Jane Breskin Zalben’s Beni series has become a venerated classic, with its intricately drawn bear family standing the test of time. They have become familiar to and beloved by a generation of children who have joined their Jewish holiday celebrations.
In this latest story — a tale for a new generation of readers to cherish — Beni is a grown-up bear with a family of his own; and together, they celebrate Jewish holidays with warmth, humor, and love.
Each section of Beni’s Tiny Tales focuses on a specific Jewish holiday and includes a story, a selection of crafts and activities, and several mouth-watering recipes that relate to the holiday. Beni and his children bake for Rosh Hashanah, which results in a rollicking food fight and, later, some soul-searching and apologies. The Yom Kippur story discusses fasting but primarily focuses on doing good deeds and repenting for those that went wrong. The Sukkot story features a cousins’ sleepover in the Sukkah, which is rained out but that’ll provide wonderful memories for years to come. The Chanukah story is told in the form of a lively graphic novel; and the Passover seder involves a game of ping pong with maztoh balls. Zalben also incorporates the lesser-known holidays of Tu B’Shevat and Lag B’Omer, in the form of tree-planting, picnics, haircuts, and Talmudic tales. A stay-up-all-night Shavuot party for the extended family reminds readers of the custom of learning Torah until the break of dawn.
Crafts and activities include a handmade menorah, a Tu B’Shevat seder plate, the music and lyrics for traditional holiday songs, translations of parts of the seder, instructions for making Purim masks, and much more. Readers will find recipes like candy caramel apples for Simchat Torah, latkes for Chanukah, and a Sephardic date-and-almond haroset for the seder.
It is Zalben’s amazing artwork that helps make the book extra special. She uses colored pencils, ink, acrylic paints, and watercolors to bring the bears’ world to life. The art is everywhere — even the crafts and recipes boast Zalben’s distinctive style. A cozy, family-oriented, traditional Jewish sensibility permeates every page as these sweet bears wend their way through the calendar year, celebrating with family, learning from one another, and subtly teaching gentle lessons to the children who read about them.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.