Jewish Children's Literature

Classic books continue to inspire new generations.

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"When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist. When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out."

Jewish Folklore

Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, Jewish authors turned to traditional folklore for inspiration. The Wise Men of Helm and Their Merry Tales (1942) and its sequel, More Tales of the Wise Men of Helm (1965) by Solomon Simon were among the first modern collections of Jewish folklore published for children. Their dead-pan style and inexorably developed the fictional city Chelm--where is everything is backwards and humorously illogical--set the standard for other retellings of Chelm tales, of which there are many.

Isaac Bashevis Singer's masterwork for children, Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories (1976), also brought to life tales from the Eastern European folk tradition, alongside a sprinkling of Chelm tales and stories teeming with the demons and devils that often inspired Singer's literary imagination. The black and white illustrations by award-winning artist Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) help to capture the soul of shtetl Jewry.

Classic Picture Books

The art of the picture book is one of the greatest achievements of modern children's literature and is exemplified in many of the classic Jewish tales. In Something from Nothing (1993), written and illustrated by Phoebe Gilman, three different scenes unfold simultaneously through remarkable illustrations: the outsider view of shtetl life, the domestic life of a boy and his extended family, and the community of mice that lives cozily under the floor boards.

Eric Kimmel's Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (1985), with haunting illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman, is based on the legendary character of Hershele Ostropoyler, known in Ashkenazi lore as a prankster who lived in poverty and targeted the rich and powerful. In Kimmel's version, the resourceful vagabond matches wits with a scary and dark array of goblins determined to undermine Hannukah on each of the eight nights of the holiday.

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Linda R. Silver is the editor of The Jewish Valuesfinder, an online guide to over 1,200 recommended books of Jewish content for children and teens. She is also the author of Jewish Classics for Kids and The Jewish Values Finder: A Guide to Values in Jewish Children's Books.