Nov 30, 2015

The True Story of Nonna

Karen Fisman is the author of Nonna's Hanukkah Surprise. Below, she shares the story of the Nonna who inspired her interfaith Hanukkah story.

You can get Nonna's Hanukkah Surprise, as well as Kar-Ben's annual Hanukkah deal, 8 Books for $8, on the Kar-Ben website.


In a couple of weeks time, I will be travelling to the remote Canadian city of Sault Ste Marie to do a reading of Nonna's Hanukkah Surprise. Sault Ste Marie, or the Soo as it is affectionately known, has a large population of second generation immigrant families. There are lots of Finns and Italians, but very few Jews. So why, you may be wondering, would I be travelling there to do a Hanukkah reading?

Well, if a book could have a birthplace, Nonna's Hanukkah Surprise would have been born in the Soo. That was where I first met Nonna, and it was also where I learned about the joy of sharing holiday traditions with non-Jewish family.

Nonna was Italian and Catholic. She had emigrated from Calabria to the Soo in the 1950's, settling in that bitterly cold city with its beautiful stark surroundings and a steel mill that provided jobs to new immigrants. When I met Nonna, she was in her seventies, and as the Italian immigrant community stuck together, I was one of the first Jews that she had ever met.

I still remember that first meeting: Nonna hugging me tight, then shepherding me to the kitchen where everyone was gathered. I was peppered with questions about my family and what I did. The topic of my Jewish identity went untouched, but when dinner was served, Nonna took me aside to share that, especially for me, she'd made her meatballs without pork that day. Several years later our son was born, and the issues became larger than pork in the meatballs. We had decided to raise our kids as Jews and Nonna struggled to understand how this would impact her grandchild. When she came to visit the new baby, she brought him a gift, a Magen David and a cross, hanging together on a gold chain as in her mind, her grandchild was both Jewish and Christian. My husband gently explained that this was not the case. There would be no baptism, but there would be a bris. Her grandchild would be raised as a Jew.

We'll never know what internal struggle Nonna might have had with our decision. We only experienced her full-on effort to understand and be a part of our Jewish lives. She visited us during the holidays, paying close attention at the Passover seders, and witnessing (though not participating in) our Yom Kippur fasts. We would visit her at Christmas, bringing along first one child and then two, excluding ourselves from church services, but enjoying the holiday feasts and family time.

As our kids got older, we started packing a Hanukkah bag for our Christmas visits, whether the holidays coincided or not. Our kids delighted in teaching Nonna and the cousins to play dreidl, using chocolate gelt as currency. In subsequent years, the Hanukkah bag grew as our kids contributed their ideas. We schlepped Hanukkah decorations, menorah, beeswax candles and Hanukkah stories along. We also bought Nonna a food processor to expedite our latke making, as latkes had become a staple of the holiday feasts. It was a wonderful way of sharing our celebration as Nonna and the cousins were sharing theirs.

Nonna passed away some years ago. Reflecting on the sweet memories of our holiday visits, I wrote Nonna's Hanukkah Surprise, about an inter-faith family's holiday celebration. The story is about little Rachel, who brings Hanukkah to her non-Jewish Nonna's house. When things happen to go awry, it's Nonna (of course) who steps up to save the day.

So now, I imagine, you can understand why I will be travelling to the Soo with my family and our Hanukkah bag to do a Hanukkah reading. The reading will be hosted by the church that Nonna used to belong to. Churchgoers will be at the event along with members of the Soo's Jewish community. And I will be sharing Nonna's Hanukkah Surprise and its message of love and acceptance with all of them.

Happy Hanukkah to all!

Sep 25, 2015

Celebrating and Sharing this Sukkot

By Rebecca Goldsteen

Find Shanghai Sukkah and more great Sukkot titles at the Kar-Ben website.

The Jewish people are unique in many ways, including the ways in which we celebrate our holidays. Instead of just remembering the past, our customs remind us to look to the future and many of our holiday rituals lend themselves to being reinterpreted for the age in which we live. On Sukkot, for example, we build a sukkah in which we eat and, weather permitting (I’m from Minnesota!), sleep. Not only does this remind us of the huts in which the Jews lived as they wandered in the desert for 40 years, but it also reminds us to appreciate the natural world – the weather, the harvest, the outdoors.

Growing up, I knew that the end of Yom Kippur meant that Sukkot was coming. My brothers and I helped my dad build the sukkah, which usually involved my dad doing all the real building, with my brothers helping hold things up, and me trying to figure out how to tie fruit onto strings without it falling off the sukkah roof, still a struggle for me after 20 years. We brought home sukkah decorations we made in day school and did our best to make our sukkah as beautiful as possible. With the arrival of Sukkot, we took turns saying the blessings and shaking the lulav and etrog. We ate delicious dinners of fruits and vegetables, kugel, and kreplach. If it wasn’t too cold outside, we would put on our warmest pajamas, take our sleeping bags and pillows, and camp out in our sukkah telling stories into the night.

Like Marcus in the book “Shanghai Sukkah,”who wonders how he will celebrate Sukkot in his new home in Shanghai,  I wondered how I would celebrate Sukkot  when I started school at the University of Illinois three years ago. Fortunately, my school has a wonderful Chabad, Hillel, and JET (Jewish Education Team), each with its own sukkah. In fact, Chabad even sets up a sukkah outside my freshman dorm (many Jewish freshmen tend to live in this dorm) and brings a portable sukkah along with a lulav and etrog to the quad. Each of these organizations welcomes students and other visitors to eat dinner and socialize in their sukkot.

Understanding the importance of celebrating Jewish holidays begins at a young age. I have many friends who identify strongly as Jews, but don’t know the first thing about the holiday of Sukkot. They’re familiar with Hanukkah and Passover and Shabbat, but if their family didn’t celebrate Sukkot, they didn’t have the chance to learn about this very wonderful holiday. It’s important to understand our traditions and I feel lucky that I grew up in a home infused with Jewish celebration.  One friend of mine at college, once told me that she wants to know more about Judaism but is afraid to go to any of the Jewish organizations on campus because she doesn’t feel that she is “Jewish enough.” I told her that it’s never too late to learn new things about Jewish life, and that all these campus organizations are eager to welcome students just like her. The first step to embracing Judaism is to overcome the fear of thinking that you don’t know enough. None of us know everything so we’re all somewhere on the knowledge continuum!

In “Shanghai Sukkah,” when Marcus’ family flees the Holocaust, moving to Shanghai from Berlin, he befriends a Chinese boy named Liang. These two share their respective Sukkot and Moon Festival customs with each other, and Liang surprises Marcus by decorating Marcus’ sukkah with Chinese lanterns. And Marcus attends Liang’s Moon Festival celebration.

Like Marcus, I try my best to share with my peers --both Jewish and non-Jewish—my love of  Judaism.  I have convinced many of my Jewish friends to come celebrate the Jewish holidays with me on campus when they would likely have been more comfortable not participating. They always say they’re glad they came and that the celebrations make them appreciate being Jewish.

Education is never a bad thing. As we see in “Shanghai Sukkah,” the better we understand – and share -- our own customs and traditions, the more meaningful they become.  Chag sameach!

Rebecca Goldsteen , a student at the University of Illinois, was Kar-Ben’s summer intern.

Sep 15, 2015

Feed Your Kid's Body and Soul: High Holiday Books with Food Themes

By Jill Colella

A colleague and friend of mine who is a rabbi and an accomplished cook once likened the Jewish holiday dinner table to the bimah. Many of the components are the same— a raised surface, a gathering of people with a united purpose, and the sharing of (different forms) of sustenance with reverence and ritual. One way to experience Judaism is through its meals, especially those that happen during the fall harvest. For children especially, food is an accessible way of thinking about their wider worlds.

Basic food literacy is a critical foundation for building cooking skills, and appreciating the symbolism of food, like a beautifully braided round challah on the Rosh Hashanah table. As a writer of a Jewish cookbook for children, I was tasked with creating recipes that were basic enough for children to follow but meaningful enough for some deeper connection. This is why basic food literacy—the ability to identify ingredients—is incredibly important for children.

A few years ago during his TED Talk about the state of food for children, British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver screened a clip from his television show Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. He was in a school classroom of six year olds in Huntington, West Virginia and had brought along different fresh vegetables. The  kids were unsuccessful in identifying fresh tomatoes!  One would think that any elementary school aged child could easily identify such a common vegetable.  And while adults may be able to identify most vegetables, many are not exactly confident about how to cook them.

We can think of cooking like reading. When you think about the act of reading, it seems difficult—recognize letters and groups of letters as sounds, and then combine those into words, and then understand a string of words as sentences. Yet, we do it, and we ask kids to do it from an early age. Cooking can be the same, and can be discovered through reading. Some of my favorite Kar-Ben books develop reading literacy, food literacy and cultural literacy all at the same time, in the most charming ways.

Talia and the Very YUM Kippur and Talia and the Rude Vegetables are clever and funny books that play with words as the title character is helping with preparations for High Holiday meals.


Apple Days tells the story of Katy, who loves making applesauce with her mother. Her enthusiasm will inspire curiosity in any reader. TheApple Tree’s Discovery is another great title for reading during “apple days,” with its message that each of us is a unique individual. The book also reveals a very special feature about apples, which will prompt young eaters to observe the foods they eat more closely.

Maybe the very best example of food literacy materials for children is What’s the Buzz? Honey for a Sweet New Year. The book provides photos of a school trip to an apiary (bee farm) in Israel. Truly a farm-to-fork book, the story will help young readers understand where the honey on the Rosh Hashanah table comes from.

Jill Colella is editor of two magazines about food for children, for readers ages 6-12, Ingredient ( and for readers ages 3-6, Butternut ( 

Jul 6, 2015

Fond Memories of Jewish Summer Camp

By Rebecca Goldsteen

To celebrate summer, we're offering 20% off all Kar-Ben summer camp books. Discount taken at check-out.

Jewish summer camp was unlike any other experience in my lifetime. Some parents choose to send their children to secular summer camps, but I think these camps lack some important factors that Jewish summer camps provide and that stick with Jewish kids through adulthood. Many of the activities at Jewish summer camps connect to Judaism or Israel, allowing campers to learn about their Jewish history and culture in fun, active, and engaging ways. Additionally, because most if not all of the campers are Jewish, they share a special bond that is hard to find anyplace else in the outside world. Spending 24 hours a day for 1 to 8 weeks with the same group of people creates bonds that cannot be found going to school, synagogue, or on playdates.

I’ve made some of my best friends through my Jewish summer camp experiences. During my second summer at Camp Chi, an overnight camp near Chicago, the other pre-5th graders and I were preparing to take our beginning-of-the-summer swim test. I hopped in the water, which reached to my chest and squealed, not wanting to get all the way into the cold swimming pool. I noticed a tall girl standing next to me. She was so tall that the water only reached to her waist. I turned to her and commented on how lucky she was to be so tall so that she didn’t have to get into the chilly water as quickly. She laughed and agreed, saying that this was one of the few things she liked about being taller than everyone else. We immediately became best friends and were bunkmates for the next six summers. Now, ten years later, she is still one of my closest friends.

I think it’s great that Kar-Ben is publishing stories about Jewish summer camps to encourage young children to want to go to camp. Picnic at Camp Shalom shows an important side of camp friendships; bonding, sensitivity, patience, and forgiveness. When kids, especially young campers, spend this much time together, there are bound to be some small problems that need to be worked out. When Carly and Sara arrive to Camp Shalom, they click immediately. One day, Carly laughs at Sara’s last name (Frankfurter), and Sara gets upset with her. Sara ignores Carly’s attempts to apologize, but when she finally has the opportunity to reveal that her own last name is Hamburger, all is forgiven and the girls laugh together.

One of the most exciting parts about Jewish summer camp is having a blast getting dirty during daily activities. Of course the campers take quick showers after painting themselves for Color Wars and before nighttime song sessions, keeping in mind the fun-filled, messy activities that will take place the following day. Because the weeks are spent this way, getting ready for Shabbat at camp is very special. No Baths at Camp illustrates this excitement felt by all young campers. Regardless of whether or not campers celebrate Shabbat at home, it is everyone’s favorite time of the week at camp. Getting ready with all your friends, taking pictures (and lots of them, since everyone only looks this nice once a week!), sitting with your cabin during services with your arms around each other during prayers, having a nice Shabbat dinner, and banging on the tables during Birkat Hamazon. The night ends with a Shabbat song session that brings many of the older campers to tears as they are reminded of their love for camp. 

As important as it is to not segregate ourselves as Jews from the rest of society, it is just as important to embrace our culture among ourselves. Regardless of whether or not children attends public school or a Jewish school, they will learn more about themselves and the joy of being part of the  Jewish community by  attending  Jewish camp than anyplace else. Because Judaism is as much an identity as a religion, it is important for kids to recognize and embrace their Judaism, regardless of the their level of observance, from a young age.

Even through my last summer of camp as a pre-11th grader, I continued to grow and be engaged with finding myself Jewishly. Now, at age 20, preparing for my senior year of university, I have learned the importance of always keeping Judaism in my life, not only religiously, but also culturally and socially.

Rebecca Goldsteen , a Jewish summer camp enthusiast and student at the University of Illinois, is Kar-Ben’s summer intern.

Apr 23, 2015

Celebrating Israel on Yom Ha'atzmaut

Happy Yom Ha'atzmaut! Today celebrates Israel and commemorates the establishment of the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948.

How will you and your family celebrate Israel this year? We have a few recommendations below!

Crafts and Activities
Check out our list of activities to learn about and celebrate Israel at home and in the classroom. Great for any time of year, they particularly come in handy today!

The Celebrate Israel Parade
The annual Celebrate Israel Parade, begun in 1964, is held every spring in the heart of New York City. Over thirty thousand marchers stroll up Fifth Avenue. The parade showcases groups from elementary schools, high schools, yeshivot, synagogues, Jewish community centers, and many other Jewish institutions. Colorful floats, award winning marching bands, politicians, and entertainers also participate in the parade, showing their support for Israel. Tens of thousands of spectators cheer on the sidelines. The Celebrate Israel Parade is a colossal party, graciously hosted by New York City.

Sounds like fun, but can't make it to Manhattan? Enjoy the parade vicariously with our new fall title Meg Goldberg on Parade about a shy girl with a big imagination who finds plenty of ways to join in the fun - coming soon to bookstores near you!

Explore Israel Through Books!
We love to explore Israel through stories and illustrations, and we have many books dedicated to doing just that!

Hare and Tortoise Race Across Israel, a classic fable retold in a unique environment, is the newest addition to Kar-Ben's Israel-focused collection. As good friends Hare and Tortoise embark on a race from Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea, they're drawn not to well-known landmarks in Israel, but are instead seen enjoying slices of everyday Israeli life. Hare watches soccer games and street performers while Tortoise enjoys falafel and rugelach, and they see the cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as well as the Judean Hills and the desert.

The "Nature in Israel" series by National Jewish Book Award-winning author Allison Ofanansky pairs holidays with celebrations unique to Israel's landscape and features beautiful full-color photographs. Titles include New Month, New Moon, Harvest of Light, What's the Buzz, and Sukkot Treasure Hunt.

Apr 16, 2015

A Fable for Yom HaShoah

There are many stories we tell to ensure that the Holocaust will never be forgotten. Some are dark, like Elie Wiesel's Night, and some are stories of hope, like Lois Lowry's Number the Stars. This spring, we are proud to offer a book that shows the power of bravery and the importance of never forgetting.

An old man, known as the Wren, plays his hurdy-gurdy, and with the help of his student, the Sparrow, brings hope and inspiration to the people of a small Polish town during the Holocaust. This beautifully illustrated fable by US Children's Poet Laureate (2011-2013) J. Patrick Lewis weaves a lyrical and elegant tale of a mysterious musician and the trusted young friend who rescues the hurdy-gurdy and hides it from its intended fate at the hands of the Nazis. The richly colored illustrations are by award-winning Russian painter and stage designer Yevgenia Nayberg.

This story is a work of imagination inspired by the street performers of the Lodz Ghetto. In the city of Lodz, as in Jewish communities throughout Europe, the Jews were rounded up and packed into a fenced section of Lodz, which became known as the Lodz Ghetto.

In 1940, the Lodz Ghetto, one of the largest ghettos in Europe, held 230,000 people. Six years later, in 1945, when the Soviet Army liberated the city, fewer than 1000 of Lodz’s Jewish community had survived the Nazi horrors.

Music was part of the life of the ghettos, helping to sustain the spirits of the Jewish community in those dark days. Street performers, including children, sang or played music in exchange for a coin, a bit of food, or often nothing at all. Like the Wren, these performers resisted the Nazis with their songs, offering a glimmer of a better world.

As in this story, some of the musical instruments played in the ghettos and concentration camps survived the Holocaust; most of their owners did not. But their music inspired both adults and children to believe that, even in the bleak world of the Shoah, beauty and hope for humanity still lived.

Apr 1, 2015

8 Passover Activities for Kids of All Ages

Engage children in the story and traditions of Passover with these fun crafts and activities! From helping to decorate the seder table to learning about the ten plagues with hand-made puppets, these activities will help children feel like a part of the holiday.

A Playful Passover Seder Kit

This eBook from TCJewfolk is full of crafts and activities for toddlers and preschoolers, from building a matzah house to coloring pages featuring seder plate items. The activities here will both entertain and educate this Passover!

A Passover Lesson Plan for 3rd & 4th Grade
These lesson plans, written by A Family Haggadah author Shoshana Silberman, focus on slavery in ancient Egypt and draw connections between ancient and modern slavery. An informative unit for older students.

Create a Beautiful Elijah's Cup
Elijah's cup is an important part of the Passover seder. This craft from The Shiksa in the Kitchen is great for older children, or young children with some adult assistance. Instructions here.

A Handmade Matzah Cover
Matzah is a ubiquitous part of every seder - and now it can have its very own unique cover! We like this matzah cover because it holds three pieces of matzah, each one in its own pocket. This craft is perfect for classrooms or at home. Instructions here.

From Highlights Kids.

Passover Puppets
Tell the story of Passover in a fun and interactive way using these Passover finger puppets! Kids can color and cut out these finger puppets to put their own unique touch on the Passover tale. Template here.

From Ann D. Koffsky.

A Plague of Frogs
It has been decided - the plague of frogs is certainly the one to illustrate through crafts. Over at Creative Jewish Mom you can fold origami frogs (great for classrooms of older students) or make these little critters from pom-poms and pipe cleaners.

Make Your Own Seder Placemat
These seder placemats are a sweet handmade touch to a seder table, and reinforce the significance of each item on the seder plate. Instructions here.

From InCultureParent.


Create a 3-D Moses
With a template and a toilet paper roll, make a 3-D figure of Moses for storytelling or as a decoration for the classroom or seder table.

From DLTK.