CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 1 . . . . September 1, 2006
The story is set in 1978, in the Glebe, a neighbourhood in Ottawa, ON. The Bernstein family is the only Jewish family on the block. They celebrate Hanukkah while everyone else celebrates Christmas, complete with gifts and showy Christmas trees. The Bernstein children bake cinnamon buns for their friends, the Racines, and help them decorate their tree. While Davika Bernstein and Nicole Racine, both Grade 5 students, are fairly certain Santa Claus does not exist, they both hope there is a 'special someone' who will appear for each of their holidays. The story of Hanukkah is explained at the end of the book. Effectively, though, its only role in the plot is to give the girls the opportunity to hope for a supernatural visit.
Davika's wish is answered with the appearance of two Lubavitchers, pious Jews who have come to reinforce observances and understanding among Jews. They sit the family down and begin to tell the story of the Besht, the founder of the Hasidic movement of Judaism. In a poof of smoke, the two Lubavitchers disappear, and the Besht, who lived from 1700 to 1760, appears before them. The Besht relates how he became known as the Baal Shem Tov, the master of names and worker of miracles. A circle of light surrounds the street, and the Racine family is invited in to hear the Besht's stories about Judaic mysticism and witness his magic.
After the Besht returns to heaven, the Lubavitcher Jews reappear. The Racines are impressed by the Besht, and although he is not Santa Claus, he has made their own traditional holiday memorable.
The complex stories from the Kabbalah refer to mystical teachings of rabbis who have studied and developed an esoteric interpretation of the Old Testament. Followers of Kabbalah believe that these rabbis are chosen to receive a revelation from God. The followers then propagate their teachings to succeeding generations. As with all mysticism or religion, Kabbalah presumes acceptance of the existence of God and the imperfect logic of miracles (“Don't ask any questions." direct the Lubavitchers).
While the book does inform children about the Baal Shem Tov, the plot has many problems that should have been red-circled at the first draft stage.
Many questions arise that are never answered. They include:
The narrative within the story prompts further questions. Why does the Besht stroke his beard and ignore Mr. Racine's comment that Jesus Christ must also have been a tsaddik, a righteous man to whom God had imparted special knowledge? And how many children will automatically know what a non-practicing Anglican priest is?
Adults will understand some attempts at humour that many of the above questions contain. However, if this book is aimed at children, they should be explained or eliminated.
The trade size paperback has watercolour illustrations by Jayne Lemon on the covers and black and white paintings inside. The black and white paintings invite some study, but the figures and scenes do not display much artistic sophistication.
A glossary at the end of the book explains the many Hebrew, Yiddish and English words that are used in the text. There is some further information about the Besht, as well as a bibliography.
Recommended with reservations.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.