If you could judge a book by its cover, then The PJ Library book Alef-Bet: A Hebrew Alphabet Book by Michelle Edwards would be a book about Hebrew letters. And even though, like in any English alphabet book, each page features one letter and an illustration of a word that begins with that letter, this book is much more. When my daughters and I read Alef-Bet, we discovered that it’s also a book about Israel and, even better, it’s nothing like the books I read about Israel when I was a child.
The narrative in Alef-Bet unfolds through only 22 words (the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet). It’s the colorful illustrations that really tell the story–the story of a Hebrew-speaking family with a real, and sometimes messy, life–just like yours, mine and our children’s. The parents do housework, the children have pillow fights, and the baby makes poopy in his diaper.
The very first stories I read about Israel were from K’tonton in Israel, a book about a thumb-sized boy who travels to the Holy Land as a stowaway in a suitcase. I learned many things about Israelis from this book. I learned that they frequently recite quotes from the Bible. They also ride goats, work the soil with their bare hands, search the desert for water, and then recite a few more quotes from the Bible.
I received Ktonton in Israel in 1975, as a prize for the My Favorite Book Contest at Beth Israel Synagogue. At that time, many children’s books gave us an idealized, almost mawkish, impression of Israelis. They were pioneers, consumed with living their ideals, not their day to day lives. Consequently, those of us who read the books didn’t think of Israel as a place where people did laundry, went to the supermarket, and had jobs, like our parents. Instead, we imagined them waving blue and white flags and planting the trees that we bought each year on Tu Bishvat. (With their bare hands. While reciting quotes from the Bible.) And we were filled with questions.
My children were also filled with questions as we read Alef-Bet. Why is the boy in a wheelchair? Why is the girl spraying water all over the bathroom? Where did they get that pretty tea set? They weren’t generalizing about these foreign and almost superhuman creatures called ISRAELIS the way I did as a child. Because they had learned a truly important message from this simple book–that Israelis are just ordinary people.
For many of us, it can be hard to find messages about Israel that we are comfortable with. They may have an implicit or explicit perspective that we disagree with, or perhaps they ignore issues that we wish were broached. They over-idealize, or they are too critical. What a pleasure it was to spend bedtime with an ordinary Israeli family, just like ours.