by Gali­na Vromen

When you see a new­born and then watch her four years lat­er, climb­ing to the top of the jun­gle gym, you can’t believe it’s the same child. That’s the feel­ing that over­comes me when I look at Sifriy­at Pija­ma, the Israeli sis­ter pro­gram of the PJ Library.

Sifriy­at Pija­ma, which month­ly gives away illus­trat­ed Hebrew pic­ture-books in pre-schools, start­ed as a pilot four years ago in Israel with 3,000 chil­dren. This school year, it has grown to 194,000 chil­dren, about 80% of Hebrew-speak­ing chil­dren in the state sys­tem. The books, which deal with Jew­ish val­ues and Jewish/​Israeli her­itage, arrive by couri­er each month to the preschool. The teacher reads the month’s selec­tion to the chil­dren and often does an activ­i­ty as well. Then each child receives his or her own copy to take home to enjoy with fam­i­ly and add to the home library — a total of twen­ty-four books over a child’s three-year preschool career. Boost­ed by fund­ing from the Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion, Sifriy­at Pija­ma, a pro­gram of the Harold Grin­spoon Foun­da­tion, is giv­ing away more than 1.5 mil­lion books a year, mak­ing it the largest pur­chas­er of children’s books in Israel after the country’s biggest book store chain, Steimatzky.

But like that four-year old child, it is not just a mat­ter of phys­i­cal growth. Sifriy­at Pija­ma has matured into a pro­gram that is dar­ing to climb to new heights, help­ing to cre­ate a genre of pic­ture books new to the Israeli mar­ket. Work­ing with pub­lish­ers, Sifriy­at Pija­ma is pro­duc­ing books which deal with Jew­ish her­itage in a way that will engage both sec­u­lar and reli­gious Israeli Jews. This year, out of the six­teen titles Sifriy­at Pija­ma is dis­trib­ut­ing (eight for 3 – 4 year olds, eight for 5 – 6 year olds), sev­en are new­ly cre­at­ed for the pro­gram. All togeth­er since Sifri­yat Pija­ma came to Israel, it has cre­at­ed a total of fif­teen new books. 

It was not what we set out to do. But there was no choice, giv­en the dif­fi­cul­ty in Israel’s reli­gious­ly divi­sive soci­ety of find­ing books that suit­ed Sifriy­at Pijama’s agen­da of pro­mot­ing com­mon Jew­ish val­ues and her­itage. In Israel, chil­dren from the reli­gious sec­tor tend to read Bible and Tal­mu­dic leg­ends, and do-good sto­ries, with illus­tra­tions depict­ing kipa-head­ed boys and mod­est­ly dressed girls. Mean­while, sec­u­lar chil­dren are grow­ing up large­ly on books devoid of any men­tion of Jew­ish top­ics — books which obser­vant fam­i­lies wor­ry depict behav­ior incon­sis­tent with their way of life. We were des­per­ate for books that would appeal to both pop­u­la­tions and address aspects of Jew­ish val­ues and her­itage on which there is broad agreement.

Fur­ther­more, some top­ics are under-rep­re­sent­ed in both the reli­gious and the sec­u­lar mar­ket: aliyah and olim, biogra­phies for young chil­dren on Zion­ist fig­ures, Jew­ish folk­tales, par­tic­u­lar­ly from the Sephardic tra­di­tion. For exam­ple, we found there was no Israeli ver­sion in print of that clas­si­cal folk­tale about the poor man whose rab­bi tells him to add his goat, chick­ens and cow to his crowd­ed house — so when he takes them out the house is roomy. There are at least five ver­sions of this sto­ry on the Amer­i­can mar­ket. We could have trans­lat­ed one of those books, but it seemed a pity that this very Jew­ish sto­ry should not have an indige­nous Israeli ver­sion. Respond­ing to our urg­ing, lead­ing Israeli pub­lish­er Am Oved recruit­ed one of Israel’s pre­mier satirists, Ephraim Sidon, and teamed him up with promi­nent illus­tra­tor Dan­ny Ker­man to pro­duce a rhymed ver­sion of the sto­ry, which Sifriy­at Pija­ma will dis­trib­ute this year. 

Sifriy­at Pija­ma requires that any book it cre­ates with a pub­lish­er be avail­able in a com­mer­cial ver­sion as well. This is to assure the books will have a shelf-life beyond their dis­tri­b­u­tion through Sifriy­at Pija­ma, which changes its book selec­tion from year to year to avoid hav­ing chil­dren receive copies of the same book more than once in the course of their three years in the pro­gram. Pub­lish­ers have been pleas­ant­ly sur­prised to dis­cov­er that Jew­ish sto­ries, when illus­trat­ed to appeal to mod­ern audi­ences, do well in stores. And it is mak­ing them open up to publish­ing more such books. 

We were delight­ed when a pub­lish­er approached us with a manu­script of an enchant­i­ng Ethiopi­an folk­tale, about an old man who tries to get rid of his tat­tered shoes from the old coun­try, only to have every­one try to return them to him. What child (and par­ent) will not be able to relate to how dif­fi­cult it can be to shed old things — or out­dat­ed ver­sions of our­selves? The man­u­script had been sit­ting around for years before our hue and cry for folk tales, and for sto­ries that address aliyah were heard. The result, Mr. Menaseh’s Old Shoes (Eng­lish title: An Old Pair of Shoes), is itself an aliyah tale — the folk­tale was told to vet­er­an Israeli author Ronit Chacham by an Ethiopi­an immi­grant years ago, and the book is illus­trat­ed by Russ­ian immi­grant Masha Manapov.

Sifriy­at Pija­ma is also giv­ing new life to tra­di­tion­al Tal­mu­dic tales — either by the re-issue and/​or re-illus­tra­tion of out of print books, or by the pub­li­ca­tion of new ones. This year, Kin­neret-Zmo­ra Bitan- Dvir has teamed up with prize-win­ning Israeli children’s author Shoham Smith to issue a new pic­ture book based on the Tal­mu­dic tale about Rab­bi Aki­va learn­ing late in life to read Oth­er ren­di­tions of Tal­mu­dic tales by Israel Prize win­ning author Dvo­ra Omer —about the renowned patience of Rab­bi Hil­lel and the vis­it by a Roman emper­or to Rab­bi Yehu­da Hanasi, as well as a tra­di­tion­al sto­ry about the choice of where to build the Holy Tem­ple­have been res­ur­rect­ed from her ear­li­er antholo­gies and illus­trat­ed to reach a new generation.

No less impor­tant has been the effort to stress com­mon Israeli cul­ture around pop­u­lar Israeli songs that have become clas­sics. Sifriy­at Pija­ma urged the pro­duc­tion of a book, Good Peo­ple, based on the song by the late Nao­mi She­mer (best known in Amer­i­ca for Jerusalem of Gold), and Who Loves Shab­bat, with lyrics by late song­writer Ehud Manor. Both were Israel Prize win­ners whose songs are pop­u­lar among a wide swathe of the Israeli public.

We have also caused the cross-over” of some reli­gious authors rarely read by the sec­u­lar pub­lic. We did this by re-illus­trat­ing sto­ries whose reli­gious look lim­it­ed their appeal to sec­u­lar audi­ences. The sto­ries—Yael’s Inde­pen­dence Day by Riv­ka Elitzur and The Land of Preschool Chil­dren by Emu­na Alon — boost­ed with charm­ing new illus­tra­tions, received high rat­ings in sec­u­lar preschools from teach­ers in the program. 

Final­ly, we have had trans­lat­ed some PJ Library favorites into Hebrew: Bagels from Ben­ny by Aubrey Davis (known as Grandpa’s Bak­ery in Hebrew) and One Lit­tle Chick­en by Elka Weber. The lat­ter, a retelling of a tale about Rab­bi Han­i­na Ben-Dosa, under­went re-illus­tra­tion for the Hebrew ver­sion so that it is set (his­tor­i­cal­ly accu­rate­ly) in the ancient Land of Israel rather than in the rur­al nine­teenth cen­tu­ry set­ting of the Eng­lish-lan­guage orig­i­nal. Its Israeli pub­lish­er, Yedio­th Ahronot, was tak­en aback when the first com­mer­cial print­ing of 2,000 copies sold out in weeks.

Sifriy­at Pija­ma has tak­en advan­tage of its growth to cre­ate a revital­ized trea­sure trove of high-qual­i­ty Jew­ish children’s books. As we watch this pre­co­cious child” grow up, we hope that the books we are cre­at­ing today will help Israelis feel more con­nect­ed to their her­itage and to each other.

Gali­na Vromen is exec­u­tive direc­tor of Sifriy­at Pija­ma: www​.pjis​rael​.org