Shoshi’s Shabbat

I’ve been struggling with how to approach this book, and decided to do it rabbi style… Let’s start with a joke.

It’s a classic joke, along the lines of the entirely inaccurate joke, “two Jews, three opinions,” which quite underestimates the level at which Jews are capable of arguing about everything from Jewish laws to Jewish stories, from what Jews think to where Jewish customs originate, and so on– although I have to confess that many Jews would disagree with me. This is necessary background because if you aren’t deeply imbued in Jewish argumentativeness, the background and exploration I’m putting in this review may feel negative to you. It is not. I really, really enjoyed this book and I recommend it as a way to explain Shabbat as a positive thing for any young reader and any family. I also had questions about the art, the setting, and the fact-checking that went into it because I am a super persnickety reader of stories with Jewish roots. So let’s get to it, and, yes, I’m gleefully rubbing my hands together because I love reading Jewish stories like this.

A huge thank you to Candlewick Press for sending me Shoshi’s Shabbat by Caryn Yacowitz with art by Kevin Hawkes! The story is drawn from a midrash (a type of exegetical storytelling, often comparable to the roles of parables in Christianity) that was told, I believe, repeatedly in Jewish textual history, but is most commonly traced to the 9th century, is of a man who sells his cow to a non-Jew, and the cow refuses to work on Shabbat. Ultimately, the new owner is so impressed by the strength of Shabbat that he converts. In different versions, the details alter. It is told quite often, meaning it varies a lot. The key figure in the story is Yochanan ben Torta, a 2nd century tanna or rabbinic sage.

Caryn Yacowitz adapts the story beautifully for children, and it’s especially great for a kindergarten read-aloud. I immediately handed a copy (because I was sent two by accident) to my daughter’s former Grade 1 teacher who’s also one of my favourite book readers ever. She’s still teaching Grade 1 and was incredibly excited because it’s been so hard to get recent, well-told stories for Jewish kids which really show Jewish life and Jewish settings and Jewish customs without apology. Do you have any idea how rare this is? And from a mainstream publisher? This is wildly exciting!

As I read, the first thing I thought was, “I’m glad adults are going to be reading this.” I have had, from university until now, more questions about Shabbat and about keeping kosher than about any other aspect of Jewish life. There’s a lot of stuff in Jewish practice that one might find odd to explain that nobody cares about.

For example, as a married woman, I cover my hair. The only people who care that I cover my hair are TSA agents. (“It’s for religious reasons,” I say over and over. “OK pat down your hat and hold out your hands and we’ll swab them,” they answer as they take my baby’s blanket and stuffed animal away “to check them.” Next time I travel, I want to go by train or boat.) Everyone thinks Chanukah is just lovely, aren’t those latkes delicious? Pretty candles! It all seems understandable.

But Shabbat is a tough one. “It’s a day of rest,” you say. “Oh, are you coming to the conference? No? Why not?” “Well,” you try again, “it’s a day of rest.” “Can’t you just meet us at the restaurant?” “Not really….” As for the whole concept of food laws that aren’t about ethics but are just because God says so– well, in truth, I have enormous sympathy for anyone trying to understand or anyone trying to explain these daily, weekly, ever so common laws and rituals! It’s hard because it isn’t intended to be easy. It’s based in faith, purely in faith, and no one can explain faith. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t great beauty in these elements of our lives, and that we don’t want to share these beauties, even if we aren’t a proselytizing religion, with our neighbours. Just as I loved being invited to my friends’ homes to see their wonderful Christmas trees and to dip Easter eggs, I absolutely loved having my friends over for Shabbat dinner. I remember my lovely friend exclaiming over my mother’s challah, and now her mother has that recipe and they enjoy it to this day. It’s a source of great pride to me. And yet we have so many beautiful and funny and sweet children’s books about Chanukah, as well as a plethora of less excellent ones, and this is the first mainstream one I can think of that talks about Shabbat as a positive feature of our Jewish lives. I just can’t say often enough how pleased I am that it’s out there.

A brief survey: it describes a Jewish farmer, Simon, who has a young ox, Shoshi, and they work together for 6 days and then on Shabbat they rest. Simon’s grandchildren play with Shoshi, and the illustrations show them all enjoying a break, playing and enjoying the weather, being outside, playing music on a simple pipe, and picking flowers. When Simon gets too old, he sells Shoshi to his neighbour, who thinks Shoshi is just great– until along comes the seventh day and she stops. She won’t work. Ultimately, he realizes what’s up, and appreciates the break that Shabbat brings.

But here come the quibbles. And I will break off for another parable.

One day I was reading a vampire story and a thought occurred to me. I immediately sent a note to my friend who studied at a pretty intense yeshiva (school of Jewish textual study) years ago, “Hey, if a vampire flew into a yeshiva–” “How would it do that, Deb, getting past all the religious symbols?” “OK, so the students are outside, don’t interrupt. The vampire bites and turns the students. Now they’re all vampires. Can they drink human blood? It’s necessary to them as vampires. Is it kosher, though? It’s human blood, not animal… Is it–” and we were off. We argued. We debated. We shared the question more widely, among both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. “Pekuach nefesh [to save a life],” one person told me, “necessary to their lives.” “But they’re undead! Do they even have a nefesh [soul]?” As expected, we reached no satisfactory conclusion, because reaching a satisfactory conclusion isn’t really the point– the debate is the point.

You get my point? If we don’t have real questions to pull to pieces exegetically, we (and I mean I) will make them up out of vampire stories, for crying out loud.

So, here goes. It’s Shabbat, and a friend and I are reading Shoshi’s Shabbat. “Simon is playing a flute,” I point out, “on Shabbat. But he won’t farm on Shabbat. Both are off limits according to halachah.” “Well,” my friend mused, “the reason many authorities give for not playing musical instruments on Shabbat is the same as not to ride a bicycle [Ed. this is not made up, that’s actually true], which is that if it breaks you may be tempted to fix it, which is forbidden, and the flute in this picture is one piece, unlikely to need repairs… What bugs me more is that he’s called Simon, the anglicization of Shimon, but Yohanan and Shoshi have Hebrew names. And picking flowers on Shabbat is exactly the same as farming.”

This is all true.

But the bigger question, the more fundamental one, is something I’ve been researching just now for my daughter’s homeschooling: What, exactly, is Shabbat? What is it to do, who is it for, and what does it achieve? Over the Jewish holidays, I re-read The Sabbath by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi of enormous intellect and humanity who marched with Dr King and John Lewis in Selma. In The Sabbath, Rabbi Heschel doesn’t give a list of to do and not to do. He outlines a purpose. To me, as an Orthodox Jew, everything I choose not to do according to halacha is a reminder and an opportunity for what I can and must do on Shabbat according to Rabbi Heschel’s outline: “Nothing is as hard to suppress,” writes Rabbi Heschel, “as the will to be a slave to one’s own pettiness. Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty. Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people…” Shabbat, to Rabbi Heschel, is a day that encourages us, that allows us, that welcomes us to set aside pettiness, to be bigger and warmer than the other six days, but without denigrating our six days of labour. Bicycles are important six days a week, but on one day we loosen the holds of bicycles as well as dishwashers. Rather, we walk instead of running, we sit together and think, and we talk, and we learn to be quiet. When we want music, we raise our voices rather than play on instruments.

So, I do not say that Shoshi’s Shabbat is inaccurate in showing breaches of strict Jewish law regarding playing a musical instrument or picking flowers given that there are those who do and those who don’t, and the spirit of liberty is in the warmth and delight of a family enjoying each other. And yet… I wonder, flipping and looking, When is the book set? And that’s when Deborah the Fact-Checker comes out.

There’s another book, you know, that features a simple pipe being played not on Shabbat, but on Shabbat Shabbaton, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar and the single Jewish day most appallingly underrepresented in children’s literature. A day for self-examination of the highest order, we are ordered to pray together, communally, with the greatest introspection. And in Yussel’s Prayer, sadly out of print, by Barbara Cohen, with art by Michael J. Deraney, the little cowherd Yussel is not allowed to go to pray with the others, but, though he’s told to work, he insists on fasting and he takes his simple pipe and offers his tune in lieu of the prayers he doesn’t know. It is very likely he wouldn’t even have known, so uninstructed, that he shouldn’t play the flute on Yom Kippur. He does it in pure innocence of a devoted soul. Like The Juggler of Notre Dame, sincerity and truth take precedence over knowledge and expertise here.

The difference is that Barbara Cohen has very obviously rooted her picture book in the world of Chassidic storytelling where humble workers are striving to achieve religious devotion and observance despite being unable to study as assiduously as the great learners, and that background is integral to the story. I can’t tell, quite, what Yohanan’s background is, and can only hazard a guess at Simon’s.

This is what I love about Shoshi’s Shabbat, and this is what I want editors and publishers to take to heart for more books in future like this one.

I love that it gives a truly positive, cozy, beautiful view of life as a Jew, whoever the Jew is. Shabbat is supposed to be pleasant (we have a concept called “oneg Shabbat,” the pleasantness of Shabbat), and Shoshi and those around her love Shabbat– and that day of active rest lets them take new energy into the work week from Shabbat. We need that today! Not just Jews, even: everyone I know is so tired, let’s all enjoy a true, genuine rest. I remember thinking when I read Oge Mora’s gorgeous book Saturday, a story that shows a girl and her mother enjoying that one day in the week they have just for them, “Wow, everyone needs to read this: it really shows what it’s like to have dedicated time together.” Although Oge Mora came to it from a different angle, one integral to her world, it still spoke to me. I think this kind of book does that same thing: even if you’re not part of the Jewish world, this is the kind of book that can teach something Jews value and that we have to offer.

But it’s also important to remember the vastness of Jewish history, the diversity of our faith and stories, as you go into this world. The little things matter: Why is Simon not Shimon? Is this set in late antiquity, either 2nd century (the time period of Yochanan ben Torta) or 9th century (the date of the most common version of this midrash)? If so, the prayer shawl is not quite accurate to the time period. I can’t speak to the agricultural equipment, I never studied late antique farming equipment of the Middle East, personally. Much is conveyed through the art– which, in style, is greatly enjoyable and much better than art in many Jewish picture books– but I keep tripping over the details and asking questions about the clothing, activities, and setting.

The note at the end by the author does a lovely job of explaining the background, the midrash the story comes from, and the depth of her commitment to both animals and to Shabbat, as well as her view that it is more relevant today than ever. I love that. I want that to be so integrated in both art and text that the note is almost unnecessary.

Altogether, I really laud this book. I want it to be spread widely. I want everyone to have a chance to curl up in an armchair or rocking chair with a passel of children on a carpet listening while they read about Shoshi working for six days and then reminding everyone around her to stop and smell the loveliness of restfulness on the breeze.

And I want more books like this one, and, nitpicker that I am, I want those books to have an even greater attention to detail.