Homeshuling

Homeshuling


Bible stories for children – does the Torah belong in picture books?

posted by Homeshuling

My very first classroom teaching position was at Beit Rabban in New York City. The school was founded by Dr. Devora Steinmetz, a brilliant and inspiring educational leader. My own philosophy of Jewish education was so deeply influenced by hers that twelve years later I still can’t figure out which, if any, of my ideas I can actually take credit for.

One of the defining characteristics of Beit Rabban, at least when I was there, was a rigorous and serious approach to sacred text, even in Kindergarten. The youngest children were introduced to Torah through weekly parsha lessons, when they listened to the actual words of the Torah (in translation, except for proper nouns) and shared aloud their questions about the text – what they wondered about the story after hearing the sparse, nearly description-free language of the original text. These questions often led to fascinating discussions, as children offered their own interpretations of the words of the Torah. This was not a place where children colored in drawings of Joseph’s “coat of many colors” – it was a place where children debated at age five why Yaakov would give his son a special coat to begin with.

Consequently, I’ve always been a little hesitant about using illustrated picture books to teach the stories of the Torah. I want my children’s understanding of Torah to emerge from the text itself, not from watered-down or cutesied-up versions of these stories. I’m fairly certain that the earlier children are exposed to other peoples’ interpretations of Torah, the harder it is for them to ever develop their own interpretations, without subconsciously incorporating the pictures, dialogue and the myriad of other descriptive details imagined by contemporary authors and illustrators. After all, how many of us can’t help but hear God’s voice as Charlton Heston’s? How many of us were, or still are, certain that the story of Abraham breaking his father’s idols actually appears in the Torah?

nachshon.jpg

As a PJ Library parent, and a sometimes book reviewer, I’ve received a number of Bible story books, some of which have changed my mind, just a little bit, about this genre. The very best of these books, in my opinion, don’t retell the story, but instead function as a kind of midrash, selecting one mysterious or unanswered question in the text, and offering a creative response to this question. One of my favorite examples of picture book midrash is Nachshon, Who Was Afraid To Swim, by Deborah Bodin Cohen. (I’m not alone in my praise of this book. It was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and a Sydney Taylor honor book.) Cohen takes a character mentioned in passing in the Torah, and briefly referred to in Rabbinic midrash, and weaves a tale about fear and courage and leadership at the moment the Israelites crossed the Red Sea.

Another category of Biblical picture books that I can, at least, tolerate are books that are inspired by a scene in the Torah but are really just nice children’s book that have little or nothing to do with their inspiration. Piles of children’s books, for example, respond to the implicit question “What was it like on Noah’s ark?” Yet it’s hard for me to consider these books as midrash. The problem, of course, is that these books usually turn a message about evil and Divine punishment into an adorable, sometimes rhyming, tale of cute animals. (Do you think it’s strange that I consider that a problem?) Perhaps it’s best to think of these Noah’s Ark books as just, well, books about a boat full of animals and leave it at that. My kids loved the recently released Noah’s Bark by Stephen Kremsky, but I doubt it impacted their understanding of the Torah in the slightest. (I did have to promptly toss the book we received as a baby gift that read “Mrs. Noah keeps things clean, on deck, below, and in between.”) 

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Then there are the Biblical picture books I can’t stand. Books that distort or ignore the message of the Torah so much that I’m inclined to call them blasphemous, if I were the kind of person who used that word (or even knew exactly what it meant.) Instead I’ll just call them irritating. One such tome is A.S. Gadot’s Tower of Babel, which is inexplicably set at a café, though one that can’t seem to decide whether it’s in modern times (lattes on the menu) or ancient times (“Someone suggested searching the internet, but the computer hadn’t been invented yet”) The people’s attempts to build a tower are thwarted by a thunderstorm, and suddenly, also inexplicably, they begin to speak different languages. While I do think some Torah stories can be successfully told without mentioning God, this one falls flat, losing any coherent narrative thread; the only really interesting part of the orignal story gets completely lost.

The stories of the Torah are incredibly rich, and it’s no wonder that authors, like myself, are inspired to try to turn them into great children’s literature. Just as we are cautious and humble about adapting Shakespeare and Bronte for the five year old set, kal v’chomer we should be extraordinarily careful about how we retell the stories of the Torah. It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy, either. 

Do you have any most- or least- favorite Torah stories for children? Please share them in the comments!



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Leah Weiss Caruso

posted July 29, 2010 at 10:08 am


I’m with you. Devorah Steinmaz was my teacher at JTS, and I am forever influenced by her (and Carol Ingall, the mother of not-mommy-blogger Marjorie :-)). To this day I refer to my notes and their teachings from those classes.



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Jendeis

posted July 29, 2010 at 10:36 am


Interesting points; I had never really thought about this before. You’re right though about the Charlton Heston thing, except with me, it’s an image from Torah Toons (a cartoon filmstrip of the week’s parshah that we watched in Hebrew School), where every time Hashem talked to someone, the person was shown in a phone booth with a big cloud overhead.



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Rachel K.

posted July 29, 2010 at 11:11 am


I realy like series by Jacqueline Jules, with beautiful illustrations by Natascia Ugliano:
Abraham’s Search for God
Sarah Laughed
Benjamin and the Silver Goblet
Miriam in the Desert
I also really like the series by Jean Marzollo because they work great as reader’s theater.
But I’m with you, Amy – I don’t understand why we need such an overabundance of Noah’s Ark picture books geared for the very young. I stopped reading them to my son because they inevitably led to questions that I didn’t want to deal with at age 3 or 4. If it rains for a really long time, will our house flood? Why did Noah only save two of each animal? What happened to all of the other animals? Why couldn’t God save them all? I also don’t want this bible story to be the basis for his understanding of God.
BUT, I have used the plethora of Noah’s Ark picture books (as well as creation stories) with older students (4th-6th grade) to help dive into the complexities of the story and introduce the concept of midrash.



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Tzipporah

posted July 29, 2010 at 2:26 pm


Wonderful points, and part of the reason I’m always disturbed when I hear that orthodox kids these days spend more time on Gemara than Tanakh. (Not to mention certain circles which treat Midrash as literal and think Rashi had no point of view)
Bad Cohen and I have been looking for ways to start our son’s real text-based Jewish education, besides just home rituals, and you’re inspiring me to think about ways to incorporate the actual parsha into our Shabbat.



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phyllis

posted July 29, 2010 at 2:41 pm


frankly, that noah story is not really for children at all – the whole WORLD is destroyed, for goodness’ sake! i know many educators who just leave that one out. it does seem so annoying to have a million books about it…
recently, i had a conversation with a bat mitzvah parent. Her child’s portion is part of the Joseph story and she was so excited. But she read only *part* of the parasha and only *part* of the accompanying commentary (she said, “well, I know the Joseph story so I didn’t read it all…oy vey). She wanted her daughter to talk about “keeping promises” – and I knew that commentary had come from the section of the parasha about Judah and Tamar. Now, I’m never one to censor what kids learn or read at their B’nai Mitzvah. But I had to tell the mom the story of Judah and Tamar so she would know what she was actually looking at – and she had NEVER heard it before.
I think that we do a disservice when the only stories we tell are the ones that make pretty picture books. There’s a lot to think about and learn about in Tamar’s tale…but we never read those stories until it’s maybe too late…



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Minnesota Mamaleh

posted July 29, 2010 at 3:30 pm


this was a really interesting post, amy. i’m always wary of telling the kids too much of *my* interpretation of things so as to not over-influence their thinking, but i never thought of books as doing too much of the same. food for thought, for sure!
incidentally, “nachshon” is one of chloe’s most favorite books. ever. we read it year round. i’m not exactly sure what she relates to the most– but there’s something about my free spirit child loving & adoring a book about breaking free of *something* that strikes me as a perfect fit!
thanks again for the ever-thoughtful post!



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Helaine Becker

posted July 30, 2010 at 1:38 am


I like using a set of coloring books, with my children about Noah, Jonah, Moses, Esther, and Ruth. It helps them “color” in their imagination while I try to answer their questions from Kushner’s When Children ask about G-d.



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Morah Mary

posted July 30, 2010 at 8:09 am


I tend to find that the books I think work best are those that engage adults as well; those that have vivid artwork (in color!); and those that ask questions or provide a different way of looking at things. Any of Sandy Sasso’s books meet those criteria.
I want books that open worlds for kids instead of narrowing their interpretations.
And yes, I love doing text study with young kids – they see much more in the texts than many of us adults do…. and often times they have less difficulty finding text-to-life relevance than we do. I think we just need to give them time to formulate their thoughts and do them the courtesy of asking them to explain further when we don’t “get it.”
Another great post, Amy! Thanks.



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MorahLaura

posted July 30, 2010 at 1:08 pm


We received a Pesach book from some well-meaning relatives (there are just as annoyingly many of those, many written in saccharine verse as well…oy) that did not mention God!!! The first time I read it I thought I had missed something. Subsequent readings found me inserting God at relevant spots (Hello? Plagues??). Then I “lost” that book.



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Christopher

posted July 30, 2010 at 11:14 pm


I love a good children’s book with great graphics that relates the narratives and poetic nature of the Tanakh. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find many. The text is where its at best. My mother is a Christian and she used to teach me and other kids Sunday School and used these little cut outs of figures that helped to tell the story. But the emphasis was on the speaker’s relating the story to us kids. Then I would usually tell the story back to her or my teacher as I got older. I found that most people don’t read their Bibles or know what the stories are about. Christians, evangelicals, and more observant Jews actually tend to know very little about the vast narrative features of the Tanakh. And that’s pretty sad to me. I just started reading in Bereshit a few weeks ago and now I just finished Kings Bet, and I’ve been amazed at the things I learn each time I read. Much of this reading has brought me closer to that time as a child when my interacting with the Holy Writ was the best feeling in the world and really the highest form of prayer of me. It felt like G-d was speaking through the story and you were being spoken to when you joined in the conversation. That’s what we need more of for both Jews and Christians. Stick to the text, but also create more Torah for Children. Shumel Blitz has some pretty good illustrated books for children you can get at Artscroll.com They might not be for everyone as they are pretty much from a strictly Orthodox stance, but they are great with a healthy mixture of illustrations and Text.
Thanks for the post, I can so easily relate to your feelings. I tell my Christian mother what you wrote, and I know she’ll agree as will my Sephardic background father.
Shalom, Chris- ‘Kalevi’



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Michelle

posted July 31, 2010 at 4:34 am


I agree with you completely regarding the Bible stories. We love the midrash stories that take the small detail and expand and explain it.



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Rena Rotenberg

posted August 6, 2010 at 8:30 am


A colleague and I co-authored, Torah Talk – An Early Childhood Teaching Guide – (Behrman House)in an attempt to assist teachers and parents in helping young children begin to love and understand some parts of the Bible. We began with Abraham and ended with the Exodus. With each story, the source is given, the story retold in language that children can understand. What is perhaps a unique feature of the book is that before each story, there are things that children should know in order to understand the story, i.e., how did people move from place to place, what kinds of homes did they have, etc.In addition, after each story, thoughtful questions are asked (no yes or no answers), as well as a variety of activities – art, music, drama, food, etc. that children can do to aid in the comprehension of the story.



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Madeleine Cohen Oakley

posted August 16, 2010 at 12:17 pm


Great article. One wonderful resource you don’t mention:
the series of adaptations of Torah stories by Alison Greengard. They’re all beautifullly illustrated by Carol Racklin-Siegel. An example: B’Reshit [printed in Hebrew]; In the Beginning. They include an excerpt, not changed, from the Torah in Hebrew and then in English. Published by EKS, Berkeley CA.



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Heidi Estrin

posted August 16, 2010 at 8:26 pm


I thought this was a great article when I first read it on Facebook, and I’m glad to see it again in the Jewish Book Carnival!



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Jew Wishes

posted August 17, 2010 at 2:42 pm


This is a great article, and one that gives the reader an issue to ponder.



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Books for young Children

posted November 11, 2010 at 11:11 am


Here is another great article, for children as well as adult their It’s beautifully Illustrated sure to help you and your little one to learn about bible….. Books for young Children.



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Bible Belt Balabusta

posted September 23, 2011 at 10:20 am


Great post and recommendations about a perennially perplexing issue. I second Madeline’s comment above about the good series published by EKS, written by Alison Greengard. They stick to a strictish translation of the Hebrew, but simplified. And the artwork is attractive, too.



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