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.