Oct 22, 2009

Bat-Chen's Hope for Peace Lives On

A few years ago, I became familiar with the life of Bat-Chen Shahak. Kar-Ben published the English edition of her diaries, which had been published in several languages already. Bat-Chen lived in Tel Mond, Israel, not far from Jerusalem. She was smart, sassy, and full of imagination. Her life was cut short when, on her 15th birthday on Purim of 1996, she was killed by a suicide bomber while while visiting Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Center.

Bat-Chen's story is just one of thousands of children whose lives were lost because of war and terrorism. Her diaries reveal her uncertainties of the future, her feelings about the conflict going on in Israel, and her love of her family, friends, and her home country.

Today, her parents have established The Association for the Commemoration of Bat-Chen Shahak and travel all over the world, sharing Bat-Chen's story and working to fulfill her dreams of peace. They speak to students of all backgrounds about the power of keeping a diary, giving out copies of The Bat-Chen Diaries and a blank one to use as their own. This concept has been especially relevant to young people in southern Israel, who see it as a therapeutic aid in dealing with stress, anxiety and trauma which often are a part of these children's lives while living in the shadow of kassam rockets and unrest.

Bat-Chen's story has been deeply felt in Tel Mond's sister city, Sarasota, Florida. One of Bat-Chen's drawings won an annual art contest there, and it was enlarged to billboard size and appeared in a city-wide exhibition. The topic of the drawing was her family and was drawn when Bat-Chen was only 12 years old. In honor of the new year, a copy of the huge enlarged picture arrived in Tel Mond and is on permanent display at an elementary school.

Bat-Chen's story proves the power of writing and imagination, even that of a young person, can live on after one's death.

Oct 19, 2009

After the Holidays

Author Anna Levine was kind enough to share some of her reflections on Israel and the Fall Holidays. Now that they're over and Hanukkah has not yet begun, we feel like new projects are sprouting up all over! Welcome to the blog, Anna! (Here's Anna in Modi'in, the setting for Jodie's Hanukkah Dig.)

Some time around the beginning of September we start using the Hebrew phrase achrai hachagim. Literally this translates to “after the holidays.” However, this quintessential Israeli expression really means, “there’s no point of even thinking of doing anything until after the holidays, so don’t even try.”

I am used to this by now, though many immigrants unfamiliar with this mind set have a hard time adjusting. The first night of Sukkot we had a young guest who is in Israel for the year. He is in the throes of finding an apartment and says that dealing with Israeli bureaucracy makes him feel more Israeli every time he comes face to face with a brick wall and manages to take one down. “But these last 2 weeks,” he says, “have been impossible. How can the country function when everything closes down for the holidays?”

We adapt. It rained last night and a bit today and for these few weeks of the year we get a taste of autumn and we are reminded that our Holy Days have an agricultural as well as spiritual tie. The fruits which decorate the sukkah are the ones that are also ripening naturally on the trees in our gardens. Driving from Jerusalem to my cousins in the north I notice the changes of season as they are defined by the changes in the agricultural landscape. If the fields are white, then the cotton is ready for picking. It must be Fall.

In a way, it is liberating to know that absolutely nothing will get done during the time it takes for the new moon of Rosh Hashana to round out into the full moon of Sukkot. I love how the Israeli year is divided according to the Jewish holidays. We welcome in 5770 by sitting back and allowing ourselves to adjust to the feel of the new year and the changes of weather, celebrating with family and friends—giving ourselves time to adapt, and to think about the future.

As for me, I won’t be looking too far into the future for the next while. I’ll be looking into the past. With my picture book, Jodie’s Hanukkah Dig, having received a Sydney Taylor Notable award, I’ve gotten the go ahead for another archaeological book. This one takes place in Hezekiah’s Tunnel. A miraculous feat of engineering, built long before surveyors could scout with sophisticated equipment, tractors could dig, or diggers could lead without even a flashlight, King Hezekiah (First Temple period) planned, executed and succeeded in building a water tunnel through which water is still flowing today, two thousand years later, under the City of Jerusalem.

I’ll start working seriously on the revisions for this book sometime after the holidays, achrai hachagim. For now I wonder, do you think when King Hezekiah gathered his workers together he said, “Okay guys, we need to get this project done quickly.” And they looked back at him, and with all the respect they could muster, said, “Sure your majesty, no problem. We’ll get right to it—achrai hachagim.”

Oct 1, 2009

Making Jewish Preschoolers Giggle

We asked Jacqueline Jules, author of many Kar-Ben books including the Ziz series, Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner Sarah Laughs, and the preschool favorite Once Upon a Shabbos, to be a guest blogger. Welcome to the Kar-Ben Blog, Jackie!

In 1996, I was “Miss Jackie” to two entirely different groups of preschoolers. During the week, I was a library media specialist who conducted story times for young children who loved nothing more than to be entertained. I read lots of traditional stories with a chorus, because I found my students liked those best. When children happily join along in a repeated song or phrase, story time is an engaging, interactive experience for all.

But “I’ll huff and I’ll puff” is more than an entertaining chant for young learners. It is an opportunity to build language, the foundation for literacy skills.

On Saturdays, I was “Miss Jackie” to a group of preschoolers and their parents who came for Tot Shabbat services. We had a service booklet with a few prayers and just before the end, at the point where a sermon might come in an adult service, I always read or told a story. For my Tot Shabbat kids, I also wanted an engaging, interactive experience. I searched for Jewish children’s books with a traditional chorus, inviting everyone to join in with unabashed glee. There weren’t enough to fill the school year. In fact, many of the Jewish books I found in the public library had a decidedly expository feel to them. They explained Shabbat or Jewish holidays to kids in often lengthy and didactic text. I found this disappointing. Not every Christmas or Easter book explains the religious background of the holiday. Most depicted happy families celebrating within heartwarming or humorous plots. Why were so many Jewish children’s books thinly veiled nonfiction, primarily explaining the reasons behind ritual? And why weren’t there more Jewish books that made preschoolers giggle?

I thought about this one day, as I was reading an Appalachian folktale called Sody Salleratus to my weekday kids. In this traditional story, a grandmother sends out each member of her family to buy sody salleratus or baking soda so she can make biscuits. Each family member leaves the house singing about the item they are to buy and each one encounters a bear, who gobbles them up, much as the wolf in Red Riding Hood. While it may seem at first glance, a gruesome story, it is actually an empowering one because the children roar with the bear just before he swallows each character. And like Red Riding Hood, everyone is extracted from the bear’s stomach for a happy ending. My weekday students adored this story and asked for it again. They loved singing the song. They loved roaring like a bear. And I loved to see them giggle.

“Why isn’t there a Jewish version of Sody Salleratus?” I asked myself. My Tot Shabbat kids would have as much fun with something like this as my weekday kids. So I sat down at my computer to write a Jewish Sody Salleratus. The first thing I did was change the Appalachian setting. It became Brooklyn with a Yiddish speaking Bubbe and Zayde.

Instead of baking soda biscuits, Bubbe was preparing to make her sweet Shabbos kugel for Friday night dinner. Missing a key ingredient from her cabinet, she sends her grandson Jacob to the corner store with a little gelt. Jacob skips out of the apartment, singing “Honey, honey sweet as Shabbos!” Then the bear, who just happens to be lost in Brooklyn, enters. He wants the honey Jacob is taking to Bubbe for her sweet Shabbos kugel.

My Jewish re-telling of Sody Salleratus, went very well up until that point. Then I was stuck! How could the bear swallow Jacob? My Tot Shabbat parents would be horrified! Clearly, my original inspiration could not be followed verbatim. But was there any reason why a nice Jewish family couldn’t make friends with a bear lost in Brooklyn right before Shabbos? Especially a bear who comes from a storybook and loves Shabbos dinner?

With my story finished, I got a bear puppet and performed it for my Tot Shabbat group. It was an immediate hit. The children sang along and roared in all the right places. So did the adults.
Once Upon a Shabbos, my greatly altered Jewish version of Sody Salleratus was published by Kar-Ben Publishers in 1998 with whimsical illustrations by the wonderful Katherine Janus Kahn. Since then, I have received numerous feedback from Jewish teachers and storytellers who tell me they have used Once Upon a Shabbos with great success at their own story times. And when the book went out of print for a couple of years, I heard many pleas for its return. I was absolutely delighted this year when Kar-Ben brought Once Upon a Shabbos back into print by popular demand. For a taste of the book, here's the book trailer:

Gut Shabbos!