Drop by Drop: A Sto­ry of Rab­bi Akiva

Jacque­line Jules; Yev­ge­nia Nay­berg, illus.

  • Review
By – July 27, 2017

How love­ly to have this jew­el-col­ored pic­ture book to share the love sto­ry of Rachel and Aki­va with ele­men­tary-age chil­dren. The man who became a famous sage at the end of the first cen­tu­ry was too poor to attend school, and start­ed his work life as an illit­er­ate shep­herd. And yet, Rachel, daugh­ter of the wealthy man who employed him, watched how Aki­va treat­ed ani­mals and peo­ple with kind­ness and under­stand­ing. She believed this shep­herd was capa­ble of becom­ing a schol­ar and, defy­ing her father, she mar­ried him. Aki­va protest­ed that at forty he was too old to learn the alpha­bet, but Rachel pressed. One day, see­ing how soft water drip­ping onto hard stone had cut through, Aki­va under­stood that his mind, too, was not fixed and could change and grow, lit­tle by lit­tle. (The metaphor, which con­tem­plates what is hard and what is soft in this ver­sion, has been inter­pret­ed in dif­fer­ent ways over the years.)

The sculp­tur­al angles of fig­ures in the brush-tex­tured illus­tra­tions here become rounder and more play­ful as Aki­va begins the strug­gle to learn to read and then to study the laws of the Torah, which took him away from home for twen­ty-four years. He became a wise rab­bi, a teacher, whom many fol­lowed. Jules then brings the sto­ry full cir­cle back to Rachel — who has been liv­ing in pover­ty — as Rab­bi Aki­va grate­ful­ly acknowl­edges his wife’s encour­age­ment and fore­sight. In her end­note, the author cel­e­brates Rachel’s hero­ism for her per­son­al sac­ri­fice and faith in her husband.

This is a Tal­mu­dic sto­ry of ideas, rather than action, which Jules (an hon­or win­ner of both the Syd­ney Tay­lor and Nation­al Jew­ish Book awards) retells with short sen­tences and care­ful phras­es. She omits unnec­es­sary detail and soft­ens the harsh­ness of Rachel’s father, keep­ing the focus on Rachel’s deter­mi­na­tion to inspire Aki­va and their love for each oth­er. For those who loved Nayberg’s dra­mat­ic illus­tra­tions in The Wren and The Spar­row, this styl­ized cov­er may seem qui­et and for­mal, but the inside sto­ry unfolds with warmth, and read­er appre­ci­a­tion grows along with the author and artist’s own affec­tion for the red-haired couple.

Rec­om­mend­ed for ages 6 to 9, who can tru­ly under­stand how doors open when some­one believes in their own potential.

Sharon Elswit, author of The Jew­ish Sto­ry Find­er, now resides in San Fran­cis­co, where she has been help­ing stu­dents vis­it­ing 826 Valen­cia loca­tions around the city to write sto­ries and poems and get­ting adults up and retelling Jew­ish folk­tales to share with their own spin. 

Discussion Questions