The Don­key and the Garden

Devo­ra Bush­eri, Mena­hem Hal­ber­stadt (Illus­tra­tor)

  • Review
By – July 12, 2021

In the open­ing of Devo­ra Bush­eri and Mena­hem Halberstadt’s new pic­ture book about the great Jew­ish schol­ar Rab­bi Aki­va, an old­er man is seat­ed at a desk like a young stu­dent. He holds a quill pen and a scroll as he looks above at a cas­cade of Hebrew let­ters sur­round­ed by flow­ers, plants, and birds. Based on a tra­di­tion­al source, The Don­key and the Gar­den explains how this pil­lar of learn­ing, who well into adult­hood could not dis­tin­guish an aleph from a bet, had to attend school with chil­dren in order to achieve his goal of literacy.

Busheri’s patient and infor­ma­tive text and Halberstadt’s play­ful­ly expres­sive draw­ings con­vey the future rabbi’s courage and humil­i­ty, as well as the lov­ing sup­port of his devot­ed wife, Rachel. The book works on sev­er­al lev­els: as an intro­duc­tion to the life of Rab­bi Aki­va, as a mes­sage about the val­ue of per­sis­tence in the face of obsta­cles, and as an homage to the strong woman whose faith in her hus­band enabled his suc­cess. Those flow­ing let­ters ris­ing above Aki­va also pay trib­ute to the mean­ing of read­ing in a Jew­ish life.

The sto­ry begins by cre­at­ing a cred­i­ble pic­ture of Akiva’s sim­ple life. He is a shep­herd, who lives with his wife in a house so rus­tic that it is maybe not quite a house, but a barn full of straw that kept the two of them warm in win­ter and gave them shade in sum­mer.” Bush­eri is able to reduce her descrip­tion to its essence, pre­sent­ing exact­ly what chil­dren need to know in order to iden­ti­fy with her char­ac­ters. Unlike Aki­va, his wife came from an afflu­ent fam­i­ly but Rachel believed in him.” She has to com­bine her love with cre­ativ­i­ty in order to devise a solu­tion to Akiva’s sad­ness. Who else but a smart and loy­al wife would come up with the idea of a don­key with a gar­den on its back?

The unstat­ed premise of the sto­ry is the nat­ur­al hes­i­tan­cy of chil­dren to try some­thing new if they fear ridicule. Bush­eri cap­tures the tone of folk­lore but adds details con­sis­tent with con­tem­po­rary children’s expe­ri­ence. Aki­va fears that the dis­so­nant scale between his large body and a children’s school­room will defeat his pur­pose; the oth­er stu­dents, he points out, might mock his attempt to fit his large body into a small seat, or his big hand hold­ing a small pen. Actu­al­ly, he is ter­ri­fied to give up his com­fort­able feel­ing of con­trol as a shep­herd and take on an over­whelm­ing task. Instead of lec­tur­ing him, Rachel brings their odd­ly pur­posed don­key to the local mar­ket. The vil­lagers’ ini­tial ridicule turns to fas­ci­na­tion and then accep­tance, as they real­ize that a gar­den-car­ry­ing don­key has its own usefulness.

The love­ly sub­tle­ty of Halberstadt’s style shines from every page. A range of col­ors from pas­tel to deep earth tones com­ple­ments the line draw­ings. The com­i­cal don­key is cov­ered with thin, light-brown lines. Peo­ple of all skin col­ors and ages sur­round him, touch­ing the flow­ers and fruits in his portable gar­den with sur­prise and hap­pi­ness. Aki­va and Rachel appear unaf­fect­ed but at the same time noble; their con­text affects their stature. The same strong man hold­ing a goat in his arms is fright­ened and vul­ner­a­ble while sit­ting behind young chil­dren on a school bench. Hal­ber­stadt reveals the dis­par­i­ty between Aki­va and his school­mates by por­tray­ing him as a sol­id fig­ure clothed in dark brown to match his beard, while the chil­dren are drawn as bare­ly-filled out­lines with car­toon-like fea­tures. He brings all the years of his past to learn­ing while their lives have bare­ly begun.

Once Aki­va starts to mas­ter the Hebrew alpha­bet, his pen con­jures let­ters out of the air, includ­ing his famed sum­ma­ry of the Torah, love your neigh­bor as your­self,” shown in love­ly cal­lig­ra­phy. In their con­clu­sion, the author and illus­tra­tor deliv­er a pow­er­ful mes­sage about life­long learn­ing as a diverse group of peo­ple proud­ly announce the skills they have acquired at dif­fer­ent ages. It would be dif­fi­cult to think of a more rel­e­vant or impor­tant mes­sage for everyone.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book includes a sum­ma­ry from the Midrash Hagadol about the sto­ry which inspired the book.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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