5 Children’s Books That Celebrate Jewish Heritage

    Author Heidi Smith Hyde shares the inspiration behind her books.

    May is Jewish American Heritage Month, in which we honor the profound and positive influence that Jewish people have had on American history, art, and culture. Heidi Smith Hyde, the award-winning author of Feivel’s Flying Horses and many more books for children, tells the stories behind these important contributions.

    As is the case with many authors, as a child Hyde was—and still is—a voracious reader and library patron. “One particular favorite was Sydney Taylor’s classic series, All-of-a-Kind Family,” she recalls, referring to this tale of five sisters at the turn of the century in New York’s Lower East Side. “Taylor’s beloved series fueled my imagination, helping to form my earliest impression of the Jewish immigrant experience in America.”

    When considering the impact of Jewish-American heritage, prominent figures such as Albert Einstein, Louis Brandeis, and Jonas Salk may initially come to mind. But Hyde prefers to focus her own books on the lesser-known stories that often fly under the radar. “Jews have been involved in a myriad of professions,” she reminds us. “We’ve been cowboys, peddlers, mayors, astronomers, boxers, civil rights workers, composers, physicists, gold and silver miners, and more!”

    And these untold stories have had a meaningful effect on readers. “I’m always gratified when people approach me and tell me how much they’ve learned from my books. For me, writing for children is a privilege as well as a responsibility,” Hyde reflects. “As an author, I feel compelled to portray the Jewish immigrant experience in an authentic way, and to convey key Jewish values and ideals, such as ‘Zikaron’ (remembrance).”

    We asked Hyde about her inspiration for writing a handful of her books, and how they highlight the varied and distinct aspects of the Jewish-American experience.


     

    Mendel’s Accordion

    Mendel’s Accordion traces the origins of Klezmer, a musical tradition brought to this country by the Yiddish speaking Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. The book emphasizes the importance of tradition and Jewish continuity.

    As a child, our eldest son, Andrew, played the accordion. Our family fell in love with Klezmer music, and at the time I remember thinking, ‘How come there aren’t any children’s books about Klezmer?’ Thus the idea for Mendel’s Accordion was born!

    In the story, the accordion is a metaphor for our Jewish past. We can’t lock it away in a box; it must be treasured and shared. We are our present, but we would be nothing without our past. We can never forget the generations of people who came before us.

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    Feivel’s Flying Horses

    Feivel’s Flying Horses pays tribute to the great East European woodcarvers (such as Marcus Charles Illions) who upon arriving in America went on to carve some of the most beautiful carousel horses in this country. Many of them can be found today in Coney Island.

    In 2007 there was an exhibit in New York, ‘Guilded Lions and Jeweled Horses,’ showing how Eastern European Jewish woodcarvers helped bridge the gap between the Old World and the New by becoming an important part of the American carousel horse industry. This unusual exhibit, featuring the work of Murray Zimiles, sparked the idea for Feivel’s Flying Horses.

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    Emanuel and the Hanukkah Rescue

    During the 18th century, a group of Portuguese Jews–having escaped the Inquisition–settled in New England and became an important part of the New Bedford whaling industry. Some served as merchants and shopkeepers, while others built and owned whaling ships. Emanuel and the Hanukkah Rescue is a fictional story based upon this fascinating yet little-known period in our nation’s history.

    I read an article in Hadassah Magazine about Jewish involvement in the 18th-century whaling industry. Having learned this interesting tidbit, my husband and I visited the New Bedford Whaling Museum to learn more about the ‘city that lit the world.’ For months I was obsessed with whales and oil lamps until–at last–the plot for Emanuel and the Hanukkah Rescue came together in my mind.

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    Elan, Son of Two Peoples

    Contrary to popular belief, not all East European Jewish immigrants settled in [New York City’s] Lower East Side. Some of the more adventurous souls ventured west to seek their fortune in rugged territories such as Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. Here they found work as peddlers, prospectors, and storekeepers. One such adventurer was Solomon Bibo, a Jewish immigrant from Prussia, whose life inspired Elan, Son of Two Peoples. An outspoken advocate for Native American rights, Bibo worked tirelessly to secure more land for the Pueblo. Eventually he was appointed Pueblo governor, the Acoma equivalent of a tribal chief.

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    Shanghai Sukkah

    In 1941, thousands of Jewish refugees escaped the Nazi regime and traveled to the east coast of China, where they settled in the Shanghai ghetto. Despite difficult living conditions, Jewish culture flourished. Along the narrow, winding streets of Shanghai, it wasn’t unusual to find Yiddish theater, synagogues, newspapers, coffee houses and schools. Shanghai Sukkah celebrates these heroic refugees who, against all odds, managed to preserve their rich traditions.

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    Many years ago my neighborhood synagogue established a monument to commemorate Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat to Lithuania who, at the risk of his own career, issued thousands of visas to Jews to help them escape the horrors of the Holocaust. Many of these Jews resettled in Shanghai, where they lived meaningful Jewish lives. At the time, I had no idea that Jews once took refuge in China–and so I wrote a book about it!

    Though America’s Jews have been few in number, we have made important contributions to art, literature, science, medicine, politics and more. Ours is a history of survival and transformation, and I hope my books reflect that.

    Heidi Smith Hyde’s books are available from Open Road Media and Kar-Ben publishers.



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