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!


  1. I loved reading the history of the book. I too am always looking for Jewish books that are true tales, and that have a repeating element the kids predict. Once Upon a Shabbos is read almost every Friday (and many other days, too) at our preschool. My only wish would be for more books like this.

  2. Jacqueline,I love your sense of humor. I think of you often at this time of year. The Hardest Word is one of my favorites and every year before Yom Kippur I read it to my classes, Middle School kids, and they aren't too old to love it because a great book is a great book at any age. Looking forward to your next one!
    Moadim l'simcha, Anna

  3. It's the only book I know about that for Shabbat, not the holidays. I read it to little kids, or I tell it to big kids. Everyone loves it!