split, they chew their cud. Not like pigs that play in mud. Eat no eagle! Eat no gnat! And never serve souffle of bat!"

One of the firm's earliest titles was "Ima on the Bima" (My Mommy is a Rabbi), a book by Rabbi Mindy Portnoy of Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C. Originally rejected by the Reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations, it is the only children's book that really tells what a rabbi does, the publishers say. A second book by Portnoy, "My Mother Never went to Hebrew School," tells about a boy whose mom, a convert to Judaism, had a Christian childhood.

"The Jewish community is diverse, and not everyone can be satisfied with every depiction," says Wikler. "We show girls wearing pants, which sometimes angers segments of the Orthodox [community], and our boys wear yarmulkes, which makes some Reform Jews unhappy."

Portnoy says Kar-Ben books validate a range of experiences and characters that don't always match the stereotyped versions that appear in books of a previous generation.

"Jewish children's books don't have to cater to the most traditional elements of the Jewish community," she observes. "Not every child lives in a home that celebrates Shabbat every week. Women rabbis are an authentic part of some children's experiences."

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