Next up in my series of book lists featuring folktale picture books are these Jewish folktales for kids. These stories and folklore books are great to read anytime of year, but as May is Jewish American Heritage Month I hope you will put a few of these titles on hold at the library for reading right now.
Most of these Jewish stories and folklore for children come out of the Yiddish, or Eastern European Jewish experience. I have deliberately chosen books which are not Old Testament stories, but a few of them do mention specific religious practices, such as the Sabbath meal, or a holiday celebration.
Please do not feel that these books are not relevant to you if you are not Jewish. First of all, I firmly believe we should expose our children to the culture and traditions of all walks of life. How else will they understand their own? Secondly, all of these folktales have themes which transcend cultural and religious boundaries.
Like many folktale traditions, many of these stories and legends have a healthy dose of humor but all of them have a moral lesson, whether it’s obvious or subtle. (Note: titles and covers are affiliate links.)
Jewish Picture Book Folktales for Kids
Joseph Had a Little Overcoat is one of my favorite picture books. This Caldecott winner is perfect for even the youngest kids. Based on the Yiddish song (the music is in the end notes), it is the story of ultimate frugality and practicality. As Joseph’s coat wears down, he turns it into a vest, a scarf, a tie, a button, until there is nothing left. Each page features a die-cut from the larger garment that hints to the next manifestation. Taback’s collage illustrations are simply divine with lots of little details in things like letters on the table, pictures on the wall and headlines in the newspapers.
The Rooster Prince of Breslov. A young prince gets everything he wants without having to work for it. One day he mysteriously sheds his clothes and starts acting like a rooster. Doctors are called in but no one can find the cure. However, an old man claims he can get the “prince ready to rule the land.” Over the next few days, the old man lives with the boy, coming down to his level, relating to him in such a way as to expose the boy’s compassionate side, nurturing his desire to perform mitzvoth. I loved this story because the lesson of learning self-worth by practicing compassion and learning the value of good deeds over material wealth is framed in an accessible story (a rooster boy does elicit a few laughs) for kids.
It Could Always Be Worse. There are several picture book versions of this Yiddish tale, but Zemach’s is my favorite. A poor man lives in an overcrowded house and the noise and activity is driving him crazy! So, he seeks out advice from the local rabbi. The rabbi, however, tells him to bring in the barn animals to his house, which turns the place into utter chaos. The illustrations are so much fun to sift through, with their funny little vignettes inside the house. When the farmer finally removes the excess animals and people from the house he declares everything to finally be peaceful — only… it is exactly as it was when he started out. My 5 year old, especially, found this irony to be particularly hilarious.
The Way Meat Loves Salt: A Cinderella Tale from the Jewish Tradition. Shakespeare fans may recognize the similarity of this tale’s beginning with that of a certain tragedy. In Poland, a rabbi with three daughters asks them to describe how much they each love him. The youngest, Mireleh, tells him she loves her father the way “meat loves salt”, and in doing so gets herself banished by the foolish, foolish rabbi. Mireleh travels away from home, is given a magic stick (by the prophet Elijah, it turns out) and ends up married to a neighboring rabbi’s son and at their wedding banquet the meat is served without salt. This is a text heavy book, but the illustrations will keep lap sitters interested in the story.
The Rabbi and the Twenty-nine Witches. Despite what the cover may suggest, this is not a Halloween book! Every month during the full moon, a host (twenty-nine, if we are being specific) of scary, ugly, mean witches torment and frighten a village with their cackles and shrieks, causing the chickens to lay cracked eggs and the cows to give sour milk. A rabbi takes note that the witches do not appear when it is raining. My sons, who had recently watched The Wizard of Oz, immediately understood the witches’ reluctance to get wet. The rabbi, apparently just as smart as my kids, lures the witches out in the rain, and — you guess it — they melt. It’s really quite a funny little story.
Golem. This a gorgeous book but I recommend it for kids ages 7 and up. The Golem is giant created from clay and brought to life by a rabbi skilled in the teachings of Cabala, a form of mystical Judaism. In this story, the rabbi creates the Golem to protect the Jewish ghetto in Prague from its enemies who accuse the Jews of mixing the blood of children into their flour. Only a Golem is able to protect the unarmed inhabitants of the ghetto who are besieged by their enemies. This is a powerful book and an excellent choice for older children. Read the book in conjunction with the extensive historical and cultural endnote. It’s a good book to start off a deeper conversation about the history of the Jews in Europe, too. Also available as an ebook.
The Elijah Door: A Passover Tale. This story about families coming together can be enjoyed anytime, not just at Passover. Two families, the the Lippas and the Galinskys always celebrated Passover together, but some complicated livestock dealings turned them into adversaries. The son and daughter of the opposing houses, however, want to get married and they enlist the help of the rabbi in their plot, which involves a very, very long Seder table. The story also introduces a bit of the Passover traditions, like following breadcrumbs and the Four Questions. The text is lovely and I adore the woodblock illustrations.
Gershon’s Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year. On Rosh Hashana, faithful Jews perform tashlikh, a ritual casting of their mistakes into the water. (As explained to me by my husband — you can leave a comment on this post to correct me. I’m always interested in improving my understanding of my husband’s faith.) The tashlikh is the central point of understanding for this story about Gershon, the baker, who decides that, instead of atoning for his errors and making amends, he will shove them into a bag in his basement. These sins, represented as little demons, do not go away (as everyone knows…) and turn into a larger monster, which Gershon must face. It sounds like a serious book, but Kimmel’s skillful narrative makes it accessible and even though there is an obvious moral, the story is interesting. Jon J. Muth is one of my favorite illustrators and his divine watercolors perfectly accompany this story of the importance of repentance. An end note gives more information and background of the legend.
The Treasure. Isaac has a dream that he should go and look for treasure under the bridge by the Royal Palace. He feels quite foolish doing so, but cannot ignore the command. The poor, elderly man sets off on the journey only to find a heavily guarded bridge and a guard with his own dream. Isaac’s reverse journey has an interesting narrative repetition. The overall story is a rather quiet tale of trust and faith, with the message “sometimes one must travel far to discover what is near.” Uri Shulevitz earned a Caldecott Honor for this book and the illustrations are outstanding, as good a reason as any for picking up this book.
Although I prefer to populate these lists with single title picture books, Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories needs to be on this list! Chelm is a village of fools and the seven Elders are the most foolish of all. There are seven stories in all, each with a little lesson to be gleaned, but read them for the light-hearted humor and a few giggles.
Onions and Garlic: An Old Tale. The tale of a father who sends his sons away to make their fortune is one that is common across many — if not all — cultural traditions. This one has a fun twist. A father sends his favorite son off with a bag of onions. Why onions? Well, the father thinks his son is too soft hearted to be a good businessman but knows that losing a bag of onions would not be a hardship, should the boy fail. However, the boy succeeds, and succeeds rather fantastically. In fact, his success is so outstanding that his brothers try a similar tactic, but with much different — and rather amusing — results.
Do you have any Jewish folktales to recommend? Will you be reading these with your kids?
- Learn more about Jewish American Heritage Month.
- Jewish families can sign up for free monthly books from PJ Library.
- The Jewish magazine, Tablet, has an interesting children’s book column.