Two picture books recently released by Kalaniot Books exemplify the publisher’s mission “to help young children and their families explore the diverse mosaic of Jewish culture and history.”
On the face of it, The Very Best Sukkah: A Story From Uganda by Shoshana Nambi and illustrator Moran Yogev may not seem to have much in common with Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up by Chana and Larry Stiefel and illustrator Daphna Awadish. But both charming publications explore the themes of inclusion via the experiences of their youthful protagonists.
The Very Best Sukkah centres around Shoshi, who likes to win any challenge, even when there’s none put forward. For example, despite her brother Avram’s plea for her to wait up, she makes sure to beat the other children to school – again. Shoshi shares, “My grandmother is always reminding me that life is not a competition. ‘Jajja,’ I tell her, ‘it’s not like I always have to win the race. I just like being at the front. The view is better there!’”
Shoshi and her brothers live with their “grandparents in a little house surrounded by coffee trees in the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda.” Shoshi races home on Friday nights to help her jajja make the holiday meal, in particular the kalo bread – it’s her job to mix the cassava and millet flour for the dough. The family then walks to synagogue, where the rabbi reminds the kids that their favourite holiday is coming up: Sukkot. The siblings start planning how they will make the best sukkah in the village.
Every family’s sukkah is different, “and each one reflects its builder’s special skills and talents.” For the most part, the differences are respected, but there is jealousy that Daudi, who sells samosas in the village, has enough money saved to buy “fancy battery-operated lights and elegant crochet trim in the big town of Mbale to decorate his sukkah.”
Life has a way of making playing fields level, however, and unfortunate weather one night causes mayhem, even for Daudi and his daughter, especially for Daudi, whose sukkah is destroyed. But the villagers rally around him and, in the end, the most beautiful sukkah is the one to which everyone contributes. A wonderful message, well delivered and boldly and colourfully drawn.
The Very Best Sukkah has a page about the Abayudaya, a glossary of terms and the lyrics of “Hinei Ma Tov” in Hebrew, Luganda and English: “See how good and pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to sit down together.”
Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up also features something getting wrecked. In this story, it’s a crashed-up Mitzvah Mobile rather than windblown sukkot. And, whereas it’s nature that destroys Daudi’s sukkah, it’s Mendel who doesn’t notice the bridge that’s so low as to crumple the large chanukiyah on the Mitzvah Mobile’s roof.
Anyone who knew Mendel could have predicted such an outcome when the rabbi asked him to drive the vehicle, as Mendel has a long history of mishaps, including having accidentally left a tray of jelly doughnuts on the rabbi’s chair. “Splat! ‘Oy, Mendel.’”
The unique nature of the vehicle and the accident draw a TV news team to the scene.
“‘What’s the story here?’ asked Rachel, the reporter.
“‘Um, well…’ Mendel’s words mushed like applesauce. ‘I blew it again,’ he sighed.
“Then Mendel thought of the lessons Rabbi Klein taught him. He stood up taller, like the shamash – the special Hanukkah candle that lights all of the others.
“As Mendel faced the camera, his words began to flow like silky sour cream.
“‘Hanukkah shows us the power of every person to make a difference. To rise up like the Jewish soldier Judah Maccabee fighting the mighty Greeks,’” he told Rachel. ‘If a tiny flask of oil can light up a menorah for eight days, we each have a spark to light up the world.’”
Mendel manages to turn his mistake into a win – spreading the story and joy of Hanukkah. It’s a fun story, with illustrations that are imaginative, engaging and detailed.
Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up ends with the story of Hanukkah and a glossary, instructions on how to play dreidel, the words to “Oh, Hanukkah” and a recipe for potato latkes, meant to be used by the young readers and their chosen adult.
For more information on these and other books, visit kalaniotbooks.com.