A History of Jewish Children’s Literature–Part Five

Jewish identity books

Adapted from a talk given by Lisa Silverman , Library Director of the Sinai Temple, Los Angeles , May 23, 2010 at the Highlights Founders Workshop, “Writing Jewish-themed Books for Children”

For those of you here who are writers,  you should know that Jewish identity books are changing, changing, changing.  A typical book concerning Jewish identity would include Sheldon Oberman’s The Always Prayer Shawl or The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco. In these books a child learns about his/her heritage through an item, like a tallit or a family quilt, and it encompasses the whole Eastern European immigrant experience along with the hope of the new generation continuing the heritage of the old. The end highlights the child of today and how he has learned about his Jewish identity and will now pass it on.

But Jewish identity has changed. You no longer need an artifact like a shawl or quilt to tell a good story. And here are two examples:

In Rebecca’s Journey Home by Brynn Olenberg Sugarman a Jewish family goes to Korea and adopts a baby. The two older brothers are excited to bring home the baby, but the baby needs to be converted in order to fit into the family.  This is an unusual take on identity issues, and we know it doesn’t happen to that many Jews around the world, but the point is—it does happen and it does signify that Jewish identity can encompass all sorts of experiences. Now Kar-Ben is really trying to fill the gap between the typical immigrant Jewish family and the books that showcase Jewish identity that is not the norm.

Always an Olivia is by Carolivia Herron, who is an African American woman whose family is originally from the Caribbean . She relates a story about how she found out why girls were always named Olivia in her family. A girl asks her grandma, and Grandma tells the story about how their heritage comes from Sephardic Jews of long ago.  Her ancestors started out in Italy and were kidnapped, traveled on a pirate ship, and ended up in the Caribbean .  The few leftover Sephardic traditions that they do inspire the questions of the child.  But now they are not Sephardic, they’re not even Jewish, but the name “Olivia” with roots in Hebrew, still remains. The point about this book is that it is a Jewish identity book that’s a stretch but it was chosen to be published.  It’s a great story.  Publishers are getting creative these days and finding different angles to provide a more inclusive view of Jewish identity.

About Barbara Krasner

History writer and award-winning author Barbara Krasner writes Jewish-themed poetry, articles, nonfiction books, and novels for children and adults.
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