This unusual and appealing story imagines a meeting between two well-known historical figures, Rabbi Judah Aryeh, also known as Rabbi Leon of Modena, and the famous painter Jacopo Robustin, more often referred to as Tintoretto. Both lived in Venice during the late 1500s. Christians and Jews rarely socialized in Renaissance Italy, and Jews faced severe discrimination, having limited professional opportunities. They were forced to identify publicly as Jews by wearing yellow circles on their clothing in public.
According to the “Historical Notes” section appended to the story, Rabbi Judah Aryeh was something of an exception to the norm. He wrote books explaining some facets of Judaism for non-Jewish readers and was the chief Hebrew translator for the Venetian government. Tintoretto was also unconventional in personality and in his approach to life, and his artistic style was unusual for its time. Legend tells us that the two became friends and that Rabbi Judah Aryeh assisted Tintoretto by teaching him biblical details that the artist used to make his paintings — including his famous painting, The Last Supper—more authentic.
This charming picture book adapts and expands upon this legend, illustrated in soft, pleasing earth tones. The characters are whimsically portrayed, their faces are expressive, and the illustrator gives us an evocative picture of sixteenth-century Venice that is also suggestive of the Venice of today.
Young readers will learn about one of the original ghettos in which the Jews were forced to reside, about artistic perspective and techniques, and, most notably, that productive cooperation between Jews and non-Jews has been possible throughout history, even when such cooperation did not generally match the tenor of the times.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.