10 Books for the Jewish Fall Holidays by Stacey Shubitz
Some people think Chanukah is the most important Jewish holiday since it is typically celebrated in December. Many Jewish children deem it significant since they receive presents, often one on each of Chanukah’s eight nights, on this holiday. Now that I’m a fully-grown person (who doesn’t give or receive gifts on every night of Chanukah), I have come to realize it is significant, but more minor in comparison to the Jewish fall holidays.
The Jewish New Year begins with Rosh Hashanah, which is the beginning of a ten-day period when Jews reflect on the year that has passed, examine their lives, and repent for sins they’ve committed knowingly and unknowingly. This ten-day period is known as Yamim Noraim – or high holidays – and includes many hours in a synagogue praying and reflecting. The ten-day period ends with Yom Kippur – or the Day of Atonement – which is the most somber holiday of the year. For 25 hours, Jews abstain from food and drink as a way to put aside their physical desires in an effort to engage in self-examination, prayer, and repentance.
A few days after Yom Kippur concludes, the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot arrives. In Hebrew, Sukkot means huts or booths, which is significant since Jews are supposed to erect and dwell in a sukkah – a small, temporary hut – for the week-long festival. By dwell, I mean dine, entertain, and sleep in their sukkah!
The holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah come at the end of Sukkot. Israeli Jews celebrate both festivals on one day, but Jews in the Diaspora – people who live outside of Israel – celebrate these holidays on two separate days. Shemini Artzeret – or the assembly of the eighth day – is its own holiday even though it falls on the final day of Sukkot. As a result, there are multiple interpretations on the meaning of this holiday. I’ve come to understand that G-d invites all humans to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, but once the holiday is over, G-d invites Jews to stay for an extra day in what is a smaller celebration. (For instance, dwelling in the sukkah is more limited.) Simchat Torah – or rejoicing in the Torah – is the finally fall holiday. On Simchat Torah, Jews read the concluding section of Deuteronomy and immediately read the opening section of Genesis. During Simchat Torah, Jews dance around the synagogue seven times with the Torah scrolls.
The fall holidays span three weeks. As a Jewish adult, I do a lot of writing, using 10Q (LINK TO: https://www.doyou10q.com/faq) to reflect on the year that has passed and to think about the year ahead. As a Jewish parent, I spend the weeks leading up to the fall holidays playing holiday music in the car and reading books about each of the holidays. I’ve found reading books is one of the best ways to help my six-and-a-half year-old think about all of the fall holidays since there are five in such a short amount of time! Here are ten favorite picture books I’ll be sharing with my daughter this year.
Even Higher: A Rosh Hashanah Story by I.L. Peretz Adapted by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrations by Jill Weber (Holiday House, 2009)
The people of Nemirov wonder where their rabbi disappears to in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Many people think the Rabbi flies up to heaven to speak to G-d. However, that’s not enough for one skeptical man who spies on the rabbi during his annual mission. The man discovers a miracle the rabbi is able to produce for a feeble old woman he visits. On the surface the book seems to be about miracles, but it’s really about compassion and everyday kindness.
The Shofar Must Go On… by Lina Schwarz and illustrations by Yong Chen (Harold Grinspoon Foundation, 2016)
Every year, the shofar – or hollowed-out ram’s horn – is sounded on Rosh Hashanah in synagogue in an attempt to awaken the Jewish people. Anyone who has tried to blow into a shofar knows it is hard to make the blast sound meaningful. Therefore, when Harry’s father, who is his synagogue’s shofar blower, falls sick, someone has to step up to blow Shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Harry’s mother, a professional trumpet player, she saves the day by blowing shofar for the congregation. Readers come away learning about the shofar and the importance of being an active part in a religious community.
What’s the Buzz? Honey for a Sweet New Year by Allison Ofanansky and photographs by Eliyahu Alpern (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2011)
Jews eat apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah to symbolize a sweet new year. While most people go to the store to buy a jar of honey, a lot of work goes into making that small jar. In this book, readers accompany an elementary school class on a field trip to a bee farm who learns how honey is made. The book teaches about the work that goes into making honey, but also about bringing food to a sick friend, and “ringing in the new year” with family.
Talia and the Very Yum Kippur by Linda Elovitz Marshall and illustrations by Francesca Assirelli (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2016)
Talia misunderstands what her grandmother often tells her. As a result, she thinks she’s preparing a Yum Kippur Breakfast, rather than a Yom Kippur Break-fast (which is when Jews gather – often at someone’s home – to dine after fasting for 25 hours). Talia’s day passes slowly as she plays while most of the adults in her life are in synagogue. Thus, she misunderstands why her grandmother told her it was a “fast” day. Once her grandmother explains the reason Jews fast on Yom Kippur, Talia repents for a few things she’s done wrong in the past year. Her grandmother accepts her apology and in the end, Talia has a basic understanding behind the significance of Yom Kippur, which is exactly what young readers will come away with after reading this book.
A Watermelon in the Sukkah by Sylvia A. Rouss and Shannan Rouss and illustrations by Anna Iosa (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2013)
Miss Sharon asks her students to bring their favorite fruit to school so they can decorate the sukkah with them. However, when one student brings a watermelon, the class is challenged to find a way to hang it from the sukkah’s wooden roof beams. After many tries and failures with his friends, Michael realizes a watermelon might be too big to hang in the sukkah. Eventually, Michael invents a way to successfully hang his watermelon so it can join the bananas, oranges, and pears already hanging in the sukkah. Not only is this a book about sukkah decoration, but it’s also about not giving up, even when something seems impossible.
Sadie’s Sukkah Breakfast by Jamie Korngold and illustrations by Julie Fortenberry (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2011)
Sadie and her little brother, Ori, wake up eager to dwell in their backyard sukkah. The duo decide to eat breakfast in the Sukkah together. Once they bring all of the breakfast items out to their sukkah, Sadie realizes they didn’t fulfill one of the basic tenets of Sukkot: inviting others to dine in the sukkah with them. Ori reminds her it’s too early to wake their family, so Sadie solves the problem by bringing their stuffed animals to sit at the table and enjoy a meal in the sukkah. This book serves a sweet reminder to little ones about the importance of entertaining friends and family in the sukkah during this harvest festival.
Shanghai Sukkah by Heidi Smith Hyde and illustrations by Jing Jing Tsong (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2015)
This book transports readers to Shanghai alongside Marcus whose family immigrated to China as a way to escape the unsafe conditions in Germany in the late 1930’s. Marcus is homesick for his friends and family. His longing for home grows as Sukkot draws closer since he is unsure of where his family will build a sukkah because they’re crammed into a small apartment with other families. Liang, Marcus’s new friend, works with some boys from the local yeshiva to help Marcus build a sukkah on his building’s rooftop. However, the sukkah looks plain since it’s devoid of the edible décor. Therefore, Liang surprises Marcus and his family by decorating the sukkah with paper lanterns from the Moon Festival he celebrates. Not only do the decorations make the sukkah more beautiful, but they help Marcus, and young readers, realize having a good friend is one of the most important things you can have.
The Best Sukkot Pumpkin Ever written by Laya Steinberg and illustrations by Colleen Madden (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2017)
Micah and his family visit the local pumpkin patch with their synagogue. Farmer Jared asks the congregants for help picking pumpkins that will be sent to the local soup kitchen. In exchange for their help, Farmer Jared promises each person a free pumpkin to take home. When Micah finds a huge pumpkin, he thinks that’s the one he’ll take home. However, Micah has a change of heart and realizes the large pumpkin can do more good if he donates it to feed the hungry. In the end, Micah finds some pumpkin seeds and decides that the perfect pumpkin will be one he grows at home for use in his sukkah in the future. The book ends with a list of suggestions for young readers to do with their families so they can engage in tikkun olam – or repairing the world.
Maya Prays for Rain by Susan Tarcov and illustrations by Ana Ochoa (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2016)
Maya travels through her neighborhood and chats with her neighbors who are enjoying a beautiful fall day. When Maya’s friend Wendy tells her she’s too sick to attend synagogue on Shemini Atzeret to say the prayer for rain, Maya freaks out! She tries to warn her neighbors to change their outdoor plans since everyone will be praying for rain in synagogue later that day. After Maya attempts to warn everyone about the impending rain storm, she chats with her Rabbi and asks him not to pray for rain. The rabbi explains Jews are praying for it to rain in Israel, not where they live, since Shemini Atzeret marks the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. A relieved Maya comes to understand the Jewish people pray for rain as a way for showing their love towards Israel. As a result, this book is the perfect text for any child who has ever wondered what Shemini Atzeret is or has ever pondered the significance of the line “Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall” in the Amidah from Shemini Atzeret until Passover.
Sammy Spider’s First Simchat Torah by Sylvia A. Rouss and illustrations by Katherine Janus Kahn (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2010)
Young Jewish children know and love Sammy Spider who learns about Judaism by secretly participating in the Shapiro Family’s Jewish customs, celebrations, and experiences. In this book, Sammy picks up on Josh’s excitement about Simchat Torah as he brings home a Torah scroll and Israeli flag from school. Therefore, Sammy sticks himself to Josh’s candy apple so he can secretly celebrate Simchat Torah at synagogue. Children will understand the significance of this holiday which encourages to read the Torah again and again.
I grew up outside of New York City in the 1980’s. As an adult, I can only recall one book, A Carp in the Bathtub by Barbara Cohen, which featured Jewish kids celebrating the holiday of Passover. I’m sure there were other books about the Jewish holidays, but I don’t remember any of them. Decades later, today’s Jewish parents are fortunate enough to have a variety of books they can turn to in order to teach their children about all of the holidays. How lucky we are to be living in a time when publishers feature the Jewish experience on the pages of picture books!
Stacey Shubitz is an independent literacy consultant, an adjunct professor, and a former elementary school teacher. She’s the author Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts and the co-author of Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice. She blogs at Two Writing Teachers and can be found on Twitter @sshubitz.
Thanks for this great list! As a Gentile bookseller, I’m always looking for good Jewish stories. Love these recommendations!
Thank you, Susie! I’m delighted to know this list was helpful!