My First Jewish Baby Book: Almost everything you need to know about being Jewish – Julie Merberg and Beck Feiner, Downtown Bookworks, 2018
“Welcome to the tribe,” the back of this charming board book announces. My First Jewish Baby Book promises to introduce new Jewish little ones to holidays, rituals, and the “expressive language of their people.” To quote Tevye, “Sounds crazy, no?” Julie Merberg and Beck Feiner have actually created a funny and eclectic summary of Jewish life that is not only, or even mainly, for babies. Brightly colored pictures and playful text rapidly associate different holidays and customs for the sake of rhyme. The result is a quirky and humorous ride through the Jewish life cycle, along with a warm and sincere salute to the Jewish values that a new baby will come to know, from his bris to her first Purim party, and beyond.
If you are look for an introduction to the alef-bet (Jewish alphabet), this is not it. The book is in English, beginning with the afikomen (matzo) hidden by parents and found by kids at the Passover seder, and ends with zayde, Yiddish for grandfather. Some of the choices seem the result of free association, such as the combination of two different holidays, Hanukkah and Purim, for “G” and “H,” in order to include gelt (chocolate coins) and hamantaschen (pastries shaped like a three-cornered hat to commemorate Queen Esther’s heroic victory over the wicked villain of the Purim story.) This method may make less sense as a teaching tool, but quite a bit of sense in reflecting the way kids think about the world, in this, case, through the connection between different but delicious foods.
Speaking of food, my second-favorite two pages in the book are “K is for Kosher,” where the author enthuses about kugel, knishes, and kasha, (potato or noodle pudding; pastries with meat, potato, or other fillings; and buckwheat often served with egg bow pasta). The grown-up in the room, shown from only her mouth down to emphasize the importance of eating, is wearing a lobster bib with the treif (non-kosher) seafood marked off-limits with the circle/backslash symbol. A little boy stands in front of the table, but his mouth doesn’t reach the surface. Hopefully, he reaches his hand towards the kugel…
and we feel assured that he will get some to eat.
Rituals are presented from both religious and social angles. Rosh Hashanah initiates a season of saying you’re “sorry for doing bad things,” while lighting Sabbath candles brings warmth and closeness to your home. The thirteen-year old bar mitzvah boy has braces on his teeth for an added “B” lesson. Raised on a chair by the hands of joyous dancers, he also holds a bagel, and is reminded that his bubbe (grandmother) loves him. We don’t see the dancers, only their hands, which are different colors. Other pictures also depict multi-cultural participants in Jewish events.
Merberg and Feiner combine “Y” and “Z” to assure readers that their grandfather’s name in Yiddish is zayde, and that he is a person who “adores you,” but also “ensures you…will grow up to be a mensch” (a good person). Your own life experience may determine whether you find this trite or whether it brings tears to your eyes. I love the picture, in which the zayde, seated in a rocking chair, holds a baby on his lap, and a bubbe in a chic green jumpsuit, cat’s-eye glasses, pearls, and bright red shoes, holds open a book entitled “Yiddish” for an older grandchild. This book would make a lovely Hanukkah gift, both for those who are well acquainted with the legal requirements for giving tzedakah (charity) and the specifics of what makes wine kosher, to those who would simply appreciate a love poem to the joys of living in a Jewish family.