In 1988, a young bear named Beni debuted in Beni’s First Chanukah. This was fol­lowed by sev­er­al more pic­ture books about Jew­ish hol­i­days star­ring Beni and his fam­i­ly. As author and artist Jane Bre­skin Zal­ben wrote at the time, it was not actu­al­ly Beni’s first expe­ri­ence with the Fes­ti­val of Lights, but rather the first Chanukah Beni would be old enough to remem­ber.” Thir­ty-five years lat­er, read­ers con­tin­ue to immerse them­selves in Zalben’s exquis­ite­ly illus­trat­ed stories. 

In the recent pub­li­ca­tion of Beni’s Tiny Tales: Around the Year in Jew­ish Hol­i­days, Zal­ben has placed Beni and his fam­i­ly in our con­tem­po­rary times. Beni has grown up. He is a hus­band and father; his extend­ed fam­i­ly includes bears with part­ners and bears with­out, LGBTQ bears, elder­ly bears, and baby bears. In this new iter­a­tion of Beni, hol­i­days and fam­i­ly remain cen­tral to the sto­ry. The book has an ency­clo­pe­dic range, includ­ing a fam­i­ly tree along with a short expla­na­tion and encom­pass­ing nar­ra­tive, graph­ic pan­els, recipes, craft projects, reli­gious lore, and, of course, illus­tra­tions accom­pa­ny­ing these stories. 

One of Zalben’s most dis­tinc­tive qual­i­ties as an artist is her use of detail and col­or, includ­ing influ­ences rang­ing from Per­sian minia­tures to Beat­rix Pot­ter. Her pic­tures are nev­er sta­t­ic, and the Beni books cap­ture the ener­gy of chil­dren. We see this in the brief expla­na­tion of the Four Species asso­ci­at­ed with Sukkot (palm, wil­low, myr­tle, and cit­ron) which is fol­lowed by del­i­cate­ly paint­ed icons of fruits and dec­o­ra­tions. Tiny threads of cran­ber­ries, mul­ti­col­ored pep­pers, and pur­ple grapes on the vine reward the reader’s focus, before mov­ing on to the next page.

Both con­ti­nu­ity and change have always been cen­tral to Zalben’s work.

Both con­ti­nu­ity and change have always been cen­tral to Zalben’s work. Love of food and fam­i­ly, and the reas­sur­ance that small con­flicts will be resolved through under­stand­ing, are ever present. Zalben’s lat­est, Beni’s Tiny Tales, is ground­ed in our chang­ing era. When sis­ters Goldie and Mol­ly rem­i­nisce about their child­hood roles in the Purim play, their daugh­ters Noa and Sophie con­sid­er the prob­lem of Vashti’s ostra­ciza­tion once she defies her hus­band, Aha­suerus. Their moth­ers’ heat­ed argu­ment leads to prag­mat­ic com­pro­mise: Vashti was strong and Esther was wise.” A few unadorned words con­firm the dig­ni­ty of both women, and the new pos­si­bil­i­ties for Jew­ish girls today. On Rosh Hashanah, a female bear reads from the Torah; on Lag B’Omer, when Jew­ish boys have tra­di­tion­al­ly had their first hair­cut, cousin Sam is proud to apply the same fes­tive cer­e­mo­ny to his daugh­ter at the fam­i­ly picnic. 

Each hol­i­day is depict­ed sep­a­rate­ly, but the year of obser­vance demon­strates many facets of Jew­ish life. In Beni’s Tiny Tales, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Even events that are not reli­gious in nature become com­po­nents of Jew­ish cul­ture. Beni rem­i­nisces about the loss of a tooth while eat­ing can­died apples on Sim­chat Torah. Beni’s fam­i­ly uses a com­post heap to help grow the herbs that will be used both for cook­ing and the Passover rit­u­al. (When that cel­e­bra­tion takes place in the crowd­ed apart­ment of a sin­gle rel­a­tive, every­one is accom­mo­dat­ed by trans­form­ing a mod­est ping-pong table into the fes­tive set­ting for the seder.) 

Every­one deserves a place at the table here, both lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly. When a win­ter storm sends the family’s Hanukkah cel­e­bra­tion online, a graph­ic nov­el-style page ded­i­cates each detailed sec­tion of text to one or more rel­a­tives — each busi­ly prepar­ing a hol­i­day dish. Beni’s cousin Max, a mis­chie­vous young bear with an impulse con­trol issue in ear­li­er books, is now hap­pi­ly liv­ing with his part­ner, Avi. After prepar­ing their spe­cial Hanukkah treats of arti­choke hearts and zep­pole, Max tells Avi to Man­gia,” a sweet­ly humor­ous and lov­ing direc­tion. Old­er fam­i­ly mem­bers are con­sis­tent­ly depict­ed as valu­able par­tic­i­pants. Even if great-grand­ma Min­del has dif­fi­cul­ty nego­ti­at­ing the inter­net, she prag­mat­i­cal­ly phones in her recipe for latkes. In an inter­est­ing rever­sal of stereo­types, Min­del is health con­scious. For Passover, she refus­es to use chick­en fat for her mat­zo balls, assert­ing that I’m aim­ing for one hun­dred! And no knei­d­lach is going to stop me!”

Beni’s jour­ney through the Jew­ish year con­cludes with Late Night at the Cousins Com­e­dy Club,” the enter­tain­ment set­ting turned into a child-friend­ly obser­vance of Shavuot. Not exact­ly a ses­sion of all-night Torah study, the par­ty requires a one-drink min­i­mum of ice-cream soda or float, in hon­or of the holiday’s dairy recipes. But inter­gen­er­a­tional mem­o­ries reframe the bois­ter­ous occa­sion as an affir­ma­tion of mem­ber­ship in an extend­ed Jew­ish fam­i­ly. Beni and Emma’s chil­dren asso­ciate the sleep­over with an overnight in the Sukkah, bring­ing the Jew­ish year almost full cir­cle. A baby is wrapped in her blan­ket like a blintz,” and the chaot­ic fun is a reminder of a past Purim spiel and singing at a seder. Zalben’s jew­el-toned por­trait of the whole fam­i­ly–gantse mish­pacha,” sum­ma­rizes her vision; a raised sil­ver kid­dush cup, a flow­ing tal­lit, a red kip­pah are small emblems with­in the embrac­ing cir­cle of tra­di­tion. In Zalben’s ren­der­ing, change becomes part of that embrace.

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.