The Patchwork Torah by Allison Ofanansky, illustrated by Elsa Oriol
David’s grandfather was a scribe. He had been asked by the rabbi to write a new Torah for their synagogue because the old one was fading. David watched his grandfather work for a year on the new Torah and then store it away, explaining that a Torah is not something to be thrown out. Years later, as David was learning to be a scribe from his grandfather, a couple came to them bringing a Torah that they had hidden from the Nazis. It was badly water damaged and his grandfather tucked that Torah away too in the hopes of working on it someday. David grew up to be a scribe and inherited his grandfather’s cabinet with the two scrolls inside. One day, the rabbi called and told him that there had been a fire in the synagogue and the Torah was damaged. That scroll too was put away. Finally, Katrina hit New Orleans and a Torah was rescued but damaged too. David suddenly had an idea and worked for months to take the four scrolls and patch them together into one complete Torah that would be unlike any other.
Ofanansky builds this story slowly and steadily. Each Torah comes into the book with a full story and history. Each is unique and ruined in some way, but worthy of being rescued and reused. It is the ultimate in recycling. The book also pays homage to the long history of scribes who care for and create Torah, showing the dedication that it takes to learn the art and skill.
The art by Oriol has a quiet nature too. The paintings are suffused in yellow light and warmth. Even the days of the tragedies that happen to the people and the Torah are light-filled and hope filled.
A quiet and powerful story about renewal and reuse, this book speaks across religions to the importance of hard work and resilience. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman
Tara’s father is Jewish and her mother is East Indian, so Tara has mixed feelings about her upcoming bat mitzvah. Some of the kids in her Hebrew class even wonder if she is actually Jewish at all. Tara though is more concerned with whether she actually believes in God and if she doesn’t, does that mean that she can’t have a bat mitzvah? She also worries about what celebrating this side of her family says to the other side. So Tara decides to make sure that both sides of her family are represented by wearing a family sari that had been passed down for generations. Unfortunately though, the sari is accidentally burned and Tara has to figure out how to tell her mother about it. But that’s not the only complexity in Tara’s life. Her best friend Rebecca seems to be spending more time with another girl, someone that Tara doesn’t get along with. Her other best friend Ben-o seems interested in being more than friends sometimes but other times spends a lot of time with another girl. It’s up to Tara to navigate all of the confusion and make her bat mitzvah her own.
Freedman very successfully tells the story of a young woman dealing with two distinct family heritages. Happily, she doesn’t feel the need to build heightened angst about it, allowing Tara’s personal doubts to really drive this part of the story. Her family around her does not have the same feelings, sharing holidays with one another and enjoying the same foods, most of the time.
The book has a lightness of tone that makes the book very enjoyable. Freedman explores bullying with a perfect touch, but less successfully explores the underlying issues. Tara is a strong heroine who is far from perfect. She has a temper, responds physically at times, and can be too self-absorbed to really see what is happening with her friends.
Hurrah for a book with a brown-skinned girl right on the cover that explores her multicultural heritage in such a straight-forward way! Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.
The Longest Night: A Passover Story by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Catia Chien
This Passover picture book tells the story of the Exodus from the point of view of a young slave girl. Readers first get a sense of the harsh environment and difficult lives of the Jewish people: the heat, the hard labor, the slavery. Then come the plagues, one after another. Finally there is the Exodus itself, the thrill and fear of fleeing in the darkness. And finally, the miracle of the sea splitting in two, giving them safe passage away from Egypt.
Written in rhyme, Snyder has created a book filled with rhythm and a story that moves swiftly along through the different parts of the Exodus. Her choice of telling the story from the point of view of a child makes the story all the more personal and dramatic.
Chien’s illustrations are just as dramatic with their deep color palette. Especially moving are the natural moments, when the little girl finds openness and freedom in the world around her, though she can’t find it personally. At these moments, the sky is huge and beautiful, but quickly the grit and sand return.
A powerful and lovely exploration of the Old Testament tale of the Exodus given a fresh and personal aspect. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Schwartz & Wade.