Sunday, December 11, 2016

Children's Books and Coffee

Yes, two of my favorite things, but today, I got to share them with local author Leah Chana Rubabshi, who graciously answered my questions:

Your most recent book, Who Is the King? (Feldheim 2016) is based on a Midrash, which is based on a verse in Proverbs: "Death and Life are in the power of the tongue" (18:21). How did you choose this story?

I wanted to write about the importance of Shmirat HaLashon (literally "guarding the tongue"), and I wanted to write about the subject in a way in which kids could connect.  In the story, the King of Persia is sick, and the only cure is lion's milk. A brave soul brings back the milk, but then he misspeaks and ends up in jail. Fortunately, he is able to correct the situation, and all ends happily -- the evident moral that we have to be very careful what we say.

One of the things I enjoy about writing for the Orthodox children's market is that it gives me an opportunity to tell a Jewish story or teach about Jewish values in a way that is enjoyable and fun.

The Hidden Artist (Hachai, 2014) captures a child's sense of curiosity and wonder about the world around him. Through the text and the beautiful illustrations (by Phyllis Saroff), the boy realizes that Hashem (God) is "behind it all." 

A Rainbow World (Feldheim, 2014) starts with black and white illustrations and as the story progresses, the pages become more colorful. While the book is about color, the main theme is appreciation of the vibrant world that God created. 

A Kosher Fish Tale (Menucha, 2014) started as a song with a repeating refrain, and is a great way to learn about which fish are kosher. 

Your books are in rhyme, and they are really good rhymes in terms of meter and the ease of flow. What is your process?

First of all, I am a perfectionist in terms of meter and rhyme. If editors want to change things, I ask them to let me revise it so the verses keep their meter and flow. In terms of writing, I start with an idea, and I try to see it through to its ending. At this point in the process, the title also comes into play. After that, I "do my work" in terms of developing the arc of the story and constructing the verse. Who Is the King? was much easier to write than my previous books because the Midrash was already there, and it's a great story.

I've always been drawn to poems and songs as a way to teach children. The rhymes and the repetition makes it easier to children to remember the story and the lesson.

What else is in the works?
I'm working on a book about feelings.  I was deeply affected by the Har Nof Massacre [an attack on a Jerusalem synagogue in November 2014 where 5 worshipers and a policeman were brutally killed by ax-wielding terrorists], and it struck me that as hard as it was for me for process this event, it must have been much harder for children, so I wanted to create something to help children deal with trauma. This is not the focus of the book: it is going to be about all kinds of feelings, so while it does talk about being sad, it is also about being happy.

Thank you Leah Chana. Maybe you could write about the latest "Real Cat of Israel:" originally this fluffy, friendly cat was named "Creamsicle," but after seeing him fight with the other toms, he is now known as "Rocco."

Happy Reading!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Parsha Treats

In order to learn a little more about the weekly Torah portion and to enhance the Shabbat table, I try to make a "parsha treat" every week.  Some weeks it's very easy:  for Parshas Noach, anything rainbow works. Parshas Ki Teitzei includes the mitzvah of Shliuach Haken - sending the mother bird away from the nest before you take the young birds or eggs (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). We've made birds' nests and eggs out of Chinese noodles and rice cereal (with jelly beans for the eggs) and out of grated potatoes and spaghetti (with mini-meatballs for the eggs). Parshas Baha'aloscha offers a whole meal, as the Israelites complain because they miss the foods they ate in Egypt: meat, fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic (Numbers 11:4-5).  Other weeks are more challenging, and we sometimes have to look at the commentaries or possibly use a reference from the haftarah.

For example, in Parshat Vayeishev, Joseph's borthers cast him into a pit. "The pit was empty, no water was in it." (Genesis 37: 24). Rashi notes that if there was no water in the pit, there were serpents and scorpions in it (Shabbos 22a).  The verse and commentary inspired a "Joseph in the Pit Cake:"

I try to make things that are kid-friendly -- both in the preparation and the eating.  We often take the very easy way out: whenever the Torah mentions the cloud that accompanied the Israelites as they traveled through the wilderness, we have "Pudding in a Cloud," which is a bowl of whipped cream with chocolate pudding in the middle.

For those with more gourmet taste, or who want to use new ideas, two recent books have been helpful with this weekly challenge:

A Taste of Torah by Aviv Harkov (Gefen Publishing, 2016) provides not only recipes, but Divrei Torah and stories. Yes, there is a Chicken and Red Lentil Stew for Parsha Toldot and some Black and White Cookies, symbolizing separation, for Parsha Bereishit. Many of Harkov's recipes are for a more sophisticated palate:  Shepherdess Pie made with sweet potatoes and sweet and savory spices (for Parshat Vayetizei, which mentions that Rachel was a shepherdess); Salmon, Asparagus and Roasted Pepper Salad with Sun-Dried Tomato Vinaigrette (for Parshat Shemini, which discusses which fish are kosher); and "Toads in the Hole" for Parshat Shemot. I can't figure how some recipes relate to the Parsha: Thai Chicken with Fried Rice for Parshat Tsav; Deli Roll for Parshat Tetzaveh, but they look very appetizing in the color photographs and will definitely enhance the Shabbat table.

A modified version of the recipes and commentary in Rena Rossner's Eating the Bible (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013) originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post. She started this ambitious project the way many of us do: serving red lentil soup or stew for Parshas Toldot (when Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for "that red red stuff"). "The ability to bring the Bible alive in such a tactile way" motivated her. Rossner's book has more universal appeal, as she refers to "the Bible" and "the Old Testament," and although the recipes correspond to the weekly Torah reading, just the verse or verses that inspired the recipe are noted, not the name of the parsha. As is the current trend in cookbooks, it is not just ingredients and directions. With each recipe is "serious consideration of biblical texts." Rossner also provides alternatives that "provide either child-friendly ideas to make alongside the recipe of jumping-off points for your own recipes."Simple questions for discussion at the meal are also included.

Recipes included Red Lentil Soup, a technicolor salad for the week we read about Joseph's coat of many colors, Woven Tapestry Bread for the week we read about the items made for the Tabernacle, "Cat's Got Your Tongue Cookies" for the parsha that includes the commandment against gossiping, and Cucumber and Melon Gazpacho for Parshas Baha'aloscha, when the Israelites were complaining because they missed all the foods they ate in Egypt. The only week I found puzzling was Parshat Eikev, which specifically mentions wheat, barley, grape, fig, pomegranate, olives and date honey (Deuteronomy 8:7-8), when I make a fruit salad. Rossner chooses the next verse, which mentions that the stones are iron, and opts for a hearty "Iron-Rich Black Bean Soup."

There are also quite a few websites that provide ideas and inspiration:

Parsha Desserts

on Pinterest - Parsha treats/ideas and Parsha food

Parsha Project Resouces of Organized Jewish Home

Challah Crumbs

Bible Belt Balabusta - no parsha treats, but some great ideas (Jo's amazing creativity and sense of humor inspired us to add Lego and Fisher Price to our treats. Sonya Lee, one of the Little People, has portrayed Rivka and Miriam)

Happy Reading (and eating)!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Elul 5776: Blessings and Gifts

Elul is the time in the Jewish calendar when we reflect on the past year and look to where we can improve in the coming year. For this year's Elul reading list, I concentrated on appreciating all the blessings and gifts bestowed upon us by God:

Miriam Adahan points out that It's All a Gift (Though It May Not Seem Like It at First Glance)(Feldheim, 1992). This volume is packed with insights for realizing the gifts we receive, even if they come in the form of opportunities or challenges, are truly for our benefit. One of the most important points is that you cannot be passive in this process. "There is no pill, blessing, charm, herb, therapist, rabbi or doctor that can give you maturity, strength of will, depth of understanding, a loving heart or a hard-working nature. It is your work, and yours alone, day after day, to overcome patterns of negativity which have been programmed into your mind and muscles" (page 326).

Wendy Mogel's The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (Scribner, 2001) is one of the most popular books in the Jewish parenting section of the library. Combining her education and experience in psychology with Jewish wisdom, she showed readers how to instill values and model behavior. Drawing again on her personal experience, Mogel's The Blessing of a B Minus (Scriber, 2010) givesus more of that common sense and steers parents through the teenage years, which are trying for both parent and young adult. As a parent of adolescents, besides validating my challenges and explaining why it is important for kids to experience failure and pitfalls, the chapter on "The Courage to Let Them Go" was particularly helpful.

In Moe Mernick's The Gift of Stuttering (Mosaica Press, 2016), he chronicles his challenges with fluency. Besides speech therapy and relaxation techniques, he also explored spirituality, realizing that God had given him this specific challenge for a reason. Seeing that another famous Moshe also had issues with speech, Mernick flourished when he realized that stuttering was just a small part of a total package. "After becoming comfortable with who we are, we begin to exude a healthy dose of self-confidence -- whether while on a date or at a business meeting or social gathering. People are attracted to that. After all, if we accept ourselves, it only follows that others will accept us too." Mernick is a successful businessman and educator.

On May 8, 2001, 13-year-old Koby Mandell and Yosef Ish-Ran were brutally murdered by Arab terrorists in a wadi a short distance from their home in Tekoa (they had to be identified by their dental records). I cannot imagine how a mother can cope with a loss of this magnitude. Sherri Mandell's The Blessing of a Broken Heart (Toby Press, 2003) was a 2004 National Jewish Book Award Winner. In it, she tells how she dealt with this tragedy and how it changed her. Instead of wallowing in sadness and anger, the family established a foundation that includes a camp for bereaved children and orphans whose parents or siblings have been killed by terrorists; women's healing retreats where groups and widows and bereaved mothers can attend workshops and take a break; family healing retreats, and other therapeutic sessions. A fundraiser for these activities is "Comedy for Koby," where the audience is entertained by a variety of comedians.

While many aspects of the book were very sad, there was also a beauty in embracing the sadness and moving past it:

"When you touch broken hearts together, a new heart emerges, one that is more open and compassionate, able to touch others, a heart that seeks God. That is the blessing of a broken heart."

"Pain is like carrying a heavy barbell in your backpack. You can't go as freely as you used to. But the more you carry it, the stronger you get."

Although not a Jewish book, The Gentle Art of Blessing by Pierre Pradervand (Atria, 2009) shows
"that the practice of blessing has the power to unleash tangible benefits into every aspect of your life." He draws on many traditions and shows how the practice of blessing can shift your attitudes and outlook. The chapters explore ideas like positive expectations, unconditional love and universal harmony, and at the end of each chapter are some questions for thought. While much of the book centers on a rather broad interpretation of tikkun olam, Pradervand also reminds us to be loving and forgiving with yourselves with the words of Zephaniah: "The Lord thy God is in your midst, the Mighty One Who will save. He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will be silent with His love; He will be joyful over you with glad song" (3:17).

Wishing you a year filled with blessing and gifts and the discernment to appreciate them ALL.

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Positively Israel

Librarians and teachers are always looking for resources about Israel that are educational but also fun. While I usually shy away from straight promotion, I recently met two entrepreneurial ladies who sensed a need in the community and are filling it.

I met Miriam Lottner at a local mega-mall (a variety of vendors rent tables at a local hall and the community can find all kinds of gift items, housewares, services, etc.). She is the driving force of the new and innovative game Reveal Israel. The game was created by five mothers, who met through a mother's networking group, who decided that their kids should be playing Jewish games and learning to love Israel in the process. The amazing thing is that in the deck of playing cards there are more than 70 locations in Israel (photographed by Miriam) that "reveal" the history, geography and culture of the area. One feature I love is that there is a map on every card that shows where the site is located in Israel.

It is three games in one: a matching game similar to Spot It! but all the symbols have to do with Israel; a quiz game with questions and answers, and a spin game to challenge older players. While the target age is six to twelve, the game has fans ranging in age from three to 90, as it is easy to play and compact enough to bring wherever you go. 

The game has been so well received that many more are in the works: Reveal Chai - an exploration of Jewish Life, Holidays and Customs; Reveal Jerusalem - celebrating 50 years since the reunification of the city; and other locations including Florida and New York City.

The game comes in both English and Hebrew and is available at their website. You can also contact them if you are interested in creating a deck for your city or state.

The goal of String Bridge Kids is to help kids connect to their Jewish heritage and tradition through creative expression. Leah and Yossi Karp are originally from Melbourne, Australia. They and their six kids currently live in Israel.  They formed String Bridge to give young people a creative outlet and tactile experience while learning about Israel.

Named after the iconic modern landmark at the entrance to Jerusalem, the company currently offers a choice of two different boxes of craft projects:

Hello Jerusalem! includes three great projects: a shopping bag stamped with a design of the domed buildings of the city, a mezuzah, and a Jerusalem scene with the String Bridge.

Hello Teva! introduces young crafters to the sight and sounds of the rest of Israel with a decoupage vase, a model of the Sorek Stalactite Cave and a panorama of kayaking on the Dan River.

"Every craft (3 per box) comes with instructions to do the craft, as well as "5 Fun Facts" about the craft." For the mezuzah, for example, the Karps interviewed a sofer stam and contacted mezuzah artist Ester Shahaf. For the String Bridge craft, a map of the light rail, translated from Hebrew to English especially for String Bridge is included.  "We make sure to give a page of interesting information, pictures, websites or maps on every craft."

The boxes are most appropriate for those aged six to twelve, but younger kids (and adults) will also enjoy making the projects. The boxes are sent directly to the child, and he or she will also receive a card on their birthday. String Bridge also has an affiliate program and the boxes are available as fundraisers for your organization.

And there are more on the way! Get Festive! is a six-pack of boxes featuring the major Jewish holidays, and different themes including art and the Seven Species are also in the works.

In the summer heat of Israel, the real cats are looking for shade:


Thursday, May 26, 2016

2016 JWWS

Once again, Tamar Ansh and Esther Heller put together a packed day for the Jerusalem Women Writers' Seminar. Again, a beautiful relaxation corner sponsored by Menucha Publishers with those delicious little bite-sized pastries and an assortment of teas and coffee. Again, some nice swag from Israel Bookshop. What is amazing is that the program was filled with lively speakers and interesting information and very different from last year. After a Dvar Torah by Esther Leah Avner, an "experienced" author and educator, Shifrah Devorah Witt talked about "Making the Most Out of Your Writing Time!" Her suggestions are applicable to anyone who works at home: focus - no laundry, no checking Facebook (and then wasting an hour), setting boundaries with family.

Next were Yael Mermelstein, Sarah Shapiro and Shoshana Schwartz. While Yael suggested adding tags and beats, Shoshana suggested getting rid of the tags and the beats. Sarah Shapiro asked "Is There Such a Thing as Non-fiction?" Three different authors, three different styles, three different processes.

My favorite speaker of the day was Sherri Mandell, author of The Blessing of a Broken Heart, a 2004 National Jewish Book Award Winner. After reading this one, I felt like I knew her because she shared her most intimate thoughts and feelings after the murder of her son Koby and his friend Yosef Ish-Ran in 2001. Sherri discussed her new book The Road to Resilience (Toby Press, 2016) and how to apply the "Seven C's" to keep writing well.  A witty and engaging speaker, she described the "pavement" of Chase, Community, Choice, Creativity, Commemoration, Consecration, and Celebration.  These are all augmented by Curiosity. Through these steps, almost any journey, especially grief and writing, can become almost spiritual and expand you.

There was a Meet the Press Panel with questions and answers for those interested in submitting their work to the weekly Jewish magazines and newspapers.

For those who could not be there in person, these sessions were videotaped and are available (for a fee) through Torah Anytime.

Chana Levitan spoke about how she "accidentally wrote a best-selling book" (I Only Want to Get Married Once, Gefen (2010) and Grand Central Life and Style (2013)).

Over lunch, I got to talk with some of the "celebrities" of Orthodox Publishing: Yaffa Ganz, Libi Astaire and Chaya Baila Lieber.  I also had the pleasure of presenting Miriam Zakon with a certificate for her Sydney Taylor Notable Book, Floating Minyan of Pirates' Cove (Judaica Press, 1986). Yes, the book was recognized 30 years ago, but there was no internet and no cell phones, so Miriam was never notified about the honor. Our little ceremony also gave me a chance to look at Miriam Stark Zakon's extensive back list of books authored and/or edited. I'm hoping to be able to present some more certificates to Miriam (and Yaffa, Libi and Chaya Baila) in the next 30 years!

Between the topics and presenters it was hard to choose which workshops to attend. I learned a lot in Avigail Sharer's "Step Back in Time: How to Bring the Past to Life in Your Fiction." Sharer writes under the pen name Leah Gebber, and has many fans due to her articles and stories that are published in Mispacha Magazine - particularly Sisters Under Siege. Sharer handed out pictures of artifacts - coins, articles of clothing, etc., and asked the participants to think of five questions about the item. Then, we were asked to take one question and try to answer it. Much like "Ode to a Grecian Urn," a whole story can develop by looking at an object.

I picked up a very important book -- Healing from the Break (Menucha Publishers, 2016). While there are many volumes in your local Jewish bookstore about trying to repair a relationship or the laws (halacha) of divorce, there is nothing available that provides "stories, inspiration and guidance for anyone touched by divorce." Insightful and sensitive, the book looks at a challenging situation from many perspectives. Healing from the Break is the "frum divorce blog" and includes articles and resources.

As I left the seminar, I was blessed with that beautiful interplay of sun and clouds that seems to make Jerusalem glow.