Pho­to from The Adven­tures of K’ton Ton by Sadie Rose Weilerstein

The author of Kohelet (Eccle­si­astes) by tra­di­tion con­sid­ered to be King Solomon, com­ments bit­ter­ly that there is noth­ing new under the sun. But for young chil­dren the world’s cycli­cal nature is deeply reas­sur­ing. Noth­ing in the Jew­ish year empha­sizes this sense of per­ma­nence and con­sis­ten­cy more than the cel­e­bra­tion of Rosh Hashanah. Two mod­ern clas­sics, one from the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and the oth­er towards that century’s end, each reflect the Jew­ish empha­sis on start­ing over with a new begin­ning with­in the sta­ble core of tra­di­tion. Jane Bre­skin Zalben’s Hap­py New Year, Beni (1993) and Sadie Rose Weilerstein’s What the Moon Brought (1942) have a per­ma­nent place in the canon of Jew­ish children’s hol­i­day lit­er­a­ture. Zalben’s gor­geous­ly illus­trat­ed tale of bears observ­ing Rosh Hashanah presents the hol­i­day with ten­der­ness and humor, while Weilerstein’s ear­li­er book places two live­ly sis­ters with­in Jew­ish Amer­i­can life at a key moment in his­to­ry, dur­ing World War II. Both books empha­size the indeli­ble role of fes­tive meals, and both have at their core a qual­i­ty of last­ing beau­ty and sen­si­tiv­i­ty to what the arrival of Rosh Hashanah means each year.

Hap­py New Year, Beni takes place in an unspec­i­fied era, one delib­er­ate­ly designed for its endur­ing appeal to both the cen­tral impor­tance of fam­i­ly and to clas­si­cal styles of illus­tra­tion. The book’s set­ting is clear­ly meant to be a mix­ture of time­less and con­tem­po­rary; where the fam­i­ly finds itself on the spec­trum of obser­vance is not so impor­tant. Beni wears a kip­pah and his sis­ter Sara wears a blue and white dress, ankle socks, and Mary jane shoes — which could have been part of a girl’s wardrobe from the nine­teen-fifties as well as the nineties. Grand­pa wears a three-piece suit and Grand­ma bless­es the can­dles wear­ing a del­i­cate veil. The fam­i­ly car is a vin­tage mod­el. Even the children’s names evoke the nos­tal­gia of Jew­ish roots: Max, Rosie, Goldie, Mol­ly, and Sam, all ones which had recent­ly returned to pop­u­lar­i­ty when the book was writ­ten. Beni and Sara pre­pare favorite foods with their par­ents, bring­ing rugelach, man­del­brot, and strudel to their grand­par­ents’ house. Using water­col­or on parch­ment, Zalben’s intense col­ors and exquis­ite detail draw chil­dren into the scenes, with every raisin on the chal­lah and each slice of pome­gran­ate evi­dence that this fam­i­ly is as real as their own — even if they are bears.

Anoth­er nos­tal­gic, but still rel­e­vant, aspect of the book is that Beni’s grand­par­ents are a vital part of his life, links in a gen­er­a­tional chain which has always been cen­tral to Jew­ish tra­di­tion. Grand­ma dis­trib­utes figs and dates to the chil­dren and Beni’s cousin Max eats more than his share, prompt­ing Mama to mis­tak­en­ly accuse Beni of overeat­ing. Grand­ma looks serene while Mama frowns and places her hands on her hips, the uni­ver­sal pose of mater­nal annoy­ance. Papa has the hon­or of blow­ing the sho­far in syn­a­gogue, but it is Grand­pa who takes the chil­dren to par­tic­i­pate in the rit­u­al of tash­likh, explain­ing to them that throw­ing pieces of bread into run­ning water sym­bol­izes the need to unbur­den them­selves of bad deeds. Grandpa’s words are sim­ple and non­judg­men­tal as he ver­bal­ly meets his grand­son at a child’s lev­el: We get rid of what we did dur­ing the year that wasn’t so nice and we begin with a new, clean slate.” Any­thing Beni did wrong could have been no worse than not so nice,” and even the quaint­ly dat­ed metaphor of a clean slate, no longer used in schools for writ­ing, is a sign from the past.

Anoth­er nos­tal­gic, but still rel­e­vant, aspect of the book is that Beni’s grand­par­ents are a vital part of his life, links in a gen­er­a­tional chain which has always been cen­tral to Jew­ish tradition.

By the 1990s, Jew­ish life in Amer­i­ca was rapid­ly chang­ing. Many Jews had begun to chal­lenge gen­der roles in rit­u­als, inter­mar­riage had become com­mon, and the unques­tioned norm of two-par­ent nuclear fam­i­lies was being chal­lenged. Yet these sig­nif­i­cant new real­i­ties are periph­er­al to Beni’s New Year, where fam­i­ly life is cen­tral to pre­serv­ing the essen­tials of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. In Beni’s tash­likh with his grand­fa­ther, Zal­ben alludes to this con­ti­nu­ity of iden­ti­ty in a mem­o­rable sequence of words: Beni remem­bered his mis­takes. He took a small crust of bread from the palm of Grandpa’s hand, tossed it into the brook, and watched it go down­stream.” The image of Beni accept­ing the small piece of bread from the cen­ter of his grandfather’s hand, and then let­ting it go, express­es how the new year will both include and let go of the old one.

Sadie Rose Weilerstein’s What the Moon Brought is less known today than Weilerstein’s series of sto­ries about K’ton Ton — the adven­tures of a fan­tas­ti­cal­ly small boy explor­ing the nor­mal­ly scaled set­ting of rit­u­als and hol­i­days. At first glance, this book may seem to be an arti­fact of a long-gone era, yet its roots in an ear­li­er time rein­force the mes­sage that core aspects of Jew­ish life are resilient, not com­pro­mised by the inevitable changes of his­to­ry. The orig­i­nal 1942 ver­sion was reprint­ed in 1968, with a new intro­duc­tion by the author head­ed Dear Boys and Girls,” con­clud­ing with Shalom (peace) to you.” Weil­er­stein adopts a kind­ly didac­tic tone to con­firm that the world has changed since 1942, but the Jew­ish year is still as round as ever: The chil­dren who first read What the Moon Brought are now grownups…Astronauts are prepar­ing to land on the moon. BUT Ruth and Deb­by are still lit­tle sisters…”

Time stands still in the world of books and a new gen­er­a­tion of read­ers will still expe­ri­ence a sense of Jew­ish time, the cycli­cal nature of the cal­en­dar and the year, much as Ruth and Deb­by did, in spite of both wrench­ing and tri­umphant events for Jews that have tak­en place in the inter­im. There is no ref­er­ence to the near-anni­hi­la­tion of Euro­pean Jew­ry which was tak­ing place while the orig­i­nal book first appeared, although Weil­er­stein does explain that Deb­by and Ruth refer to Israel as Pales­tine because when they first stepped into the book away back in 1942,” and that was the land’s name.

While Beni is much more excit­ed about the actu­al prac­tices of Rosh Hashanah, Deb­by and Ruth are curi­ous about the holiday’s ori­gins. As Amer­i­cans, they are famil­iar with cel­e­brat­ing the birth­days of George Wash­ing­ton and Abra­ham Lin­coln but the con­cept of the world’s age is chal­leng­ing. When their moth­er explains that it is more than five thou­sand years old,” they decide that only a real­ly big and round birth­day cake will be ade­quate to com­mem­o­rate that unimag­in­able span of time. Weil­er­stein incor­po­rates verse into her nar­ra­tive, and the sis­ters recite it as a kind of invent­ed children’s litur­gy, Ruth tak­ing the part about new­ness — includ­ing new shoes, dress­es, and rib­bons — while Deb­by chants that every­thing is also a cir­cle, The apples are round,/And the cakes are round,/and the hal­lahs are round!/Everything is ROUND on Rosh Hashanah/​For a good ROUND year.”

As Amer­i­cans, they are famil­iar with cel­e­brat­ing the birth­days of George Wash­ing­ton and Abra­ham Lin­coln but the con­cept of the world’s age is challenging.

Here food is more order­ly and con­tained, unlike its unques­tioned abun­dance in Hap­py New Year, Beni. Illus­tra­tor Mathil­da Keller’s shad­ed black and white image of Deb­by and Ruth’s hol­i­day table shows a round bowl of apples at the cen­ter, as Father rais­es his kid­dush cup and Moth­er and the girls solemn­ly low­er their heads. No one is kick­ing one anoth­er under the table, as Max and Beni do. Father uses a food metaphor to explain to the girls that their sug­gest­ed birth­day cake for the world would have to be big­ger than all the wheat fields, all the scythes, all the mills, all the mix­ing bowls, and all the ovens they could imag­ine. This chain of pro­duc­tion empha­sizes that food does not arrive on their table out of nowhere, not even through their grand­par­ents’ gen­eros­i­ty, but is the result of resources and labor. The nat­ur­al world is an essen­tial part of their under­stand­ing of Rosh Hashanah, although the rit­u­al of tash­likh is left unmen­tioned. Instead, the fam­i­ly leaves their house and goes out­doors, way past their bed­time,” in order to find can­dles for the world’s birth­day, in the form of an evening sky dark and vel­vety — and…filled with stars.” Weil­er­stein con­veys that this moment is as deeply rev­er­ent as any of the holiday’s pre­scribed cer­e­monies as Ruth and Deb­by threw back their heads and raised their eyes to the sky,” see­ing in the new moon of the month of Tishri a sil­ver cra­dle,” and wit­ness­ing the birth of the year.

A sec­ond Rosh Hashanah chap­ter in Weilerstein’s book adds an envi­ron­men­tal nar­ra­tive as back­sto­ry, when Ruth and Deb­by trav­el by car, train, boat, and taxi to vis­it their grand­par­ents and aunt, whose gar­den is dying of thirst due to lack of rain. No rain, no flow­ers. No flow­ers, no nec­tar. No nec­tar, no hon­ey. No hon­ey, no Rosh Hashanah treat. Deb­by and Ruth’s kind­ness to the envi­ron­ment trans­forms this near-dis­as­ter into a Gar­den of Eden. A bee, redun­dant­ly named Devo­rah, (Hebrew for bee,”) is thrilled when vis­i­tors from the city inter­vene to res­cue her hive with water­ing cans. Here Weil­er­stein turns from every­day life to fable, allow­ing the two girls a cru­cial role in ush­er­ing in the new year. The bees are able to gen­er­ate so much hon­ey that they call a meet­ing to decide how to use the sur­plus, agree­ing to send it to Ruth and Deb­by to sweet­en their hol­i­day. In Hap­py New Year, Beni, food is con­stant­ly avail­able with­out ques­tion­ing its source, where­as in What the Moon Brought, the bees decid­ed best way to dis­trib­ute the lim­it­ed fruits of the land.

Hap­py New Year, Beni por­trays a Rosh Hashanah among sup­port­ive fam­i­ly, with plen­ti­ful food, qui­et reflec­tion about mak­ing the new year bet­ter than the last one, and grand­par­ents shar­ing wis­dom in an unob­tru­sive and non­judg­men­tal way with a new gen­er­a­tion. Zalben’s bears remind us that the Jew­ish world is round and com­plete each year, yet also open to improve­ments which they have the pow­er to ini­ti­ate with the help of those old­er and wis­er. What the Moon Brought brings read­ers back to a more vul­ner­a­ble era for Jew­ish Amer­i­cans, when their hyphen­at­ed iden­ti­ty was only begin­ning to feel secure, and as the impend­ing assault on their broth­ers and sis­ters in Europe would make com­mit­ment to Jew­ish con­ti­nu­ity even more urgent. Whether chil­dren today live with­in the same extend­ed fam­i­lies or dif­fer­ent and new­ly accept­ed con­fig­u­ra­tions of Jew­ish life, both books have val­ue beyond nos­tal­gia. Zal­ben and Weil­er­stein rec­og­nize that chil­dren need to see their own role in the cre­ation of a new year, one where per­son­al rela­tion­ships, as well as the nat­ur­al world, begin again.

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.