New Children’s Books Chronicle the Lives of Prominent American Jews

By | May 01, 2022
Arts & Culture, Latest
Children's book covers about Jewish figures

Jewish American Heritage Month—celebrated every May since 2006—is an ideal time to introduce young readers to notable Jewish figures in American history, and a number of recently released books can help. (Warning: For those of us of a certain age, spending time with these titles incurs the risk of lamenting the paucity of such books when we were younger!) 

Two recent picture book biographies focus on founders of prominent Jewish organizations. Hannah G. Solomon Dared to Make a Difference (by Bonnie Lindauer with illustrations by Sofia Moore) follows the founder of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW). Hannah Solomon, born in Chicago in 1858, lived through a number of historical events that are woven into the book: the Civil War, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (which was key to NCJW’s establishment) and the passage of the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote. For its part, A Queen to the Rescue: The Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah (by Nancy Churnin with illustrations by Yevgenia Nayberg) begins with Henrietta Szold’s birth in Baltimore in 1860. The book covers Szold’s achievements even before and beyond the Hadassah era (who knew that Szold was the Jewish Publication Society’s first editor?) and concludes with her later years in British Mandatory Palestine. (Note: The territory is referred to as “Palestine” throughout the story, with acknowledgments that “British leaders ran Palestine” during the Nazi era; a timeline at the back of the book also notes that Szold made “her first trip to what was then called Palestine, part of the Ottoman Empire” in 1909. An author’s note more explicitly frames Szold’s lasting significance in and to the State of Israel.) In keeping with the title’s “rescue” focus, the book highlights the Youth Aliyah endeavor through which Szold and Hadassah saved 11,000 children from the Nazis. 

Art and architecture play prominent roles in two other recent titles—just as they did in the lives of their subjects. The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art (by Cynthia Levinson with illustrations by Evan Turk) won this year’s Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal from the American Library Association, was named an Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Notable Picture Book, and was a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award. Born in Lithuania in 1898, Ben Shahn immigrated to the United States as a child; in his adopted country, he became famous for his art and his activism, which were often one and the same. In its own vivid and colorful pages, Frank, Who Liked to Build: The Architecture of Frank Gehry (by Deborah Blumenthal with illustrations by Maria Brzozowska) focuses on the professional accomplishments—with some attention to the Jewish influences—of the famed architect and longtime California resident, who was born Frank Goldberg in 1929. Among other tidbits, readers learn that “Jews faced prejudice in Canada, where he grew up, and in Los Angeles, where he went to architecture school,” prompting him, unhappily, to change his surname to something less identifiably Jewish.

Bonds forged in the United States between Jews and non-Jews—particularly non-Jewish Black Americans—underlie two other recent picture books. The Singer and The Scientist (by Lisa Rose with illustrations by Isabel Muñoz) spotlights the friendship between Marian Anderson (1897-1993), the pathbreaking Black opera singer, and Albert Einstein (1879-1955), the celebrated Jewish physicist who found refuge from Nazi Germany in the United States. In 1937, Anderson was denied hotel accommodations after a performance in Princeton, New Jersey, so Einstein hosted her in his home. The book is grounded in this origin story, and it offers a moving portrait of the friendship between these famous figures, who both faced different kinds of prejudice. This title was also named a National Jewish Book Award finalist. And The Rabbi and the Reverend: Joachim Prinz, Martin Luther King Jr., and Their Fight Against Silence (by Audrey Ades with illustrations by Chiara Fedele) introduces both Joachim Prinz (1902-1988)—who, like Einstein, was born in Germany and came to the United States in the 1930s—and the iconic Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), and leads up to their appearance together on the National Mall in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963. 

For middle-grade readers, two new anthologies deserve consideration. In RBG’s Brave & Brilliant Women (with illustrations by Bee Johnson), Moment editor-in-chief and CEO Nadine Epstein takes a chronological approach—starting as far back as biblical times—to profiling “33 Jewish Women to Inspire Everyone.” Included among the 33 is, of course, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote an introduction and selected subjects for the volume. Julie Merberg’s “Nice” Jewish Girls (with illustrations by Georgia Rucker) divides its 36 diverse personalities, born between 1849 (Emma Lazarus) and 1981 (Alicia Garza), into categories: activists, entertainers, writers, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, leaders and justices (yes, RBG appears here, too, as does Justice Elena Kagan). 

Finally, it’s worth mentioning a soon-to-be-released graphic narrative called A Visit to Moscow. Adapted by Anna Olswanger from an account by Rabbi Rafael Grossman (1933-2018), the book was inspired by Grossman’s actual 1965 journey to the Soviet Union to investigate the persecution of Soviet Jews. That A Visit to Moscow is beautifully illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg, who was born in Ukraine and now lives in New York City, makes this encounter with the history of the Soviet Jewry movement, which was so much a part of the later 20th-century American Jewish experience, especially poignant and timely.

Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories and Birthright: Poems. A fellow in the Sami Rohr Jewish Literary Institute, she teaches at Baruch College of The City University of New York and frequently writes and speaks on matters of Jewish and/or literary interest.

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