In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Tot Shabbat

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Oh yes, The Golden Notebook was one of your gifts to me in high school -- the first book I ever felt compelled to write in, underlining lines which felt so deeply true that I couldn't help myself.  I reread it a couple of years ago as an adult, with my book club; it was fascinating to see what my 17-year-old self had found vital. There was more Doris Lessing too, the whole Martha Quest series, and before that lots and lots of children's books, some of which I still comes across with their inscriptions at my parents' place.  I was, and Eleanor and Isabel are, incredibly lucky to have you as our Book Aunt.

There is something wonderful about an unexpected gift, the ways in which a book can find you rather than you finding it, and then immediately become part of the fabric of your reading life.  So it is with It's Tot Shabbat!, by Naomi Danis, the book which has recently made Eleanor announce, more than once, "I wish I was Jewish."

It's Tot Shabbat! was a gift from my friend and colleague Sophie, who is Naomi Danis's daughter.  While we are not Jewish, we live in a neighborhood with a large Orthodox community, so we often have conversations about the banners advertising Purim celebrations (boy, did the idea of Purim make Eleanor want to be Jewish), and about Judaism in general (lots of yelling "Menorah!  Menorah!" every time we passed one in a window this winter; a few iterations of no, not all Jewish people wear black and white, though many of our neighbors do).  I've told Sophie some of these stories, and so when she went to her mom's book release party, she got my girls a copy.

It's Tot Shabbat! is the story of a group of preschoolers in the children's room of their synagogue on Shabbat morning.  The text is clear and simple; the photographs (by Tod Cohen) are joyful.  The kids greet each other, play with blocks and stuffed torahs, listen to the story of Noah's Ark and then pretend to be porcupines, build a child-sized Tower of Babel, dance and fall down, and finally have their Shabbat snack of challah and grape juice.  Finally, they enter the sanctuary and sing "Adon Olam" with the congregation.

The picture above gives you an idea of the feel of the book: inclusive, playful, full of life.  The kids are clearly having a good time.

The first time I sat down to read Tot Shabbat with Eleanor, she made me reread it three times in a row.  Granted, one of the major attractions for her is the opportunity to assess the dresses the girls are wearing ("I like that dress, and that dress, and that dress").  But I think part of it is the ritual as well.  The last page of the book contains a small glossary and the blessings to be said over wine and bread, written out in Hebrew letters, translated into phonetic spelling ("Baruch Atah Adonai"), and then translated into English.  Eleanor requests that I read the blessings in both languages every time we read the book.

A last anecdote: Sophie tells me that the working title for the book was "Don't Eat Yet, Don't Drink Yet!", which is what her mom used to say to her and her siblings to keep them from reaching for the challah before the blessings.  

Shabbat Shalom!

Love, Annie

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