The Bar Mitz­vah Boys

Myron Uhlberg (auth.), Car­olyn Arcabas­cio (illus.)

  • Review
By – September 9, 2019

One of the cru­el­ties inflict­ed on the Jew­ish peo­ple dur­ing the Holo­caust was the destruc­tion of tra­di­tion­al and momen­tous step­ping stones that had formed the core of their exis­tence for cen­turies. The Bar Mitz­vah Boys tells the sto­ry, one which was not unique, of an elder­ly man who had nev­er been pub­licly called to the Torah for the first time as a thir­teen-year-old boy because he was impris­oned in a Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp. Myron Uhlberg describes the bond between the man and his grand­son, who share the same birth­day, as a nat­ur­al link between a trag­ic past and a hope­ful present, as they each become a bar mitz­vah at the same time. The book’s theme will undoubt­ed­ly appeal to care­givers and edu­ca­tors as it empha­sizes the chain of tra­di­tion con­nect­ing gen­er­a­tions, a top­ic of great rel­e­vance, even urgency. Chil­dren will relate to the love and sup­port between old and young. Both grand­fa­ther and grand­son are test­ed by the demands of learn­ing to read Torah, even if the old man is phys­i­cal­ly tired while the young boy is some­times bored. Some sen­tences clear­ly address young read­ers at their own lev­el of under­stand­ing: It made him feel like a link in a chain, a long chain that had been bro­ken,” while oth­ers seem to address adults: And togeth­er, they were increas­ing­ly absorbed in the age­less rit­u­al of the Jew­ish peo­ple.” There is love­ly poet­ic lan­guage, although there are also phras­es that rely on cliché. Over­all, the book suc­ceeds by approach­ing a pro­found expe­ri­ence with qui­et simplicity.

Car­olyn Arcabascio’s illus­tra­tions are impres­sion­is­tic, with min­i­mal­ly defined char­ac­ters and shad­owy set­tings. Some pic­tures reflect the present, even as the words on the page return to the past. When the grand­fa­ther recalls star­va­tion in the camps by remem­ber­ing that some days, he ate snow,” the page’s pic­ture depicts a calm and snowy scene in the present. Uhlberg relates the hor­rif­ic process in which the Nazis chose who would live and who would imme­di­ate­ly die by divid­ing Jews into groups to the right or left end­ing with, The man, who was then a boy, nev­er saw his father again.” Arcabas­cio inter­prets this mem­o­ry not with a scene of the death camp, but of the present-day boy and his own father stand­ing apart, each on a fac­ing page. Their sep­a­ra­tion is only a tem­po­rary and nat­ur­al one; only the blue-grey back­ground alludes to the tragedy of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion. The syn­a­gogue scenes employ an almost ethe­re­al light; the final scene of grand­fa­ther and grand­son under a bright sky sig­nals a joy­ful redemp­tion of the past.

The Bar Mitz­vah Boys is rec­om­mend­ed for young read­ers as well as adults inter­est­ed in a Holo­caust-themed book with a multi­gen­er­a­tional focus.

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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