Growing up Jewish in the Unites States can be tricky. Many secular parents still want to keep the Jewish tradition and culture alive within their family, but it can be difficult when every TV show includes a Christmas special, while often neglecting Hannukah. A good way to introduce your kids to religion, as they grow up in the American melting pot, is through quality reading time with these 13 books filled with Yiddish, humor, and Jewish culture.
Baby’s First Books
Goodnight Sh’ma by Jacqueline Jules
Whether or not it’s directly based on it, this is the Goodnight Moon for Jewish children. Beautifully illustrated and with a cozy, intimate feel, this rhyming board book is for the littlest of little ones. It portrays a child saying the Sh’ma prayer before bedtime, as is traditional, conveying the essence of the prayer in a child-friendly way.
Nosh, Schlep, Schluff by Laurel Snyder
Introduce your kids to some Yiddish words and learn along with them! This board book goes through a toddler’s daily routine and has him kibbitzing, oying, and kvetchy. Lighthearted and funny, it’s a book to read over and over again.
Five Little Gefiltes by Dave Horowitz
An adventure story of escaped gefilte fish, this raucous tale will have both you and your children laughing out loud. As Mama Gefilte worries over her little boys (“Oy vey!” she cries out when she discovers they’re gone), the gefilte boys have adventures around New York City. In taxis, on the beach, and down the streets of NYC—count the gefiltes along with your children on fingers or toes.
The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah by Leslie Kimmelman
This take on the classic has our familiar hardworking Little Red Hen asking for help from Dog, Horse, and Sheep. She needs to make matzah for Passover, and no one will help her do all the work necessary for this important part of the meal! Though upset, she forgives them and shares her food with her lazy friends. A bonus perk is the matzah recipe you can make with your kids after you’ve finished reading.
Bagels from Benny by Aubrey Davis
Benny is a little boy who loves his grandfather’s bagels. When he tells his grandfather that he is the best bagel baker in the land, his grandfather tells Benny that the bagels are a gift from God. Benny thinks they should be returned and brings the bagels to the synagogue. Based on one of the many Jewish tales of finding God through acts of charity, Bagels from Benny has a beautiful message that can be secular as well as religious: Giving to others makes you richer.
Something from Nothing by Phoebe Gilman
Joseph has a blanket he got from his grandfather when he was very small. As he grows older, the blanket gets slowly shredded and torn. Each time it gets smaller, Joseph’s grandfather makes something else out of it—a vest, a handkerchief, a button—until finally there is nothing left. You cannot make something from nothing. But at the bottom of each page, watch the mice underground as they collect the lost pieces of Joseph’s blanket and make the most beautiful decorations for their little mouse-rooms. Even though Joseph may have nothing, he has given something to others.
My Yiddish Vacation by Iona Skye
Actress Iona Skye’s new children’s book is full of family and fun. Sammy and his sister Ruth practice their rusty Yiddish with their grandparents in Florida. The sunny locale is far from the European origins of Yiddish, but Ruth and Sammy embody the all-American Jew, using Yiddish words in their narration and explaining the meaning as they go along. Read aloud to your kids or have them read it to you, and have fun sounding out the words together!
Celebrate: A Book of Jewish Holidays by Judy Gross
This is a fantastic illustrated book that includes all the major Jewish holidays. From Rosh Hashanah to Passover, Judy Gross gives the pronunciation of the holidays, the stories behind them, and the traditions belonging to them. This is a book to read with and to your kids. Take it off the shelf over and over to refresh their (and your!) memory of the meaning behind each day of celebration.
Max Makes a Cake by Michelle Edwards
It’s Passover, but it’s also Max’s mother’s birthday. So many things are going on at once, and Max keeps getting distracted from the cake he wants to bake! Eventually, though, he figures out how to do it on his own, and he learns how independent he can be when he puts his mind to it. A Jewish-themed confidence booster—we all need a book like this at home.
It Could Always Be Worse by Margot Zemach
This Yiddish folktale, illustrated here for the first time, tells of a small, crowded home. The father goes to the rabbi to ask for advice on how to live more comfortably. The rabbi’s advice is to bring the chickens, the rooster, and the goose into the house. The father takes the rabbi’s advice as he tells him to bring in more and more of the farm animals. A tale of endurance, patience, and perspective, this is an essential story for children and adults alike.
During the Holocaust, France’s Jews survived at a higher rate than in any other country. Maryann Macdonald tells the story of one of these, a girl named Odette, whose parents have joined the fight against the Nazis during World War II. Odette hides in plain site, pretending to be Christian rather than Jewish, terrified of discovery. Written in free verse, this poetic, historical chapter book has a happy ending, and it’s a good introduction to some of the terrible things the Jewish people have endured.
The Yankee at the Seder by Elka Webber
Based on a true story, Elka Webber weaves together different strands of American and Jewish history in this beautiful book. At the end of the Civil War, Southerner Jacob knows he is on the losing side. Angry and frustrated, he wants to prove his worth. But when a Jewish Yankee soldier asks him for a piece of Matzah, Jacob can’t refuse. Joining them for the Passover meal, the soldier and the Confederate family learn they share values and ideals in common.
The Importance of Wings by Robin Friedman
In the 1980s, a 13-year-old Israeli immigrant to the United States struggles to find her place. Roxanne uses TV to fill the void: She watches reruns of classic American TV shows like Little House on the Prairie and The Brady Bunch. She longs to become American for real but she doesn’t know how. When Liat, another Israeli girl, moves into the supposively haunted house next door, Roxanne becomes curious. Together, they discover friendship and work through the difficulties of assimilation.