Children’s books from local Jewish authors educate and delight – J.
When San Francisco dietitian and chef Micah Siva searched last summer for a Jewish counting book for her new niece, she was disappointed with the choices. So Siva, who writes a food column for J., and her husband Josh, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, decided to write and publish it themselves.
“1, 2, 3, eat with me” (30 pages, for children under 5) teaches counting with traditional holiday foods, including matzah balls, sufganiyot and hamantaschen. (Sivas’ dog, Buckwheat, also makes an appearance in the book, which was illustrated by artist Sviatoslav Franko, who lives in Ukraine.)
“I grew up in an Ashkenazi family and my husband grew up in a Sephardi family, so the main decision we had to make [for the book] was what cuisine did we want to lean towards,” Micah Siva, 30, told J. “We chose Ashkenazi cuisine because it was my personal experience growing up.
Siva, from Calgary, Canada, said she was surprised at the number of non-Jewish parents who bought the book to diversify their children’s bookshelves. “I’ve had people message me on Instagram asking me how to pronounce the words,” she said. “The more we can show Jewish joy and enthusiasm around Judaism these days, to both Jews and non-Jews alike, the better.” (Siva will read the book at the JCC in San Francisco on September 17, and she will lead a challah baking class at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette on September 18.)
Another new children’s book about food, “Just try a bite” (Dial Books, 40 pages, ages 4-8), is a clever role-reversal story about exceptionally health-conscious children who stage an intervention with their junk-eating parents. Kids try to bribe adults to try broccoli, kale, quinoa and other whole foods – “not fast food but slow food”.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that one of the authors is Berkeley resident Adam Mansbach, who is best known for his secular children’s books that are actually meant for adults. This is a true kid-friendly book, featuring an adorable multiracial family illustrated by Mike Boldt.
Mansbach co-wrote “Just Try One Bite” with healthy eating advocate Camila Alves McConaughey, who came up with the role reversal idea. “I was driven to find a fun way to do it and make the words rhyme,” Mansbach wrote in an email to J. Humor cheat code, at least in my house — and also be inspired to move past the kinds of dead ends we all have and into more fruitful (and vegetal) territory.
Two phenomenal Jewish women in history get their due in new non-fiction biographies.
Bonnie Lindauer recounts the life of the founder of the National Council of Jewish Women in “Hannah G. Solomon dared to make a difference” (Kar-Ben, 32 pages, 5-9 years old). Born to German immigrant parents in Chicago in 1858, Solomon lived through the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 – which is dramatically illustrated by Sofia Moore – and organized events for Jewish women at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.
As the first president of the NCJW, she worked to improve the lives of immigrants and children by campaigning for safer housing, free preschools, and public playgrounds. She also pushed for vocational training for women and was involved in the women’s suffrage movement, alongside her friend Susan B. Anthony.
“[She did] all this while she was still a devoted mother and wife,” Lindauer, a San Francisco resident and member of the Am Tikvah congregation, said during a virtual Jewish Community Library event in December. “Indeed, like some women of her time, she helped transform the Jewish mother from a quiet caretaker of the home into a woman who could be deeply engaged in her family life and also make important contributions to society.
“The Woman Who Split the Atom: The Life of Lise Meitner” (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 264 pages, ages 10-14) is about a Vienna-born physicist who worked with Albert Einstein and discovered nuclear fission with Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in 1938 – shortly after fleeing the Nazis and settle in Sweden. Yet only Hahn received the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this discovery. It’s an injustice that Marissa Moss of San Francisco brings to light in this captivating book, which includes Moss’s own illustrations at the start of each chapter.
A prolific author of children’s books, best known for the “Amelia’s Notebook” series, Moss told J. she heard about Meitner from her son, who is studying astrophysics in college. “I fell in love with her,” Moss said. “She was born at a time when women in Austria couldn’t even go to high school, and yet she crowded into high school and went to college when the law changed. She was so determined to study science, what women didn’t do. She just had a strength of courage and conviction that I find inspiring.
What did Meitner think of his unwitting contribution to the creation of nuclear weapons? “She was very clear that she never wanted this to be used for weapons,” Moss said, noting that Meitner refused to collaborate on the Manhattan Project. “After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she explained that it was her duty to make sure it didn’t happen again.”
Finally, for young readers with a passion for the supernatural, there’s plenty to savor in two Kabbalah-inspired picture books.
“Malkah’s Notebook: A Journey into the Mystical Aleph-Bet” (The Collective Book Studio, 312 pages. all ages) follows a young girl in an ancient city as she learns the Hebrew alphabet and explores the secret meanings behind the letters – first with the help of her father, then , as it grows, on its own. Author Mira Z. Amiras, an anthropologist who retired from San Jose State University in 2012, draws on sources as diverse as the Zohar and archaeological reports of ancient deities from the Near East.
San Francisco resident Amiras told J. that the father figure was inspired by her own father, Seymour Fromer, who founded the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley and gave her her first book of art. alef-bet. “I still have it, and to tell the truth, I think it’s shaped my whole life,” she said. “I wouldn’t have said it then, but what I learned is that the alef-bet is animist, meaning every letter is alive.”
“Malkah’s Notebook” features stunningly beautiful illustrations by Israel-based sofer and artist Josh Baum. A companion animated film, “The Day Before Creation”, can be streamed for free online. (Amiras will discuss and read the book on August 28 at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley.)
At David Fankushen’s “My grandfather has superpowers” (Fulton Books, 28 pages, ages 5-9), a San Francisco grandfather gains mystical powers through his study of Kabbalah. He uses these powers to help his grandchildren overcome the challenges in their lives.
He helps one find his stolen bike by casting a spell on the thief, and he helps another win a basketball game by fashioning a new golem teammate out of the mud of Lake Merced.
“I’ve always loved making up stories for my own grandchildren,” said Fankushen, a retired physician and former chairman of the board of directors of Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley. “I wrote this book as fun reading for children who have similar issues in their lives, and to teach several aspects of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalistic history.