When parents and teachers reach for children's books with Jewish characters or themes, they often come up against the problem of finding Jewish picture books that aren't about the Holocaust. And while, those stories are important (in fact we have a list of children's books about the Holocaust here), it is a disservice to children to limit our storytelling of the Jewish experience.
The picture books on this list celebrate a variety of Jewish experiences–from Jewish daily life, to performing acts of service (mitzvah), Jewish folk traditions, as well as some excellent picture book biographies of Jewish individuals.
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Fiction with Jewish Protagonists and Themes
These picture books with Jewish characters and themes are a delight to read aloud and many of them contain gentle lessons for living a meaningful life.
AND A CAT FROM CARMEL MARKET by Alyssa Satin Capucilli, illustrated by Rotem Teplow
This adorable picture book is perfect for story time. A jolly Bubbe goes to the Carmel market to buy the ingredients for her Shabbat meal. With each item she purchases, a different cat sneaks into her bags and bundles. Young children will love to join in the repetitive refrain, "And a cat from Carmel Market!" and point out the sneaky cats. A short glossary of terms (Bubbe, Oy, Kugel, etc.) is included. Ages 3 and up.
A RAINY DAY STORY by Ruth Calderon, illustrated by Noa Kelner
Here is a Talmudic story that teaches the universal value of considering the needs of others as well as oneself. Rabbi Hanina is walking home in the rain. Illustrations depict an unhappy man, but birds, frogs and other creatures enjoying the pleasures of the rain. The Rabbi asks God why it must rain and cause him so much discomfort and displeasure. When God stops the rain at his request, Rabbi Hanina notices that while he may be content, the rest of the world now suffers. Children will want to discuss the Rabbi's choices and his change of heart. An endnote includes the original Babylonian Talmud text (Taanit 24b) in both Hebrew and English. Ages 4 and up.
THE ROOSTER PRINCE OF BRESLOV by Ann Redisch Stampler, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin
Find it: Amazon
I love this Yiddish tale! 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 it turns a somewhat complex lesson of learning self-worth by practicing compassion and learning the value of good deeds over material wealth into a very accessible story (a rooster boy does elicit a few laughs) for kids. Ages 4 and up. PJ Library has a discussion guide here.
CHIK CHAT SHABBAT by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker
It is a tradition for Goldie to serve her neighbors a delicious meal on Friday nights. But when Goldie is not feeling well, the whole building comes together to make things right. I absolutely love the multicultural aspect of this book. All the neighbors contribute their own culinary traditions to make a unique and wonderful Shabbat meal. Ages 4 and up.
MORE: Passover books
A HAT FOR MRS. GOLDMAN by Michelle Edwards, illustrated by G. Brian Karas
This is such and incredibly sweet and inspiring story! Mrs. Goldman makes hats for others. Sophie likes to help her by making the pom poms that top each one. When winter arrives Sophie notices that Mrs. Goldman doesn't have a hat of her own and although knitting is challenging for Sophie, she sets about making a hat for her friend. When she is done with the hat, her lack of knitting skills means the hat has a few holes. However, since Sophie knows Mrs. Goldman loves her pom poms, Sophie covers up the holes in a creative way. Mrs. Goldman, of course, loves the hat and the kindness shown to her. Ages 5 and up.
RIFKA TAKES A BOW by Rebecca Rosenberg Perlov, illustrated by Cosei Kawa
In 1915, Rifka's parents are actors in a Yiddish theater on 2nd Avenue in New York City. Rifka describes the experience of traveling with them to the theater, hanging out with the actors as they prepare, and watching the action from backstage. Being among the hustle and bustle of a group of people getting ready for a performance is just as magical as being on stage. From the surprise of fake props, to the transformation of actor into character, to the careful traipsing across stage wires, Perlov gets that magic just right. An end note gives historical background on the importance of Yiddish theater in America. Ages 5 and up.
YAFFA AND FATIMA: SHALOM, SALAAM by Fawzia Gilani-Williams, illustrated by Chiara Fedele
Two friends, a Muslim girl and a Jewish girl, live on neighboring date farms. The text describes the differences between the girls, but in doing so, emphasizes their similarities. This is a retelling of a folktale in which the two friends, when hardship comes, find ways to help each other. An author's note gives more information. Ages 4 and up.
THE CHAMELEON THAT SAVED NOAH'S ARK by Yael Molchadsky, illustrated by Orit Bergman
Find it: Amazon
This cute retelling of the Noah's Ark story gives a pair of chameleons a starring role. Once aboard the ark, Noah and his family can't figure out what to feed the chameleons. When they discover their favorite snack, it happens to be the exact thing that will save the food for the rest of the passengers. (Originally published in Hebrew.) Ages 4 and up.
HERE IS THE WORLD by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Susan Gal
Marvelous, colorful illustrations accompany this book that is perfect for children whether or not they are familiar with the Jewish holidays. The traditions of everything from naming ceremonies to the high holy days and everything in between are the subject of the poetic text that evokes the sensory and communal experience of Jewish traditions. The end of the book also includes activities for the holidays. Ages 4 and up.
THE TREASURE by Uri Shulevitz
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." Ages 5 and up.
BAGELS FROM BENNY by Aubrey Davis, illustrated by Dušan Petričić
Find it: Amazon
Benny loves to help his grandfather in his bagel shop. One day Benny's grandfather says "Don't thank me," to a customer and Benny wants to know why. His grandfather explains that it is God who provided the ability to make the bagels. Benny decides to thank God by leaving bagels in the synagogue. The bagels start disappearing and Benny wonders if it is God who is eating them. Instead, he finds out that a hungry man has been taking the bagels to feed his family. At first Benny is upset that it wasn't God who had been eating the bagels, but his grandfather teaches him that his gift did thank God since it made the world a little better. Ages 4 and up.
BEAUTIFUL YETTA: THE YIDDISH CHICKEN by Daniel Pinkwater, illustrated by Jill Pinkwater
Find it: Amazon
In this hilarious tale told in multiple languages (including English, Yiddish and Spanish), an adventurous chicken, on the way to the butcher shop, escapes to Brooklyn. She is homesick for the farm but after she saves a young parrot from certain death, the parrot colony expresses its gratitude by teaching her how to live in the city. Be sure to read it in all the silly voices!! Ages 4 and up.
Picture Book Biographies
Read about the extraordinary variety of contributions Jewish individuals have made to society and culture.
I DISSENT: RUTH BADER GINSBURG MAKES HER MARK by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an icon to many and her tenacity and perseverance is an inspiration for both girls and boys. She bucked traditional gender roles and used her fierce intelligence to stand up to power structures. I love this picture book biography about how Ginsburg never stopped disagreeing with ideas that put women and other underprivileged persons at a disadvantage. Ages 6 and up.
THE BOOK RESCUER by Sue Macy, illustrated by Stacy Innerst
Inspired by his immigrant grandmothers love of books, Aaron Lansky pursued a study of Jewish literature. He went in search of Yiddish books and found out they were quickly disappearing. Lansky then set out to rescue as many Yiddish language books from destruction as he could. The result of his work is the Yiddish Book Center in Massachusetts, which is now home to over 1 million books. Anyone who knows the value of a good book will be inspired by this tale, as well as the stunning illustrations. Ages 6 and up.
REGINA PERSISTED: AN UNTOLD STORY by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illustrated by Margeaux Lucas
In early 20th century Germany, Regina Jonas became the first female ordained rabbi. As you can imagine, she met with a great deal of resistance. She was inspired by her father, who valued religious education even for girls. Despite the roadblocks, Regina stuck with her dream and eventually became a rabbi. The book ends on a positive note, but readers who peruse the author's note will learn that Regina Jonas suffered a tragic fate with millions of others in World War II. Ages 5 and up.
A POEM FOR PETER by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
This is the tender and wonderful story of how a boy from a Polish immigrant family living in Brooklyn grew up to create one of the most iconic children's story books of all time. Pinkney's narration describes Keats's upbringing, his father's concern that pursuing an art career won't pay off, his work with Marvel and the WPA, and his eventual success and an author and illustrator. Stunningly creative illustrations help being his story to life. Not to be missed. Ages 6 and up.
YOU NEVER HEARD OF SANDY KOUFAX?! by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Andre Carrilho
Koufax is a hero of my husband and son, so I had to include a book about the star of the Brooklyn Dodgers who fought against discrimination in the Big Leagues. He is well known for refusing to play in the World Series when a game fell on Yom Kippur. Ages 5 and up.
EMMA'S POEM: THE VOICE OF THE STATUE OF LIBERTY by Linda Glaser, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola
Do your kids know that the words of Lady Liberty were written by a woman? This is the story of how that came to be. Glaser looks at Lazarus's life growing up and how her work with immigrants inspired her to write "The New Colossus." Ages 5 and up.
THE BOY WHO LOVED MATH by Deborah Heiligman, illustrated by Leuyen Pham
A picture book biography of a successful mathematician is a great way to inspire your kids who may not otherwise be inspired by the usual sports and adventure type heroes. (Not that math and adventure loving kids are mutually exclusive! ) Paul Erdős was an eccentric, but very sociable mathematician who traveled the world spreading and sharing his love of numbers. Heiligman does a great job of integrating math concepts into the writing and the end notes include some historical background and mathematical explanations. Ages 6 and up.
BRAVE GIRL : CLARA AND THE SHIRTWAIST MAKERS' STRIKE OF 1909 by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Clara comes to NYC dirt poor but full of grit. She works a miserable, backbreaking job at a garment factory. An extraordinary individual, she taught herself to read and led the largest walkout of women workers in U.S. History, despite being beaten and jailed for participating in labor strikes. Melissa Sweet tells a valuable story of the history of women workers and the importance of fair labor practices. It is a story which still resonates today. Ages 6 and up.