Shoshana Nambi’s and Moran Yogev’s distinctive new picture book about the holiday of Sukkot will surely offer many readers a fresh perspective. Set in Uganda’s Abayudaya Jewish community, The Very Best Sukkah at once fills a gap in Jewish children’s literature and expertly communicates serious and layered themes.
Shoshi and her brother Avram live with their grandparents, with whom they observe Jewish practices daily. Their jajja, or grandmother, prepares kalo bread for Shabbat using millet and cassava, and their rabbi speaks to his congregants while gathered under a mango tree. Alongside these unique elements of African Jewish life, readers will find many points of contact as Shoshi and her friends prepare for Sukkot. Nambi’s tone is never didactic; her characters are individuals embedded in a specific village, where the children count the stars in the sky and the local seamstress sews curtains for her sukkah.
The festival of Sukkot is not the only subject of the book, however. When the yearly competition for who can construct the best sukkah begins, both excitement and tension abound. On the very first page, Shoshi is introduced as a child who races to school in order to be the first to arrive. Her jajja has to remind her that “life is not a competition,” a phrase that will comfort any child who has been asked, even pressured, to excel. A joyous communal celebration will be somewhat diminished, Shoshi’s jajja seems to say, if individual achievement is the goal. When a severe storm ruins some of the contending structures, people feel appropriately saddened and even reflect on their own responsibility. Most all Jewish communities have superstitions, so it is not surprising when some of the Abayudaya question whether their being jealous of one member’s elaborate sukkah has caused the destruction.
Yogav’s illustrations, which draw color from the natural world, are deeply rooted in both traditional African and Israeli art. A group portrait of cooperative activity shows everyone working to repair the damage — carrying new branches, sharing food, and singing together — to ensure that collaboration takes precedence over winning a prize. Both words and images insist that Jews everywhere should come together like the different branches of the lulav.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.