Warm is the word that immediately comes to mind to describe Melissa Stoller’s picture book about the quiet companionship between a girl and her grandmother on Friday nights. As they set the table for the Sabbath, Sadie asks to hear Nana’s stories about three ritual objects: the two candlesticks for the candles they light; the kiddush cup, which holds wine and grape juice; and the hand-sewn cloth that covers the special challah bread. History and a family story lie behind each one.
Sadie loves hearing how the candlesticks came back to America after her grandpa and his mother became stuck for months in Europe when they went to visit his grandmother in 1913. The kiddush cup traveled to New York in 1916 when her other great-grandpa and his younger brother fled pogroms in Russia. The challah cover, sewn by Nana’s mother, was passed along to her as a wedding present.
As Sadie listens, she visualizes the stories. Family figures from the past swirl gently through the illustrations. Sadie wonders if she will ever be able to tell stories that are rich and full, like Nana’s. And then, as she fastens a homemade Star of David around Nana’s neck, Sadie tells her grandmother how all the people from Nana’s stories are present with them now around the table, joining their family celebration of Shabbat. This becomes Sadie’s story, the one her own children and grandchildren will like to hear again and again.
Stoller’s strengths lie in her depiction of the coziness of family and Jewish observance, meaningful through generations; Lisa Goldberg’s palette of soft salmon, cerulean, and cantaloupe colors echoes the mood. Sadie’s Shabbat Stories evolved from Stoller’s relationship with her grandmother, and in this book she paves an easy path for readers to explore artifacts from their own family histories. Mostly offstage action and brief, but undefined, references to pogroms and closed country borders raise the level of age and understanding of this book’s target audience.
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.