Set during the late 16th century, The Secret Shofar of Barcelona tells the story of Don Fernando Aguilar, the conductor of the Royal Orchestra of Barcelona. A converso, Don Fernando has written a piece of music for the Duke that is set to debut on the night of Rosh Hashanah and plans to have a Rosh Hashanah dinner with other Jewish families on open night, disguised as a celebratory dinner for opening night.
His son Rafael however, has a better idea — an idea that will allow the Jews of Barcelona to hear the shofar in plain sight. But, as you might expect, it’s a dangerous plan, and one that a young boy might be the only person brave enough to do.
Finally, for many, Gershon’s Monster by Eric Kimmel is the best Rosh Hashanah book around. And while I agree that it is beautiful (really, really beautiful), and a gripping story, it’s also scary (really, really scary). I’m including it here, instead of at Rosh Hashanah time, because Gershon’s Monster is the story of a man who never wants to own up to his poor behavior. Instead, he literally sweeps them away and dumps them in the sea. Well, nothing good is going to come out of that. As the wise man warns at the beginning of the book:
“Did you think you could live so thoughtlessly forever? The sea cries out because you have polluted her waters! God is angry with you. Accept God’s judgement. Your recklessness will bring your children more sorrow than you can imagine.”
But Gershon doesn’t change his ways and that’s when things get scary — monster scary and children’s in harm’s way scary. However, I will say this: remarkably, most children LOVE this book and don’t find it scary at all. It’s only adults who cringe when the wise man’s words come true. This is not a great book for children who tend to get scared easily, or grown-ups for that matter.
If your child is ready for something a little bit more sophisticated than a board book, Apples and Honey by Joan Holub is actually a nice choice. A lift-the-flap book, this one has a bit of a plot as a family prepares for Rosh Hashanah. The illustrations are lovely, but the book is stapled together, giving it that lovely supermarket feel. I’m a big fan, but I do wish they would have spent the extra pennies to get a real binding.
It would be difficult to have a list of holiday books for little children without a mention of Sammy Spider by Sylvia A. Rouss . Sammy, for those who haven’t had the “pleasure” of meeting him, is a curious little spider who lives with his mother in the Shapiro household. Sammy watches the Shapiros celebrate their holidays and constantly wants to join in. His mother like to remind him (over and over again): “Silly little Sammy. Spiders don’t … . Spider’s spin webs.” So, not great for teaching your child they can do anything they want, but the books are a good model of Jewish families living Jewishly (but not too Jewishly). In this “adventure,” Sammy learns all about Rosh Hashanah but not before he accidentally gets stuck in the sticky honey. Parents will likely find Sammy tiresome pretty quickly but unfortunately, kids really seem to like him. He’s kind of like the Jewish Curious George.
I’m trying hard to stick with books that are still in print, to make it easier on everyone. But every so often, I’m going to need to go back to some lovely books that you are going to need to hunt around a little bit for.
It would be hard to talk about Rosh Hashanah books without mentioning The World’s Birthday by Barbara Diamond Goldin. Goldin is one of the top Jewish children’s book authors with so many wonderful folktales and stories to her credit. They are all gems and you will hear about many of them on this site. The World’s Birthday is a great story for 4 and 5 year old children. Daniel, the hero of this story (and of another Barbara Diamond Goldin book Night Lights) thinks that if Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world, why not throw a birthday party? And while his older sister Naomi (who also features prominently in Night Lights)thinks it’s a dumb idea, he perseveres and creates a lovey new Rosh Hashanah tradition.
It’s a nice, quiet story, perfect for children who love birthday parties. It may be hard to find, but it’s worth it once you do.
This year brings a new Rosh Hashanah story that will hit the mark with many young children, particularly those who have a fascination with train.
Engineer Ari and the Rosh Hashanah Ride by Deborah Bodin Cohen takes place against the backdrop of the first train ride across Israel — from Jaffa to Jerusalem — right before Rosh Hashanah. Ari is delighted to be chosen to be at the helm of this first trip across the country and doesn’t seem to notice/ care that his best friends, who were not chosen, are feeling upset. But as he travels across the country and picks up supplies for Rosh Hashanah (shofarot, round challahs, apples, honey), everything reminds him of his two friends and their sadness.
By the time Ari gets to Jerusalem, he can barely enjoy the festivities because he knows that he has to go back and say he’s sorry to his friends — for boasting and not being sensitive to their feelings. And yes, the play on words is made (a little too deliberately for my taste): Ari says he has to do teshuva (repentance), to turn himself around (the literal meeting of teshuva). While the book ends before he reaches his friends, it provides a great jumping off point to discuss how one says they are sorry.
It’s a solid new book for Rosh Hashanah, filled with beautiful illustrations, an important message and, best of all, a train!
One of my favorite Rosh Hashanah books is Even Higher by Richard Ungar. I have to admit, the illustrations do not thrill me. It’s a question of taste — it’s not that they are bad, I’m just not into the Chagall colors.
But the story is lovely. Based on a story by the great I.L. Peretz, It’s about a couple of boys who see the rabbi disappear the day before Rosh Hashanah every year. This year, they’ve decided that one of the boys should follow him to prove that he goes up to heaven to talk with God. When Reuven sees him disguise himself as a woodcutter and bring wood for a bedridden widow, he realizes that one’s actions can actually bring you ”even higher” than heaven.
Even Higher is a wonderful story for Rosh Hashanah about the power of human actions and can be a fantastic conversation starter about the value of Tzedakah (charity). Rarely do we get such a wonderful portrait of charity being given without hope of recognition.