Nuri and the Whale

  • Review
By – January 9, 2023

There are many children’s pic­ture books that embed a Jew­ish teach­ing in an illus­trat­ed text, offer­ing both a moral les­son and an appeal­ing work of art. Nuri and the Whale takes a slight­ly dif­fer­ent approach. Ronit Chacham extrap­o­lates on a short selec­tion from the bib­li­cal book of Kohelet (Eccle­si­astes), divid­ing the nar­ra­tive into num­bered chap­ters and implic­it­ly chal­leng­ing the divide between pic­ture and chap­ter books. Moran Yogev’s lav­ish illus­tra­tions allude to Mid­dle East­ern artis­tic tra­di­tions and present con­vinc­ing char­ac­ters who speak to young read­ers on their own lev­el. This excep­tion­al book does not sim­pli­fy its mes­sage of gen­eros­i­ty and inter­gen­er­a­tional respect, but rather brings it to life as a core tzedakah.

Is the com­ple­tion of a mitz­vah con­tin­gent on ful­ly under­stand­ing its mean­ing? While this ques­tion may con­found even adults, it is almost bound to come up when teach­ing young chil­dren. Chacham con­fronts the issue as Nuri, a young boy, responds to hear­ing his father quote the verse, Cast your bread on the water, and one day it will come back to you” (Kohelet 11:1). Nat­u­ral­ly, he inter­prets its some­what enig­mat­ic lan­guage lit­er­al­ly, throw­ing bread into the sea until one fish grows unnat­u­ral­ly large. When his well-inten­tioned act results in con­flict, he is con­fused. For­tu­nate­ly, Wise­whale, an arche­typ­al pater­nal fig­ure, takes the time to explain to Nuri the dif­fer­ence between obe­di­ence to his father and true com­pre­hen­sion. He does this not through direct instruc­tion, but by encour­ag­ing Nuri to draw infer­ences. Wise­whale thus sets the boy on the right path, remind­ing him that there will be days to come when you will give and take — and you will be both hap­py and sad.”

Nuri and the Whale notably com­bines bib­li­cal and Tal­mu­dic sto­ries with Jew­ish folk­lore. Chil­dren may not imme­di­ate­ly asso­ciate Nuri’s tale with that of Jon­ah, caught in the bel­ly of the great fish, or with the leg­endary Joseph, who loved the Sab­bath and shared his wealth with his whole com­mu­ni­ty. Nev­er­the­less, these par­al­lels sit­u­ate Chacham’s and Yogev’s work in the larg­er realm of Jew­ish literature.

The book’s illus­tra­tions and design also dis­play a deep immer­sion in Jew­ish artis­tic her­itage. One two-page spread fea­tures the quote from Kohelet in Hebrew cal­lig­ra­phy, while the flo­ral bor­der around each pic­ture recalls medieval man­u­scripts. Word bub­bles with var­i­ous­ly col­ored fonts elab­o­rate on the main text, and a range of col­or tones con­nects char­ac­ters and scenery — from peo­ple, to ani­mals, to the nat­ur­al habi­tat they share.

When the book con­cludes, Nuri is an old man. Along the way, read­ers learn that peo­ple devel­op and change, and that both the young and old play dis­tinct roles in Jew­ish life. Giv­ing to oth­ers is not only a require­ment for those with great wealth, as Nuri points out, because Some­times in life you’ll have every­thing and some­times you’ll have almost noth­ing.” It’s a mes­sage worth con­vey­ing to chil­dren, espe­cial­ly in a book as enchant­i­ng as this one.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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