Sep 20, 2017

What Do Challah Bread and Koalas Have In Common?

 Have you ever seen a koala celebrate Shabbat? Well, soon you will—meet Lila and her family this fall! Paired with Maria Mola’s vibrant illustrations, Laura Gehls’ story comes to life in this fun picture book. 

But how did koalas and challahs become a book idea?

“I was in a carpool lane waiting to drop my kids off for a Jewish Community Center summer camp,” said author Laura Gehls, “and we were playing a game called ‘hinky pinky.’ The idea is that you give two clues, and the answer is two rhyming words. So if I say 'A cute animal from Australia, and traditional bread for Shabbat,' then you say… 'KOALA CHALLAH!' And so the title of this book was born.”

Laura and family, with a koala
And two seemingly unrelated things became a delightful story. It also gives Gehls the opportunity to share the game that inspired it all with students as she visits schools. According to her, “Hinky pinky is a fun way to build vocabulary, develop critical thinking skills, and strengthen creativity and rhyming abilities.” Maybe it could even inspire more books someday!

In the meantime, we’ve got one hinky pinky inspiration ready to delight readers with the clumsy yet determined Lila the koala and her loving family. Get ready for Lila’s Shabbat adventures as she tries to make a delicious challah for her family—in her own special way.

“We don’t strive for ‘perfect’ Shabbat dinners in our family—being together for dinner is the most important part for us,” said Gehls. “I remember one Shabbat where our dinner was takeout pizza.  A candle fell over and set the pizza box on fire!”

Gehl says, "I hope that this book will encourage families to come together for Shabbat dinner, even if the house is a mess, the kids are a mess (mine are usually covered with dirt and/or chocolate at any given time), and nobody had time to cook."

Sep 14, 2017

Six Inspiring Stories Celebrating Immigration

Moving from a familiar place to a new one in the hopes of a different life can be a difficult concept for children to understand. Immigration is very much a part of the story of the Jewish people. Books can convey the anticipation, hopes, and dreams of immigrants, as well as the trepidation and challenges. Maybe most importantly, picture books can help teach young children kindness and empathy toward newcomers, and appreciate the bravery of people in their families and communities who have made such a big change. 

A boy finds his great grandfather's accordion in the attic and with it the history of klezmer music, his family’s move to America, and the role the old accordion played in Jewish life through the years. The story shows how many klezmorim fled Eastern Europe and joined the massive immigration to America as a result of pogroms and economic oppression in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The story is a great reminder of how things—like an accordion—can tell stories, and how music can, too!

illustration from Mendel's Accordion 

Feivel's Flying Horses

A loving father carves carousel horses that represent members of his family as he saves money to bring them from Europe to America. This book is a work of historical fiction based on the stories of Jewish woodcarvers who came from the Old Country and turned their talents to carving carousel horses on Coney Island. It may surprise many readers to learn that some of the most beautiful carousel horses in America were carved by Jewish immigrants. With the emergence of amusement parks such as Brooklyn’s Coney Island, the carousel industry flourished in the late 1800s. This coincided with a wave of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came to America’s shores in the late 19th century to escape persecution. The newcomers brought with them many skills, among them woodcarving, and we can still see their handiwork in places expected—like bridges and buildings—and less expected, like carousels.  

illustration from Feivel's Flying Horses

Rivka Takes a Bow

A slice of immigrant life on New York’s Second Avenue, Rifka Takes a Bow is a unique book about a vanished time and a place--the Yiddish theater in the early 20th century--made real through the telling of the true-life story of the 96-year-old author as a little girl.
Between the late 1800s and the early part of the 20th century, New York’s Second Avenue was home to over a dozen Yiddish-language theaters that performed for the many Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants who lived in the nearby Lower East Side tenements. They presented plays on themes such as the conflict between Eastern European parents and their American-born children, and the tensions between Chasidic and “enlightened” Jews, and adapted works of Shakespeare and other world playwrights to give working class Jews a chance to partake of high culture.

illustration from Rifka Takes a Bow

Under the Sabbath Lamp

When Izzy and Olivia Bloom invite their neighbors over for Shabbat dinner, everyone is shocked to find out that the Blooms don't have Shabbat candles. Instead, they have something much more unusual: an antique Sabbath lamp that's been passed down from generation to generation. How did the Sabbath lamp get to America? That's a good story . . . the pieces of the lamp were each brought by a different member of the family when enough funds for passage had been saved. Finally, the family was reunited and the special lamp was fully reassembled. This story will help young readers understand how heirlooms can tell family histories.

illustrations from Under the Sabbath Lamp

Speak Up, Tommy

Moving from Israel to America is hard for Tomer, who goes by Tommy in his new school just because it is easier. Tommy’s classmates tease him about his Israeli accent and his poor English skills, but his knowledge of Hebrew makes him a hero, leading to a unique friendship with a policeman and his specially-trained dog. A contemporary story of moving to a new place, young readers can learn the important lesson of empathy for others.

illustration from Speak Up, Tommy!

Yuvi’s Candy Tree is a fictional story based on the true story of Yuvi Tashome. Yuvi, a little Ethiopian Jewish girl, escapes the poverty and terror of Ethiopia in the early 1980s with her grandmother, arriving in Israel where the orange trees with their sweet fruit fulfill her dream to live in a place where "candy trees" grow. Yuvi Tashome escaped from Ethiopia to a Sudanese refugee camp when she was a little girl. She was later airlifted to Israel as part of Operation Moses, one of several Israeli rescue operations of Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s and 1990s. Israel’s Law of Return gives Jews of all countries the right to return to Israel. The Ethiopian Jews viewed Israel as their home, and they risked their lives to return.

illustrations from Yuvi's Candy Tree

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Aug 17, 2017

Real Readers Respond: Dvorah K. Reads Lily Renee, Escape Artist

We love when young readers share their thoughts about Kar-Ben books. Want to share your perspective (and maybe appear on our blog)? Send reviews to jcolella(at)

Reader Dvorah, age 14, recently read Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer. The graphic novel tells the true story of a brave girl who escapes the Holocaust and becomes a true pioneer in comic books.

The year is 1938. Lily Renee is 14. She is living in Vienna. She loves art and ballet. Her art was shown at a gallery. She went to the opera twice a year with her school. Lily was a typical girl living in the 1900’s.
One day, her life was completely flipped around as the Nazi’s marched into Austria. Her whole life, her hopes, and her dreams were totally shattered overnight. 

In order to survive, Lily leaves everything she ever loved and traveled alone to England. Little did she know that her train was the last one leaving Austria.

This is only the beginning of her long journey. Besides escaping the cruel Nazi’s, she must escape all the dangers of living all by herself.

I can’t even begin to imagine what life was like for Lily. We have to remember, she was just a teenager, like me! Running away from my home? My family? All alone to some strange country? That’s so tough on a 14 year old girl. She did this courageous act, knowing she would never see her family again. Brave Lily did this to continue her family’s chain.

Like graphic novels and comic? Compelled by stories of real-life heroes? Order a copy of this remarkable book. 

Interview: Meet The Whispering Town Author Jennifer Elvgren

Based on a true story, The Whispering Town tells the story of a brave child named Anett in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Anett and her parents hide a Jewish boy, Carl, and his mother in their cellar until a fishing boat can take them across the water to safety in neutral Sweden. The Whispering Town has received the Andersen Prize and the Prairie Pasque Children’s Book Award. The Whispering Town was named to the ALA Children’s Notable Book List and is a Sydney Taylor Honor Book as well as a Jane Addams Honor Book. Jennifer lives in Albemarle County, Virginia—about 20 miles from Charlottesville—with her husband, three children.

In a recent piece, "How to Talk to Your Kids About Charlottesville," New York Times children’s book editor Maria Russo included Jennifer Elvgren's The Whispering Town among "children’s books about people — including kids — who helped in the fight against Nazis and against racism here in the U.S."

We asked Jennifer about the inspiration behind her book.

Kar-Ben: Why did you want to become an author?
Elvgren: I wanted to become a children’s writer to create stories that inspire dreams and create empathy in children.

credit: Jen Fariello 

Kar-Ben: Where did you get the inspiration for The Whispering Town?
Elvgren: In Ellen Levine’s nonfiction book Darkness Over Denmark she talks about people whispering directions so a Jewish man could find the harbor on a dark night to escape to Sweden. That image leapt off the page and set me to dreaming about an entire town that whispered to save someone. The title came before the story. Then I asked myself the following questions, Who would think of the whispering? Who would be saved by the whispering? And the plot started to come.

Kar-Ben: What are you most excited about promoting in The Whispering Town?
Elvgren: WWII was a black period in world history. I am excited to tell people stories of hope and kindness that arose from that darkness.

Kar-Ben: What is the most interesting thing you learned in the process of writing your book?
Elvgren: I always tend to write manuscripts in third person. This is the first manuscript that I experimented with writing in first person. I felt like I could zoom in closer to Anette’s thoughts. I am now writing a middle grade novel in first person.

Kar-Ben: How do you hope your book will impact the Jewish life of a child?
Elvgren: I hope this book encourages children to be problem solvers and to help all people in need.

Aug 15, 2017

In memory of Ben Saypol, Kar-Ben’s namesake

It is with sadness that we inform Kar-Ben’s readers of the death of Ben Saypol, the “Ben” in Kar-Ben, who died last week at the age of 44 from colon cancer. Ben’s mom is Judye Groner, the co-founder of Kar-Ben along with Madeline Wikler, whose daughter Karen is the “Kar” in Kar-Ben. Last year on this Facebook page we posted an interview with the charming Ben, the little boy blowing the shofar on Kar-Ben’s mini-calendar for many years. In tribute to Ben we are re-running this interview. May his memory be for a blessing.  


September 9, 2016

For over four decades, Kar-Ben has been well known for its beautiful Jewish books for children and its Jewish calendars. One perennially popular product is the Kar-Ben Mini Jewish Calendar. In fact, it is the highest selling product on so far this month, and tens of thousands have been sold over the years. As many of our customers who have been buying the calendar for decades know, one significant feature hasn't changed: the photograph on its cover of a young boy blowing a shofar.

Kar-Ben calendar

And while time has stood still for the boy in the image, we wanted to catch up with the formerly little boy. Meet Ben Saypol, the son of one of Kar-Ben founding's duo, Judye Groner and Madeline Wikler.

Kar-Ben: Many of our customers have purchased the Mini Jewish Calendar for years, and the photo of the little boy blowing the shofar hasn’t changed. Can you tell us when and where that photo of you was taken?

Ben: That photo of me was taken when I was about 3 years old. I am 43 now! It was taken at the beautiful Brookside Gardens in Silver Spring, Maryland near where Kar-Ben Copies home office was located. Mom dressed me up in that nice outfit, Aunt Madeline (Wikler) the resident photographer took me to the gardens, and she told me to blow as best I could. Honestly back then I couldn't blow very well, but I got better as I got older and did in fact blow shofar in synagogue on the high holidays when I was younger.

Kar-Ben: How did you feel about being the face of Kar-Ben’s calendars—then? Now?

Ben: I loved -- and still love -- being the face of Kar-Ben's calendars. I consider it an honor. It makes some sense given that I am in fact the "Ben" of Kar-Ben! Mom (Judye Groner) and Aunt Madeline (Wikler) founded Kar-Ben Copies for Jewish children, and so they named their company after their two youngest children. Aunt Madeline had Judy and Karen (Kar), and my Mom (Judye Groner) had Josh and Benjamin (Ben). I think they were also being clever given that Kar, Ben, and Copies sounded like "Carbon Copies," which is how you Xeroxed back in the early 70's! But don't quote me on this last fact.

Kar-Ben: Anything else you’d like our customers to know—anything biographical that you’d be inclined to share?

Ben: Sure! After Jewish Day School (K-8) and public school (9-12), I attended Northwestern University in Chicago, studied History and Theater, and then was a professional actor in the musical theater for 5 years. The highlight of my career was playing Tony in the National Tour of West Side Story. I then changed fields to that of Education. I taught in the Colorado Public Schools for 3 years, and then attended graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I got a Masters in Music Vocal performance and then a PhD in Theater Studies. My specialty is Interactive Theater for Social Change--using theater to promote dialogue and solutions around social issues. After doing it with colleges and universities for several years, I now have my own company, Theater Delta. We work with colleges and universities, medical providers, the US military, the World Bank, and others. I love what I do.

When I was young I actually was a shofer blower in my local shul on the high holidays, but then I became a self taught Cantorial Soloist. I have been chanting services at Congregation Beth Judea in Long Grove, IL outside of Chicago for the past 22 years. I love doing it.

Jul 31, 2017

A MODEL OF LEARNING: Drop by Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva

by Jacqueline Jules

I have a Master’s Degree in Library Science. For twenty years I worked as a librarian/teacher in a variety of settings, both public and private. I also served as a synagogue librarian and led preschool story times. During those years, I had the great privilege of watching children learn, and shared their excitement over newfound abilities.

To read, the mind must make meaning from symbols. The letter “A” represents a particular sound. That sound combines with other sounds to become a word. The process is not easy, and for many children, reading must be broken down into discrete parts before it can be mastered.

When my students were having difficulty, I would sometimes tell them to do what they could and skip what they couldn’t. In other words, deal with challenges later. This is particularly useful in test taking. If you answer what you know first, you build confidence. Questions that take a little more thought can be revisited at the end. The same goes for reading. If you know most of the words, read them. A single unknown word may be understood within the context of the sentence.

Sometimes children and even adults become paralyzed by what they don’t know. An unfamiliar word or concept can be like a stop light, holding them in place. Stories of how others overcame self-doubt can be motivating.

My background in education and working with children drew me to the story of Rabbi Akiva, the Talmudic sage who learned to read at age 40. An illiterate shepherd, Akiva was encouraged by his wife, Rachel, who firmly believed he could become a respected scholar.

“Nothing is beyond you,” Rachel tells her husband.

Akiva still questions. “What if I can’t learn? What if my brain is hard like a stone and can’t absorb new ideas?”

As a teacher, I encountered many boys and girls who doubted themselves. It is easy to become discouraged, to believe that a task is too big for your abilities. In Drop by Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva, Akiva observes a phenomenon in nature. He sees how water slowly erodes stone. It brings him to an exciting conclusion. “My mind is not harder than a rock! I can learn—just like water cuts through stone—a little bit each day.”

And so Akiva begins to study. First he memorizes the sound and shape of each letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Then he puts the letters together to form words. Every day, he masters a new word until he can read and write whole sentences.

Later, when Akiva goes to the yeshiva, he studies Torah in the same way, learning one law at a time, breaking the dense and difficult text into individual pieces. In the end, a man who could not read or write becomes a wise rabbi followed by thousands of students.

I hope that after reading Drop by Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva, children will draw parallels with their own struggles to learn. The acquisition of new skills requires persistence. Complicated subjects should be tackled in small pieces over time. Little by little, like water carves through stone, we can achieve any goal.

Jacqueline Jules is the award-winning author of 40 books for young readers including three Sydney Taylor Honor Award winners, Sarah Laughs, Benjamin and the Silver Goblet, and Never Say a Mean Word Again. Ten of her picture books have been featured as PJ Library selections. Visit

Jun 5, 2017

Q&A with Tammar Stein, author of “The Six-Day Hero”

Just in time for the  50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, author Tammar Stein has written a middle grade historical novel set in Israel in the days leading up to the war. Though much has been written about the Six-Day War for an adult audience, her novel, The Six-DayHero, is one of the only books geared for school age readers.

The Six-Day Hero tells the story of Motti, a 12 year-old boy living in West Jerusalem. His brother is a soldier in the IDF and Motti dreams of being a hero like him one day. But as tensions rise and the war draws near Motti realizes not all heroes wear uniforms.

Here’s an interview with the author about the unlikely spark for her novel, and why the Six-Day War just might be more important to the history of the Jewish people than Hanukkah.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?
TS: My mom called me after a rabbi from her synagogue told her he had nothing to assign his fifth grader to read about Israel. My mom followed this up with career advice for me: “You should write something.” I kept thinking about this. Nothing about Israel for fifth graders? Really? Someone should do something! Then I had one of those aha moments. Oh wait…me. I should do something.

Q: The Six-Day War took place before you were born. How did you become interested in writing about it?
TS: It was remarkably easy to set a children’s book in that time period. Even though the geo-political situation was precarious, children had an incredible amount of personal freedom. They were free to roam after school without adult supervision and had amazing scraps and adventures that their parents never knew about, daring each other to go right up to the barbed wire border between Israel and Jordan, racing each other in the streets, checking out protests and Arab markets. It made them scrappy and independent. It was fertile ground for a novelist. Anything could happen. 

Q: Did researching and writing about this war change any pre-conceived notions for you?
TS: Yes! I thought it was a simple story. The war lasted 6 days. Israel won. Not much left to say. But as I started interviewing friends and relatives who had lived through it, I realized there was so much more to say. The month leading up to the war was a bitter, frightening time. For many Israelis, it felt like a redux of WWII, which for a small country with a significant percentage of Holocaust survivors and refugees, was a terrifying reality. Was history going to repeat itself? Were millions of Jews going to be slaughtered again? Would the rest of the world sit back and watch it happen again? 

Q: You spent part of your childhood in Israel. Was your family touched personally by this war?
TS: My dad was an 18-year-old Israeli soldier in the Six-Day War. He helped me with the details, the mood, sharing the thoughts and fears that raced through his mind. I spoke with my aunt and uncle, family friends. Because of the national draft, everyone of a certain age was personally touched, either as an activated soldier or as a relative of one.  Leading up to the war they really thought they were going to be annihilated. Newspapers were using words like Holocaust and catastrophic and existential threat.  To win so completely, to unify Jerusalem for the first time in 2000 years…it felt like a bigger miracle than Hanukkah and Purim put together.

Order a copy now.