Each year, observant Jews around the world take time to reflect on their lives before and during the High Holidays. Jews traditionally celebrate the fall holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by attending services in the synagogue and following family customs at home and in their communities. Some of the ceremonies that symbolize the act of repentance (tashlikh and kapores) are memorialized in stories while other children’s authors focus on different High Holiday themes. The following four picture books allow children the opportunity to grasp the importance of making wise choices and apologizing for poor behavior. This is just a small sampling of picture books for the High Holidays that are available for a Jewish and non Jewish audience.
Gershon’s Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year. Retold by Eric A. Kimmel and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth. (2000)
Sydney Taylor Award
In this picture book, award-winning author, Kimmel, adapted an 18th century legend that focused upon the wisdom of the founder of the Hasidic movement in Judaism, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba’al Shem Tov, (c. 1700-1760). The main character Gershon, symbolically collected remnants of his improper behavior whenever he swept the floor. At the end of the year, these particles were placed into a large sack that was discarded into the sea.
This tradition stems from the centuries old custom of tashlikh (tashlich). On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, observant Jews discard breadcrumbs near an open body of water (lakes, rivers or seas) while reciting prayers of forgiveness. This gesture symbolizes the casting off of a year’s worth of wrong doings.
For many years, Gershon symbolically threw his bad deeds into the sea without taking any time to reflect on his actions. No time was spent thinking about what Gershon had done or how he could improve his life.
When his wife is unable to have any children, Gershon consults with a wonder rabbi, most likely the Baal Shem Tov. The rabbi prescribed a mystical charm for Gershon’s wife and predicted the birth of twins. The rabbi also shared a prophecy- the untimely death of Gershon’s future children. A twist of faith enables Gershon to come to terms with his mistakes. The end of the story illustrated the true meaning of repentance. One’s actions need to be sincere and full of intent.
By focusing on the ceremony of tashlikh, children learn how to recognize their mistakes and act accordingly. Children of all faiths also learn about the major theme of the High Holidays- forgiveness and repentance.
New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashanah Story. By April Halprin Wayland and Illustrated by Stephane Jorisch. (2009)
Set in modern times, Wayland focuses on a Jewish family who is observing Rosh Hashanah. The children in this story recognize their poor choices and take time to say that they are sorry. The family attends services at their synagogue and then walks to the nearby ocean to perform the custom of tashlikh (tashlich).
Readers will be able to connect with Izzy’s struggles to confront his wrong doings and the challenges that he faced when offering sincere apologies. Anyone unfamiliar with the custom of tashlikh will gain an understanding of how this particular community celebrates this ancient tradition. The words and the illustrations are endearing and provide a glimpse of a several Rosh Hashanah practices.
When the Chicken Went on Strike: A Rosh Hashanah Tale (adapted from a story by Sholom Aleichem) By Erica Silverman and Illustrated by Matthew Trueman (2003)
Sidney Taylor Honor Book for Young Readers
NCSS-CBC Notable Children’s Trade Book in Social Studies
Award-winning children’s author Erica Silverman portrays the Rosh Hashanah custom of kapores or kaporot in a whimsical way to illustrate how people need to be conscious of their actions. While I have never witnessed the controversial custom of kaporot, I have seen it performed in videos and in books. Only a small number of 21st century Jews adhere to this ancient folk ritual. Many rabbis throughout history banned the use of animals as means for atonement.
Just prior to Yom Kippur, orthodox Jews hold a chicken above their head while swinging it around three times. The prayers ask God to transfer any harsh decrees to the chicken. Similar to tashlikh, the person performing the ritual is symbolizing the importance of repentance.
Silverman adapted Sholom Aleichem’s notable story Kapores. Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916) was the author of the Yiddish stories that eventually became the storyline for the play, The Fiddler on the Roof.
This picture book looks at this archaic ritual from the point of view of the chickens. The chickens are fed up with being swung around and decide to strike. The main character, a young Jewish boy, overhears the chickens’ conversation. Wanting to be able to repent for his mistakes, he tries to bring together the Jewish congregation and the chickens. The people’s words and actions alienate the chickens.
A tender moment occurs when the boy makes an appeal to the chickens. He says, “I have more bad deeds that a dog has fleas… Without kapores, I will never be able to make my papa proud.”
The underlying message of the story is seen in the response of one of the chickens.
“For this do you really need a chicken?” The boy came to the logical conclusion that he could control his actions and act accordingly.
Some may find this ritual to be peculiar. Nevertheless, this delightful adaptation of Aleichem’s story will prompt a discussion on the choices everyone makes. Taking responsibility for one’s actions is vital. Silverman’s story reaffirms that fact.
The Hardest Word: A Yom Kippur Story By Jacqueline Jules and Illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn. (2001)
A National Jewish Book Awards Finalist
An Association of Jewish Libraries Notable Children’s Book
Jules also focuses on the ramifications of people’s mistakes. However, her story is seen through the eyes of Ziz, a mythical flying creature. Ziz has the propensity to cause destruction due to his enormous size. Many times, Ziz is able to fix the problems that he causes. On one occasion, he sought God’s advice on how to fix one of his calamities. God sent him on a mission to find the hardest word. Searching the world, he came up with dozens of answers. None were correct. Frustrated and sad, he approached God with no more answers. He simply apologized. Finally, he had found the hardest word, “sorry.”
“Sorry” can be the hardest word for some. Anyone reading this book will be reminded of the importance of this word. The references to God may or may not be appropriate in all settings. Most will consider this book more relevant to a Jewish audience. Young Jewish children will see Ziz as a role model for appropriate behavior by following his example of saying “I’m sorry” on Yom Kippur as well as the rest of the year.