Mar 26, 2015

Matzah, Trains, and Passover

Passover is just over a week away, which means there's still time to get Haggadahs and books over at the Kar-Ben website!

In celebration of the upcoming holiday, this week we have another guest blog post, this one from Deborah Bodin Cohen, author of the "Engineer Ari" series! In this post, Deborah writes about what inspired her newest book, Engineer Ari and the Passover Rush.

You can also read another guest post about creating joyful Passover traditions from author Laura Gehl, or check out these reviews of this year's newest Passover stories in The Times of Israel!
"My daughter, Arianna, celebrated her Bat Mitzvah this past December.  Of course I'm biased, but she has grown into a terrific young woman with interests in soccer and chess.   But, back in pre-school, she loved trains – train books, train sets, building model trains.  We could entertain her just by taking her on a subway.   I felt similarly passionate – just not about trains.  I cared about the land of Israel and sought to share my love of Israel’s rich natural beauty with Arianna and other Jewish kids like her.   So, I combined her passion and my passion and Engineer Ari was born! 
When I lived in Israel as a rabbinical student, I passed the historical Jerusalem train station each day on my walk to class. That 100-year-old station intrigued me.  Back in the 1990s, it had fallen into disrepair but you could still ride the rails from Jerusalem to Jaffa, passing down the Judean hills into the fertile valley of orange groves and wild flowers that lead to the Mediterranean.  Now, thankfully, the station has been refurbished.

postcard of Jaffa station in the Ottoman period

In each of my Engineer Ari books, I try to focus on one historical element of Jaffa & Jerusalem railway.  The Rosh Hashana Ride recreates the railway’s celebratory opening in 1892 during the period of the Ottoman Turks.  In The Sukkah Express, Engineer Ari and his friends build a sukkah with the leftover supplies from the 2-year-old project of building of the railway.  The Hanukkah Mishap revolves around a reoccurring problem – camels that sat on rails.  

In The Passover Rush, I chose to focus on how the Jaffa & Jerusalem Railway changed how “time” was treated in the land of Israel.   Before the coming of the railway, time’s passage was marked primarily by Muslim calls to worship.  But, with the opening of the Jaffa & Jerusalem Railway, the European clock became predominant.   Muslim prayer times were even standardized to fit within the structure of railway time.   Time, which had been meandering and organic, now was subject to deadlines and the need to rush. 

Railway time made me think of making matza – a process that bound to time limits and schedules. Matza, from start to finish, has to be complete in 18 minutes.   Otherwise, it is not kosher.  The J & J Railway, though, tended to follow typical “Jewish time” – in other words, it was often late.   A correspondent named Mr. Vale wrote in 1901: “There are as many different timings at Jaffa and Jerusalem as there are clocks in those towns.  The railway clocks generally are 5 minutes behind the slowest ones, but on one occasion I saw the Jerusalem Station clock being suddenly advanced by 20 minutes just as the passenger train was going to start!”
I wish you a very joyful Passover.  In Israel, the old Jaffa & Jerusalem rails are most certainly covered with beautiful wild flowers at this time of year.  If you have a train enthusiast at home, please tell him or her to pull the whistle cord: choo, choo.   And, enjoy the ride!"

Deborah Bodin Cohen

Here are few great resources for Jewish kids who love trains:
Israel Railway Museum in Haifa has online line pictures and information:

The Jerusalem Train Station’s site includes a historical pictures and pictures of the restoration:
Haaretz newspaper wrote about the history of the word Rakevet, train engine:

Mar 23, 2015

Creating Joyous Passover Traditions

And Then Another Sheep Turned Up is a hilarious rhyming tale featuring an endearing family of sheep trying to get their Passover seder started. Just as soon as they're ready to begin, however, a long train of unexpected guests drop in!

Below is a guest post from And Then Another Sheep Turned Up author Laura Gehl about creating joyful Passover traditions with your family:

"Every family has its own Passover traditions.  One tradition we’ve started in my family is asking each person at the seder to sign the hagadah he or she is using that night.  This way, when we look at the inside cover of each hagadah, we see a list of names that helps us remember all the past years of joyful seders shared with different loved ones.

Here are a few traditions that I’ve heard recently from other families.  I can’t wait to try these with my own kids.

1)     Make a Maccabeats-inspired video.  While all the cousins are in town together for a big seder, take some time to have them act out the Passover story, or write their own Passover song, or come up with their own fun and crazy ideas for a video. As the kids get older, you can look back at each year’s video together to get excited for the holiday.

2)     When singing “Who Knows One?” (Echad Mi Yodea), make up your own words for each number.  3 is for the 3 little not-kosher pigs.  5 is for the 5 pieces of horseradish that Zayde ate.  The funnier the better.

3)     Not enough chairs for all the guests?  No problem.  Have a seder where everyone sits on the floor!  You can take this one step further and turn your living room into a Bedouin tent by covering walls, ceiling, and floor with brightly-colored fabric or sheets.

In my Passover book, And Then Another Sheep Turns Up, the sheep family runs out of chairs and has to use both a stool and a beach chair in order to seat everyone at the seder table.
In honor of the Sheep family, I’ve created a Passover version of musical chairs that you can play after reading the book: 
Step 1: The adult will set out chairs in a circle.  The number of chairs will be equal to one less than the number of kids.  Low, sturdy chairs that won’t tip or collapse are important for this game.  If you are concerned about safety, you can even put pillows on the floor instead of chairs.
Step 2: The adult will give a movement command, which could be “Dance!” “Skip!” “Jog!” “Twirl!” or “Gallop!”
Step 3: The kids will dance, skip, jog, twirl, or gallop around the circle while singing the chorus of “Dayenu.”
Step 4: At the end of the chorus, everyone will try to sit down.  The child who doesn’t end up with a chair will need to sit on another child’s lap.
Step 5: Remove one chair and repeat steps 2-4.  Now two children will end up on laps.
Step 6: Continue the game as long as possible, removing one chair after each round.  How many kids can pile onto one another’s laps before everyone ends up on the floor?  You will likely see kids start to strategize with one another, making sure the bigger kids sit down first and the smallest ones last.
Just as the Sheep family welcomes another and another and another unexpected (and late) arrival without getting annoyed, this version of musical chairs is all about welcoming and working together.  No sheep is ever left without a seat.
Wishing you and your family a joyous Passover…with or without any unexpected sheep turning up at the seder table!"
-- Laura Gehl
Laura Gehl is the author of And Then Another Sheep Turned Up and Hare and Tortoise Race Across Israel.  Her other books include One Big Pair of Underwear and the Peep and Egg series (hatching spring 2016).  Laura also writes about science for children and adults.  She lives with her husband and four children in Chevy Chase, Maryland.  Read more about Laura and her books at
Get And Then Another Sheep Turned Up, plus Haggadahs and more at!

Feb 27, 2015

Perfect Purim Crafts and Activites for 2015!

Purim is a wonderful holiday to celebrate with children. Costumes, groggers, and hamantaschen afford many opportunities for creativity, imagination, and fun. Below we have some fun takes on these traditional activities, as well as some new crafts to celebrate at home or in the classroom!

Make Some Noise with Sammy Spider
This simple grogger is made using a paper plate, and is the same one in one of our favorite Purim books - Sammy Spider's First Purim! Get ready for the Megillah reading with this fun and easy craft for all ages. Instructions here.

Send a Hamantaschen Card
This cute cards fold up to look like hamantaschen, and unfold to reveal well-wishes for Purim! This simple craft, which requires paper, scissors, and markers, is great for at home or in the classroom. Find instructions here.

Jewish Heroes Project
Discuss the heroes of the Purim story. Students select and research their own Jewish hero, notable for his/her impact on Jewish/greater society. On Purim, organize a "living museum": students dress up as their heroes. The students should be able to give basic biographical information about their hero, in addition to discussing their impact. Each student has to interview another hero (hint: use the 5 W's to focus the students). Publish/hang up hero interviews. More educational ideas here.


Easy Purim Masks Complement Any Costume
With a little help, any kid can create their own costume using this simple DIY Purim mask! A perfect Purim craft for the classroom, or to accent an almost-complete costume, this masks allows kids to add their own artistic flair. Instructions here.

From Here We Are Together.

Beaded Crowns for Older Kids
If you kids are a little old for paper masks, or would enjoy more of a challenge, try these beaded crowns! They'll also last longer than paper masks, so could potentially be used in years to come. Different colors of beads can be used to complement different costumes, and instructions include both a "Queen's Crown" and a "King's Crown." Instructions here.

From Chadis Crafts Fun Pages.

Put on a Purim Puppet Show
Make your own puppets to put on a Purim play! These instructions and templates from make it a fun and simple way to let everyone participate in telling the story of Purim. Instructions here

Test How Much You Really Know!
This fun and interactive Jeopardy-style quiz lets two people compete to answer Purim questions. Test your knowledge on your own, challenge a friend, or set up a family or classroom-sized competition to see who knows the most! Take the quiz here.


Make Your Own Megillah Scroll
Color the pictures on this page, then cut them out into two strips. Tape the strips together and tape the end to an empty paper towel roll cut to size. Roll up your Megillah and fasten with a ribbon or rubber band. Now you have your very own Megillah scroll that tells the story of Purim!

Learn More About Purim with a Good Book!
Children's books about Purim are a great way to enrich the holiday celebration. From learning all about Purim traditions with Sammy Spider to animals putting on a Purim play, these stories offer fun and interesting additions to any Purim celebration. These and other Purim books available on the Kar-Ben website!

Barnyard Purim
Purim is a topsy-turvy time, even on the farm. The animals decide to stage a Purim play, and Chicken assigns the parts. Blushing Duck is Queen Esther, Silly Horse is Ahashuerus, and Bearded Goat is Mordechai. But when they try to transform Shy Little Sheep into mean-looking Haman, something unexpected happens.

Sammy Spider's First Purim
Sammy Spider wants to help Josh get ready for Purim. Instead, he gets stuck inside a grogger. How will he escape?

The Queen Who Saved Her People
The Purim story has never been more fun! This lavishly rhyming tale is a wonderful read-aloud book, and its color-coded dialogue is perfect for Reader's Theater performances.

The Purim Superhero
Nate loves aliens and he really wants to wear an alien costume for Purim, but his friends are all dressing as superheroes and he wants to fit in. What will he do? With the help of his two dads he makes a surprising decision.

Jan 23, 2015

Congratulations to the National Jewish Book Award Winners!

This week, we're celebrating The Patchwork Torah, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award! Congratulations to author Allison Ofanansky and illustrator Elsa Oriol on the wonderful news! This very special book tells the story of David who, as a child, watches his grandfather, a Torah scribe or sofer, finish a Torah scroll for the synagogue. "A Torah is not something to be thrown away," his Grandfather explains. David's grandfather carefully stores the old Torah his new one has replaced in his cabinet, hoping to one day repair the letters so the Torah can be used again.

David grows up and becomes a sofer just like his grandfather. Through the years, people bring him damaged Torahs they have saved from danger and disaster - one damaged by Nazi soldiers during World War II, one damaged in a fire in a synagogue, and one in flooding during Hurricane Katrina. David stores each of these precious Torahs in his cabinet, until his granddaughter Leah gives him the idea to make a recycled Torah from the salvaged Torah scrolls.

Below, watch the book trailer and read a guest post from author Allison Ofanansky about her inspiration for this very special story. You can get a copy of The Patchwork Torah here.

"The story of the Patchwork Torah was inspired by a real Torah put together from rescued and repaired remnants of old and damaged scrolls. Like the scroll that David puts together in the story, this Torah contains sections that were written by a number of soferim (scribes) that lived in different times and places. We don’t know the stories behind the sections in this Torah. The stories of the scrolls that David collects in the book are made up, though some are based on real historic events (the Holocaust, Hurricane Katrina).

A real patchwork Torah was purchased by my community in Tzfat, Israel in 2009. There are many Torah scrolls in synagogues in the city of Tzfat, but these are strictly Orthodox and women can’t come up for an aliyah or read from the Torah or dance with it on holidays. So a group of friends decided to buy a Torah to which women could have access.

We held an auction to raise money. People donated things to be auctioned off. (I donated some of the books in the Nature in Israel series.) Then we bid to buy each others’ donations (I bought a funny wax sculpture). We raised a fair amount of money at the auction, but not enough for a new Torah scroll, which costs between $15,000 and $30,000. Then we heard about a ‘recycled’ Torah which had been put together with parts of several damaged scrolls to make a whole, kosher Torah. We had enough money to buy it!

Once we got this Torah, we realized how special and beautiful it is. Throughout the year, as we read through the scroll, we can see the distinctive calligraphy of seven soferim who wrote various parts (three large sections and four small ones). Some wrote simple letters, others added fancy decorations. Even though there are strict laws for writing a kosher Torah, and each letter must be perfect, there is still room for soferim to express their individual styles. This Torah suits our community, because we also come from many different places, with our own individual styles, and together make something new.

We have enjoyed celebrating with this Torah over the past few years. My daughter Aravah (whose pictures you may have seen in my Nature in Israel books) read from it at her bat mitzvah. All four of her grandparents came up for an aliyah. On Simchat Torah, women and girls dance with the scroll. I’ve seen women who never had a chance before to touch a Torah scroll cradling it like a baby, with tears in their eyes.

I’d like to imagine that David’s granddaughter, who gives him the idea to make the recycled Torah, will read from their patchwork Torah at her bat mitzvah—maybe even become a sofer herself! (On women scribes-- soferot -- see"

Aravah reading from the real ‘patchwork Torah’ at her bat mitzvah, with both her grandmothers beside her.

Aravah holding the Torah at her bat mitzvah.
Photographs by Eliyhu Alpern, 2012

We'd also like to congratulate author Jennifer Elvgren and illustrator Fabio Santomauro on The Whispering Town, named as one of two finalists for the National Jewish Book Award! The Whispering Town is available here.

Dec 16, 2014

Eight Activities for Eight Nights!

Hanukkah is here! Of course, reading a good book is one of our favorite holiday activities, but below we've put together a list of eight more for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah!

Make Your Own Menorah from Joyful Jewish

Let even the youngest children participate in the lighting of the menorah with this pretty homemade menorah with paper "flames" that kids can safely use!

You'll need: paint, construction paper, toilet paper or other cardboard tubes, and popsicle sticks

Follow the instructions here.

Milk Carton Dreidel from Spoonful

Make recycling a part of your Hanukkah season with this nifty dreidel made from a milk carton!

You'll need: empty 8oz milk carton, craft knife, unsharpened pencil, blue masking tape, and a paint pen

Follow the instructions here.

Hanukkah Gelt Cookies from More Quiche, Please

Now you have your homemade dreidel and so much Hanukkah gelt you're not sure what to do with it all. Turns out they're a perfect way to dress up some holiday cookies!

You'll need: peanut butter, margarine, eggs, sugar, flour, baking soda, vanilla, and 3 bags of Hanukkah gelt

Follow the instructions here.

Hanukkah Door Decoration from DLTK's Home

Decorate your door with this colorful Hanukkah wreath that needs just a few materials that you're sure to find around the house!

You'll need: wire coat hanger, toilet paper rolls, paint, paper, tape, glue, scissors

Instructions available here.

Learn about the Maccabees with these Activities

Help children learn and remember the story of Hanukkah with these fun coloring and maze activities from Kar-Ben!

You'll need: printed activity pages and colored pencils, crayons, or markers

Download the Maccabee color-by-number here, the Maccabee shield here, and the Torch Relay Maze here.

Homemade Hanukkah Cards from Scrumdilly-do

Help children learn the importance of showing they care with these sweet handmade Hanukkah cards, which are much more unique than store-bought cards.

You'll need: tinfoil, glue, cardboard, scissors, colored tissue paper, thread, and glitter

Follow the instructions here.

Decorate Your Home from Enchanted Learning and She Knows Parenting

Kids will love to help decorate with these unique tin and felt designs that they can make themselves!

Metal Star of David
You'll need: disposable pie plate or roasting pan, a marker, scissors, a nail, and string or yarn
Follow the instructions here.

Felt Dreidels
You'll need: assorted colors of felt, pen, scissors, glue, string, and tape
Follow the instructions here. The page also includes a popsicle stick Star of David craft.

Still looking for last-minute Hanukkah gifts? Check out the Kar-Ben website for great deals and new Hanukkah books like Latke, the Lucky Dog!

Dec 11, 2014

Our Favorite New Hanukkah Pup

This week's blog features a guest post from Ellen Fischer, author of Latke, the Lucky Dog, a sweet story about a fuzzy puppy named Latke who is rescued from an animal shelter on the first night of Hanukkah. Although he has trouble learning the house rules and gets into all sorts of hijinks, he is one Lucky Dog! Told from the pup’s point of view, this sweet Hanukkah story for little ones is a great addition to Kar-Ben’s Hanukkah collection and our December Book of the Month!

Latke, the Lucky Dog is available at your local Judaica store, or online here.

Read about where Ellen got her inspiration for Latke below:

“Where does your inspiration come from?”  It’s a frequent question I’m asked. And the easy answer is “life.”  The more satisfying answer is, “ family, students, friends, nature, books.  If you observe and listen, inspiration is everywhere.”

For Latke, the Lucky Dog, the inspiration was right at home.  Our own shaggy haired, medium sized, golden brown Jazzie gave us14 years of laughter, fun and challenges.

When Jazzie arrived at our home, she was an adorable, fluffy puppy.  Being the diligent “parent,” I enrolled the two of us in “Puppy Pre-school.”  Jazzie quickly became the star of the class.  “Wow!” I thought.  “This training will be a piece of cake.”  Of course, once we were home, it was a different story.  As I walked in the kitchen one morning, there on the floor was a book with all the corners chewed to bits.  I recognized the book immediately. How to Train Your Puppy. This was certainly my first sign as to just who was really in charge.

Our Jazzie, just like Latke, really did chew up one of the kids’s favorite dreidels.  Our Jazzie really did tear open Hanukkah presents.  (see photos below)  And our Jazzie, just like Latke, eventually learned the rules. (Well, most of them anyway)  Given the opportunity she would eat the sufganiyot, no matter what the rules were!  And like Latke, my children always came to Jazzie’s defense.  They loved her no matter what.

Anyone who’s had a pet, knows they are more than animals.  They are family members.   And of course, we all know exactly what they would be saying if they could talk. 

So when I got ready to write a story with a dog as “the star,” I had all the material I needed.  I thought it would be really fun to use voice of Latke. (Because they do talk, right?)  Mostly, Latke, the Lucky Dog is a story of unconditional love.  Just as Jazzie gave us, just as we gave her.

Nov 3, 2014

A Truly Remarkable Bat Mitzvah!

Our November Book of the Month is Bubbe's Belated Bat Mitzvah, written by Isabel Pinson and illustrated by Valeria Cis. When Naomi convinces her 95-year-old great-grandmother that it’s not too late to become a Bat Mitzvah, all the cousins pitch in to help Bubbe celebrate her big day. While usually it’s the grandmother that teaches the child, in this story the tables are turned and Naomi realizes that she has something very special to teach her great-grandmother.

We love the intergenerational aspect of this story. Naomi and her grandmother have a lot to teach one another, and Naomi's cousins all help Bubbe prepare as well. Bubbe also tells Naomi about the evolution of bat mitzvahs, adding an incredible and fascinating historical aspect to their story. Overall, we cannot recommend this book enough. It's a sweet, touching way to honor and appreciate Bat Mitzvahs and family members of every age.

In celebration of Bubbe's Belated Bat Mitzvah, we've included a book trailer and guest post from the author below! Pick up a copy for your family here or at your local Judaica store!

"I never intended to write a children’s book – it happened quite by accident. 

My mother, Esther Silverman, at the age of 95 was studying to become a Bat Mitzvah when I was asked if I would write a children’s story about the event.  My “instructions” were to include a multi-generational theme and of course the Bat Mitzvah itself.  I am a preschool librarian and I’ve read hundreds of picture books over the years and I can sense when a story will entice and engage.  Keeping those story elements in mind, I decided to give it a try.

The first draft was very sentimental – no, that wouldn’t do.  I rewrote it and asked a Middle School English teacher for her thoughts; it still wasn’t right.  I went back to the keyboard for another rewrite and this time I asked an established author for her opinion. She was very direct, but I was not comfortable with her writing style criticisms.  After thinking about the story again, I suddenly found my own voice.  Yes, I would write the story from a young girl’s point of view, in this case a great-granddaughter.  Let Bubbe explain the “evolution” of Bat Mitzvah of the women in the child’s family!  Let the child dream about this event for Bubbe!  Let Bubbe imagine herself as a Bat Mitzvah!   And of course, let all the great-grandchildren take part!  The illustrator, Valeria Cis, captured all these scenes in vibrant, expressive illustrations.

My mother, on the other hand, has a different story to tell of her Bat Mitzvah experience.  While reluctant at first to even consider such an idea, she pondered it and she decided to give it a try.  The studying, at the very least, would keep her mind sharp.  She was, in the end, pleasantly surprised.  She was affected by the remarkable young women in her class.  Many were Jews by Choice, all juggling family and professional obligations at the same time. They came with a curiosity, a modern world outlook and an intense spirituality. Esther came to the group with all the values of a traditional Jewish upbringing, living a full, rich, Jewish life.   She tenderly imparted so much to the group – her Jewish knowledge, her hands-on “recipe” for Jewish living, and the wisdom of her years.  She was a wonderful role model for each and every woman in the class.  On their Bat Mitzvah day, not only did these women prove their Jewish learning to all their family and friends, but they gracefully showed their respect for each other.  What a wonderful example for Bubbe’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren to emulate! 
Mazal Tov to Bubbe and to the b’not mitzvah on this milestone!"