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Showing posts with label Jewish Holy Days. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jewish Holy Days. Show all posts

11.27.2013

Letter on the Wind: A Chanukah Tale (2007)

Retold by Sarah Marwil Lamstein

Illustrated by Neil Waldmen

Pran watercolors and Micron archival inking pens on Arches cold-pressed watercolor paper

Boyds Mills Press

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah... not to mention the night before Thanksgiving and my son's birthday. There was some snow in the wind on the walk home from the train station, but it became mere rain - cold rain - as I finally approached our house.

I have several books on Purim reviewed on this blog, but none on Chanukah. I am trying to remedy that oversight. This story is a based on "A Letter to the Almighty," the author informs us, which was collected in the book Folktales of Israel published in 1963, edited by Dov Noy. But she doesn't stop there. "Meir Amrusi recorded the original tale," she continues, "as told by his Tunisian-born father."

It's been around for a long while.

Something which struck me as similiar to this as many of the other Jewish folktales I've reviewed on this blog, is that God does not make an appearance, nor is there anything supernatural about the proceedings. It all hinges on a grand misunderstanding. Hayim, the poorest man in his village, writes a letter to God, asking him to please provide the oil necessary for Chanukah, lest the entire village goes without their holiday for the season. The letter is carried off by the wind, and lands in the hands of Ger Yehudah, a wealthy merchant, who assumes the letter is from God... You see how these things happen.

The faith in God is what is important, to be a man of faith is what is most praised. The story charts the lives of both men, strangers to each other, and their eventual meeting, which is moving for both of them.

Perhaps  I was wrong when I said there was nothing supernatural:

From that time on in the village, there was never a year without Chanukah. The rain was a friend, the olive trees blossomed, and there was oil enough to light the menorahs.





8.08.2011

On Purim (2000)

By Cathy Goldberg Fishman

Illustrated by Melanie W. Hall

Collagraph and mixed media

Text set in Novarese Medium

Atheneum Books for Young Readers

"Oh, today we'll merry, merry be," I sing as I work on my mask.

In On Purim, Goldberg gives us a story within a story, showing how the Biblical story of Esther translates into a modern-day celebration.

We begin as a contemporary Jewish family is preparing for Purim. The young narrator of the story is making masks, and wonders, "Why do we wear masks on Purim?"

Soon, the whole family is wearing masks, taking on the guise of specific characters. There is wise Mordecai, handlebar-mustache-weilding King Ahasuerus, and of course, Esther.

"Line up!" demands this incarnation of the King. "I will choose a new queen!"

It's all a giggle. So funny, how these violent Old Testament stories can become something so pleasantly diverting.

"Who knows the story of Purim?" asks the grandfather, and soon the family has gathered around for the telling. When the young narrator reads, "The king's chief advisor was an evil man named Haman..." the grandfather yells, "Boo! Boo!"

"Haman wanted everyone to bow down to him," she attempts to continue, but is again interrupted by the booing of her grandfather. Every time Haman's name is spoken aloud, he feels compelled to shout out his displeasure.

It's a simple retelling, but Hall's illustrations are quite lovely and emphasize the fairy-tale aspect of the story. It is plain to see how this is a story which would be especially appealing to children, and particular to girls who daydream of becoming princesses.

Following the story, the family continues their celebrating, noshing on some hamantashen. Hamantashen are triangle shaped cookies which are supposed to look like the hat Haman wore. "Gobbling them up is another way of blotting out his name," says the grandfather, who really does seem to have a personal vendetta.

Then comes the Purim carnival itself, with games and prizes, a costume parade and a Punch and Judy-esque puppet show, in which all the children - not just elderly grandfathers - chant, "Boo! Boo!" and shake their groggers when puppet Haman makes its appearance.

All in all, this is a light story, very deftly providing the origin behind the traditions, how a story becomes another story, becomes another story. At the end, the narrator asks a question that I too had been wondering for some time, as I've worked on this series on Purim and Esther.

"Where is God in the Purim story?"

I have now gone through several versions of the story, and it has not escaped my attention that - though Biblical - there is no obvious supernatural element. There are wicked people, yes, and there are good people, but never did I get the sense that there is any Devil-work at hand, or divine intervention.

"He is hidden in the faith of Mordecai and Esther and in their courage to do the right thing," says her father.

We wear masks to remind us that, even though we don't hear His name, God is a hidden part of the Purim story. We wear masks to remind us that, even though we don't see Him, God is a hidden part of our lives, too, and when Purim is over, He will still be there.
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Click here for more versions of the story of Queen Esther!
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Click here for more Biblical Stories from the Old Testament!
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7.19.2011

Esther's Story (1996)

Retold by Diane Wolkstein

Illustrated by Juan Wijngaard

Gouache on paper.

Text set in 14.5 Gody Old Style BT

Morrow Junior Books

This is a very full retelling of the story of Esther, which I've been piecing together from various picture book versions in my previous entries. This one is by far the most beautiful and expansive version I've read yet.
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"Esther's Story is woven together from the biblical Book of Esther, oral legends, and my own musings," writes Wolkstein. "Other legends were told to me by my own rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach."
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Right away, I could tell I was going to dig this one. I can tell she has her priorities straight. Not a mere retelling, but a conflation of different sources and personal acquaintances.
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Esther is eleven years old when the story opens, and named Hadassah. She is writing in a diary given to her by her Uncle Mordecai, on a night wherein he has left her by herself and attended the King's banquet. The whole of the book is written in the first person, with Esther's voice.
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When Mordecai returns home, he comes bearing news:
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"Tonight Queen Vashti, the queen of all Persia, refused to go to the king when he called for her, so she has been banished. Tomorrow a search for a new queen begins throughout the one hundred and twenty-seven lands of Persia."
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We follow Esther through her adolescence, growing into a young woman. Wijngaard has done wonderful work showing not just the key players, but the entire world in which they live: fully realized with innumerable details. I love the lattice work and her triple braids as she stands looking out at the evening sky.
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In Persia, Esther is the goddess Ishtar, who is the goddess of love and war. She is also the first planet to appear every night in the sky. I often watch for her in the evening. I think it is very brave of her to appear all alone when it is dark.
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What?! Polytheism in a Bible story?!
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I dig it.
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When Esther is a bit older (thank God) she is selected to live in the palace with other beautiful, young women from the kingdom. Presumably, this is part of the bride-choosing process. It is only when she happens across the king in the hall and they share a laugh that he asks her to marry him.
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This was the only version I've read in which some genuine emotion went between them, and we feel that they truly are in love, that it is because of her good-natured, child-like quality that she is able to warm the sad king's heart. Not just because, you know, she's hot. In fact, I think it works greatly toward this story's overall message that Esther is not necessarily the most beautiful.
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There are many other details which I loved. Esther does not merely enter the King's throne  room, but she "..walked through the first, the second, and the third gates. At the fourth gate, my legs began to tremble. I walked more slowly. I passed through the fifth and sixth gates. As I came to the seventh gate, I wondered if these were my last moments to live. Then I heard the sound of the shofar, and pushed the last gate open." In a medium in which minimalism seems to be the name of the game, I love lengthy descriptions like this all the more.
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The story will pass from one to another. I think that is how it was meant to be. Once it was my story. Now it belongs to each of us.
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Indeed.
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For more stories about Queen Esther, click here!
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For more stories from the Old Testament, click here!
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For Jewish Folktales, click here!

7.14.2011

Queen Esther (1986)

Retold and Illustrated by Tomie dePaola
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Harper and Row
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Continuing my trip through the tale of Queen Esther, I picked up this small volume by the great Tomie dePaola. I thought it would be interesting to refrain from reading the actual text of the Biblical account, and instead stick with picture book representations.

The artwork is distinctly dePaola - he has such a unique style - very simple, very stylized. Usually I think of his characters as possessing an abundance of rosy cheeks and pleasant dispositions. Not so, in this book. A quick flip-through reveals a plethora of dour complexions which occasionally give way to fear, angst and some wrath. Even at the very beginning, as King Ahasuerus sits upon his throne and has all of the beautiful, young women in his kingdom brought before him so that he can select a wife - he doesn't look too happy about it.

King Ahasuerus admired Esther more than all the others. So he chose Esther to be his queen.
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And there he stands, at the left-hand side of the page, holding his royal scepter. There stands Esther, on the right, eyes shut, hand on breast, bowing formally. I would expect this degree of formality with an arranged marriage, but the King has basically let his lust do all the choosing for him! Ah well.

Something this book does which the previous version did not is that it explains what 'purim' is - lots, like dice. We see the wicked Haman - cloaked all in red - casting them to help him determine the best month and the perfect day to kill all the Jews.

Once the purim have spoken, Haman tells the king the Jews must be slaughtered. DePaola very specifically writes, "King Ahasuerus listened and then he ordered the Jews to be killed." [emphasis mine]

I thought that was telling, because in the other version, it was not clear if Ahasuerus was to blame or not. The text left it a bit muddled - for obvious reasons, I think. As I read this line, however, I suddenly became interested in how dePaola was going to resolve the story, now that he has so plainly outed Ahasuerus as the villain.

I did not have long to wait. During the climactic feast - and after touching the royal scepter (?) - Esther says, "If it pleases your Majesty, my wish is that I may live, and that my people may live. We are about to be killed."

"Who dares to do such a thing?" asks Ahasuerus. Really, you have to ask? Or perhaps we are meant to think that his apparent  outrage is an act, in order to cast suspicions off himself? It must have come as a great relief, then, when Esther says, "Our enemy in this cruel man, Haman."

Phew! And to cover his tracks completely: "Hang Haman himself on those gallows!"

So King Ahasuerus stops the Jews from being killed, and...  Er, wait. No, he actually doesn't stop the Jews from being killed. The book says that the King decreed the Jews could "defend themselves against the people who came to destroy them." Come again?

It would be like Hitler having a massive change of heart during the Holocaust: "You know, we're still going to try to exterminate you, but from now on, feel free to try to stop us from exterminating you!"

My hope is that other versions of the story will make this clearer for me!
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Click here for other versions of the story of Queen Esther!
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Click here for more Biblical tales!
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Click here for Jewish Folktales!

7.06.2011

When the Chickens Went on Strike: A Rosh Hashanah Tale (2003)

Retold by Erica Silverman

Adapted from a story by Sholom Aleichem

Illustrated by Matthew Trueman

"...composed of many layers, starting with ink and pencil, then colored pencil and gouache, followed by acrylic paints, and finally glazed in oil."

Dutton Children's Books

This is a ridiculous story.

And I can easily see why Silverman thought it would make a great children's book. For myself, I can't help but read into it an indictment not just of Kapores, but of irrational religious traditions the world over.

The author of the original story was Sholom Aleichman, which was the pen name of Sholem Rabinowitz (1859-1916), who is best known for writing the stories upon which Fiddler on the Roof is based. In Yiddish, "Shalom Aleichman" means "Peace Be With You."

So, Kapores. For the goyim in our midst, this is the act of grabbing a live, clucking chicken above one's head, waving it around by its feet, saying a prayer to God and then, viola! One's bad deeds are then removed from the eyes of God.


The main character and narrator of the book is a young boy who is in desperate need of having some bad deeds removed. First we see him misbehaving in synagogue during Rosh Hashanah service, then sent outside by his Papa. There, hiding in the fields, he spies a scene out of Animal Farm.

"Fellow foul! You know why we are here!"
"Freedom for fowl!"
"Rights for roosters!"
"Strike! Strike!"

It is a group of very perturbed chickens.

"Every year at this time, the villagers use us for a strange custom," the leader asserts. "They grab us and twirl us over their heads. They mumble strange words. They think this will take away bad deeds!"

"An end to Kapores!" they all shriek.

I would think, then, being a young, clever child, he would instantly realize the rightness of the chicken's position and side with them. Unfortunately, he is so far gone in his own cultural identity that all he can think about is: "No more Kapores? How else would I get rid of my bad deeds?"

A true quandary. When the news spreads, the town goes into a near panic, coming out en masse to get the chickens to return. They try force, but are attacked and pecked - men and women alike.

Finally, the village elders attempt to reason with the children.

"We need you for Kapores."

"Where is it written?" asks a hen.

"What does it matter to you? It is a custom of ours from years and years ago."

"An end to your customs!"

And so they run off, even as the wailing, bemoaning townsfolk mournfully speak of certain plagues and impending doom.

But our young, puckish narrator is not so troubled. With one final exchange, he tells the hen, "Without Kapores, I will never be able to make my papa proud."

"Boychick, for this, do you really need a chicken?"

I plan on using this line the next time I am invited to partake in some religious ceremony.
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Traditions come and traditions go. I learned this from the chickens.
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Click here to read my conversation with Erica Silverman!
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Click here for more Jewish folktales!

6.28.2011

Raisel's Riddle (1999)

By Erica Silverman

Illustrated by Susan Gaber

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

This is a Jewish version of the Cinderella story. It does not appear to be based on an actual Jewish folktale, but is an invention of the author, Erica Silverman. However, it does incorporate aspects of the story of Esther and of the Purim celebration.

Indeed, it is the celebration of Purim which serves as the stand-in for the fancy-dress ball. The "prince" in this tale is the son of the village rabbi and the Fairy godmother is a Polish beggar woman.

That is not to suggest that Silverman merely filled in the blanks of the Cinderella tale with Jewish icons to arrive at this telling. There is plenty to distinguish this story on its own terms. First and foremost, the eponymous "riddle" from the title. During the Purim meal (beet soup, roast duck, potato pancakes, noodle pudding) a bevy of young Jewish maidens flirt with the rabbi's son by telling him riddles.

"What has a face but no mouth?"

"Now what is that over my head but under my hat?"

Surely, this is the way to a young man's heart, and Raisel - working in the rabbi's kitchen whilst dressed in rags - also knows a riddle, though she doesn't get the chance to tell it until later that night, after she has helped an old beggar woman who turns out to magic, wishes for a Purim costume and a horse-drawn wagon, and finds herself at the celebration where the young son of the rabbi states with bold impertinence bordering on the scandalous, "In that costume, you are the loveliest Queen Esther here."

She asks:

What's more precious than rubies, more lasting then gold?
What can never be traded, stolen or sold?
What comes with great effort and takes time, but then -
Once yours, will serve you again and again.


Then, the striking of the chimes, midnight apparent. The young Raisel disappears and the Rabbi's son is left with the task - not of trying to fit a solitary slipper upon the foot of some lucky woman - but of discovering the woman who knows the riddle.
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Click here to read my conversation with Erica Silverman!
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Click here to read about the story of Queen Esther and the Festival of Purim!
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Click here for other Jewish Folktales!
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Click here for other Cinderella stories!
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