“Bat! Bat!” It’s a new command that’s especially popular in my household, and it has nothing to do with a flying rodent.
Rather, the way my toddler pronounces “Shabbat,” the Hebrew word for the Jewish day of rest, and it’s a reference to my almost two-year-old‘s new obsession: a beautiful and short board book we got from PJ Library a few weeks ago called Buen Shabat, Shabat Shalom.
The book — which came out this week to the general public, and not just PJ Library members — is written by the musician, writer, and Sephardic activist, Sarah Aroeste. The lovely book combines Ladino words with English in a way that feels seamless. (If you don’t already know, Ladino, which is also known as Judeo-Spanish, is the Jewish language used by Jews who were exiled from Spain, mostly in Turkey and Greece.)
Buen Shabat tells the story of one family’s Shabbat dinner. Throughout, the Ladino expression, “Buen Shabat,” is repeated again and again alongside its Hebrew counterpart, Shabbat Shalom. The phrase literally means “peaceful Sabbath,” and it’s what we use to say “Have a good Shabbat.” (Or, in Yiddish, “Gut Shabbos.”)
This book’s illustrations drawn by Ayesha L. Rubio, are of a family preparing for and celebrating Shabbat. They are very sweet and making readers feel welcome at this Shabbat table with a Ladino-speaking family.
The text is simple and mellifluous — Aroeste is, after all, a songwriter — and the words’ musicality and repetition is what captures my toddler. He keeps asking me to read it again and again. We point out to a hamsa on the wall and I teach him the Hebrew word for hand, yad. We talk about the challah and the food on the table. Reading about the family lighting the candles (las kandelas in Ladino) and singing songs (las kantikas) has had a surprising effect on my son — it has made him more excited to celebrate Shabbat at home, the two of us happily recalling the rituals from the book as we light our own Shabbat candles.
Another thing I love about this book is how it has diversified his Jewish education at this early stage. While we have countless Jewish books peppered with Yiddish words — and a full shelf of Hebrew board books — this is the first book to introduce Ladino to him. As Jewish books become more diverse in their portrayals of Jews of color and the full scope of the Jewish community, I love this book for shedding light on the diversity of language among our people.
“I was just thrilled that the book was going to introduce Ladino books to a wider audience,” Aroeste tells me over the phone. “The fact that’s it’s resonating with little kids, that’s more that we could’ve asked for.” According to Aroeste, the book designed to be an introduction to Ladino for Jewish parents, and not just kids.
“This book actually came from a song I wrote, my last album came out in 2017, it’s a holiday album, there’s actually a song on that album called ‘Buen Shabbat,'” Aroeste explains. “It’s really fun, there’s actually a merengue beat!”
For Aroeste, who is working on other children’s books exploring Sephardic culture and Ladino, the most important thing is that families have fun with Buen Shabat, Shabbat Shalom. She chose not to add a pronunciation guide and not to make the book too didactic for that purpose. I have to say, that choice works; the experience of reading it is joyous and light.
She knows some may take issue with the Sephardic representation: “Purists would say real Sephardim don’t eat challah — to which I would say: I grew up an American — this is how I live as a contemporary Sephardic Jew,” she says.
Still, Aroeste says she hopes that people will notice the small details, like the fish on the table or the Turkish lamps. She hopes that through the book parents and children will get a great taste for Ladino and for Sephardic culture — and want more. I certainly do!
I’m so grateful that Buen Shabat, Shabbat Shalom exists. That’s true even if sometimes I am tired of reading the same book over and over again. (However, I accept this as an essential part of parenthood, and there’s an important educational value in that repetition, too).
I dare say that this beautiful new board book should be an indispensable part of any young Jewish child’s library.