What is Shabbat? How did the Sh'ma come about? When Jews were herded like cattle and sent off to concentration camps, what went through their heads? How did they feel?
Answering questions such as these, especially when it is innocents wanting to know, can prove exceedingly difficult, especially for parents. Should your answers be serious or silly, detailed or vague? Sometimes just setting the right tone can be tough.
Fortunately, three new children's books provide help. Each tackles a different topic, but all are basic to understanding Jewish life.
"Shabbat Shalom!" by Michelle Shapiro Abraham, uses singsong rhyme and richly colored illustrations to introduce prayers, concepts and traditions of Shabbat. It is a perfect book for reading aloud to young children, or for primary-grade readers, who can handle the verse (and maybe the Hebrew) themselves.
A sliver-thin paperback of only a dozen pages, it manages to present various blessings — from primary ones, such as blessings over the candles, bread and wine, to perhaps lesser-known ones, like the Blessing Before Giving (tzedakah) and Blessing Over Children. Presented in Hebrew with English translation, plus transliteration, each blessing is accompanied by a picture and rhyme, concluding with the refrain:
"We bring Shabbat into our home,/ By blessing [the subject],/ Shabbat Shalom!"
Another book, "The Perfect Prayer," relies heavily on large pictures (that look to be watercolor paintings), to tell its story. The tale revolves around an unnamed queen "who needed a prayer" and called on her advisers for advice.
The three — Shimon, Miriam and Akiva — offer simple suggestions and their reasoning. The thoughtful queen, realizing that all of their advice is good, offers these words of wisdom: "You have taught me that the very best prayers have us listen, have us think, have us wonder," she says. "My prayer will unite all three of your sounds… and together these words will speak the prayer of my heart."
Author Donald B. Russoff, a rabbi in Morristown, N.J., reveals his talents as a storyteller in concocting this tale. But even more impressive is the work of Missouri artist Tammy L. Keiser. Painting a multicultural cast of characters in their native attire, she places them in fanciful settings and puts lots of expression on their faces.
In an author's note, Russoff said his inspiration came from a Midrash on the word "Sh'ma." He then took off and ran with it, his goal at the time to come up with a new story to offer at his temple's Rosh Hashanah family service. "The Perfect Prayer" is geared for ages 4 to 8, according to the publisher.
The third book, "Who Was the Woman Who Wore the Hat?" by Nancy Patz, is not for young children. They simply won't get it. It is better suited for young teens.
Described on the book jacket as "a meditation on a woman's hat once on display at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam," the book couples a "pensive prose poem" with collage artwork. Patz is both writer and illustrator.
She opens the book with a pencil drawing of the hat and the question: "Who was the women who wore the hat I saw in the Jewish Museum? What was she like?" The questions continue as we follow this poor woman and others to the cattle cars and camps.
Patz's illustrations are haunting and give the book strength. They include pencil drawings, subdued watercolors and odd photographs whose rough edges and borders bespeak of time gone by and sadness.
Patz, who lives in Baltimore, had sketched the hat upon her visit to the Amsterdam museum. Later, at home, she penned a short poem. Over time, working in her studio, she added a woman to go with the hat and imagined — but only in the vaguest of terms — this woman's state of mind during the horrid rousting.
Her book serves as a solid launching point for more questions and discussion. As for answers, they can't be found in the book whose title is a question.
"Shabbat Shalom!" by Michelle Shapiro Abraham (14 pages, UAHC Press, $6.95).
"The Perfect Prayer" by Donald Russoff (30 pages, UAHC Press, $13.95).
"Who Was the Woman Who Wore the Hat?" (48 pages, Dutton Books, $14.99).