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An Alternative to Sexist Jewish Children’s Books

In these children’s books. Mommy is a Rabbi, a deer in a dress carries a Torah scroll, and Grandpa makes the soup for Shabbat dinner. Kar-Ben Copies, the internationally known Jewish children’s publishing company, sells 200,000 books a year and carries 90 titles geared for preschool and primary school children. The books are bright, colorful and innovative—and best of all—they are both Jewish and egalitarian.

This unique publishing company was founded by Madeline Winkler and Judye Groner, whose collaboration began with a Passover celebration together in 1974. Groner, who has a strong Jewish background, was put in charge of finding a Haggadah which would appeal to their young children. After searching through dozens and finding nothing, she wrote her own.

My Very Own Haggadah, a story of a young girl’s first seder, was a huge success at the Passover celebration. Friends and relatives encouraged Groner and Winkler to get the book published, but “every publisher we approached turned us down, claiming there was no market for Jewish children’s books,” recalls Winkler.

Undaunted, the two women pooled their resources and printed 5,000 copies in time for the following Passover, peddling it to friends, relatives, synagogues and schools. Sales got a big boost when a local supermarket agreed to stock it among their Passover items. The Haggadah has since sold over a million copies!

Kar-Ben’s books educate by integrating Jewish themes into the universal dilemmas with which children must cope. Grandma’s Soup deals with a grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s, who one week puts cloves in her soup and the next doesn’t recognize her grandchildren. A Turn for Noah takes place during Chanukah and focuses on a child’s anxiety about not being able to spin the dreidle properly. Daddy’s Chair takes place dining the week of shivah in which a family with yoimg children mourns the death of their father.

Early on, Kar-Ben became a magnet for writing on themes that might not have found a place with either Jewish or general publishers. For example, Kar-Ben publishes two books by Rabbi Mindy Portnoy: Ima on the Bima, about a child whose mother is a rabbi, and My Mother Never Went to Hebrew School, a story about a boy whose mother, a convert to Judaism, had a Christian childhood.

“The Jewish community is diverse, and not everyone can be satisfied with every depiction,” says Winkler. “We show girls wearing pants, which sometimes angers segments of the Orthodox, and our boys wear yarmulkes, which sometimes makes some Reform Jews unhappy.”

Some Kar-Ben books contain an introduction and glossary of words. “We also rode the wave of multiculturalism,” says Groner. “which has created a demand for religious and ethnic books in the schools.”

“Other publishers didn’t take into account a new market for Jewish children’s books, created by a generation of parents in the 70’s who might not have had a Jewish education, but who were looking for simple, concrete ways to begin to express their Judaism and to instill Jewish values in their children,” says Groner. “Readable Jewish books on how to celebrate the holidays and other Jewish themes fit the bill.”