by Michal Hoschan­der Malen

Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Michal Hoschan­der Malen speaks with children’s author Yaf­fa Ganz from her home in Israel. 

Michal Hoschan­der Malen: Yaf­fa, you have edu­cat­ed and enter­tained gen­er­a­tions of Jew­ish chil­dren. In my own fam­i­ly, for exam­ple, my daugh­ter adored the Sav­ta Sim­cha books and now my sev­en-year-old grand­daugh­ter is lov­ing them, as well. What do you think accounts for the longevi­ty of the appeal of your characters? 

Yaf­fa Ganz: What accounts for the appeal of any hap­py, help­ful, friend­ly per­son? Maybe that’s the answer! Sav­ta Sim­cha and Uncle Neche­mya are hap­py, warm, friend­ly, good peo­ple who want every­one else to be hap­py as well. These are the kind of peo­ple who make the world go round; the kind of peo­ple we all love, whether they lived a hun­dred years ago or yes­ter­day. They don’t go out of style. 

MHM: In addi­tion to such mem­o­rable char­ac­ters, two themes stand out in your children’s sto­ries: joy in the cel­e­bra­tion of Shab­bat and hol­i­days and a pas­sion­ate love of the land of Israel. How do you trans­mit these con­cepts, which are clear­ly so pre­cious to you, so vibrant­ly through the pages of your books? 

YG: Judaism and Torah are all about love and sim­cha. Love for G‑d and His Torah, His Peo­ple and His Land. And sim­cha, which is not synony­mous with hap­pi­ness.” Sim­cha is the joy of liv­ing in what we might call a G‑dly dimen­sion.” It’s the joy of striv­ing for Truth and eter­nal val­ues, doing G‑d’s Will and being a men­sch. So if you’re real­ly into being Jew­ish, sim­cha comes with the territory! 

MHM: I think there’s a third theme that I should have includ­ed above because it per­me­ates all of your sto­ries — kind­ness and thought­ful­ness between peo­ple. Please tell us a bit about how and why that con­cept remains a con­stant through­out, no mat­ter the plot, no mat­ter the setting. 

YG: There are two very basic con­cepts which guide the life of a Jew— rec­og­niz­ing that all peo­ple were cre­at­ed in the image of G‑d and to show our grat­i­tude for all the good we receive. A Jew is com­mand­ed to treat all human beings with cour­tesy, gen­eros­i­ty and respect and to have a spe­cial, lov­ing rela­tion­ship with his fel­low Jews. And he must show grat­i­tude to G‑d and to every­one else who helps sup­ply his needs. With­out our fel­low human beings, we couldn’t pos­si­bly sur­vive. And if we do not both­er to acknowl­edge our debts to peo­ple, we won’t acknowl­edge our debts to G‑d either. So kind­ness and thought­ful­ness and sen­si­tiv­i­ty are very deeply embed­ded Jew­ish con­cepts. Besides, who wants to live in a world where peo­ple are nasty and self­ish and mean?

MHM: Your Jew­ish his­to­ry book Sand and Stars is fas­ci­nat­ing and com­prehensive. What kind of research did that entail? 

YG: Jew­ish kids, even those who go to day schools, have very poor his­tor­i­cal cog­ni­tion. For all they know, the Mac­cabim and George Wash­ington lived in the same year! I want­ed to write a Jew­ish his­to­ry which would be easy, inter­est­ing read­ing; some­thing which would por­tray not only the unspeak­able suf­fer­ing we have endured, but the grandeur, the faith­ful­ness, the excep­tion­al mes­sage and con­tri­bu­tion of the Jew­ish peo­ple to the world. Writ­ing the Jew­ish his­to­ry was the easy part; con­necting it to the gen­er­al his­to­ry of the world with­out get­ting lost in the details was the hard part. The Jews inter­act­ed with and influ­enced the world. And the world most def­i­nite­ly left its mark on us. 

Rab­bi Ber­el Wein’s his­to­ry books served as an out­line, sup­ple­ment­ed by a large selec­tion of oth­er his­to­ry books — both Jew­ish and gen­er­al. I tried to make this a per­son­al sto­ry of our peo­ple, and I includ­ed mate­rial younger read­ers would find inter­est­ing. I also used Jew­ish sources wher­ev­er pos­si­ble — the Tal­mud, the midrashim, the com­men­taries. We added maps and time-lines for visu­al clar­i­ty so it would be easy to fol­low. Most­ly, I want­ed it to read like a good sto­ry. It took a year of inten­sive work and although it’s not a detailed, com­pre­hen­sive his­to­ry, it does takes the read­er on a fas­ci­nat­ing, two thou­sand year jour­ney through the main­stream of Jew­ish history. 

MHM: In addi­tion to children’s books, you’ve writ­ten books of essays for adults. Have you ever con­sid­ered writ­ing a fic­tion book for adults, as well? 

YG: Con­sid­ered it? Yes. Done it? No. At least not yet! How­ev­er, you can find a good dose of fic­tion in my books of essays. Cin­na­mon and Myrrh was recent­ly reprint­ed by Feld­heim. It takes a look at our con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish lifestyle, pokes fun at many of our quirks and foibles, and offers a few wise gems to pon­der as we plod along the path of life.

MHM: You moved from the Unit­ed States to Israel in the 1960s. Can you give our read­ers a small taste of your dai­ly life there?

YG: The taste” of life in Israel is deli­cious, aggra­vat­ing, try­ing, exhil­a­rat­ing, excit­ing, wor­rying, ful­fill­ing and won­der­ful! There is noth­ing like it any­where else on the globe. Now that I am final­ly a Lib­er­at­ed Lady (any female can be a lib­er­at­ed Woman. Being a Lady is an addi­tion­al badge of hon­or!) I have more time to do what women and ladies dream about doing — study, read, play the flute, and write what­ev­er I am work­ing on at the mo­ment, enjoy my friends and fam­i­ly and espe­cial­ly my deli­cious grand­chil­dren and great grand­chil­dren. Each one is a bless­ing. And since each new fam­i­ly addi­tion neces­si­tates a ded­i­ca­tion in a new book, I have to keep writ­ing. My grand­chil­dren are very insis­tent that each one is men­tioned in a book of his or her own. 

MHM: It’s won­der­ful news that some of your clas­sics are being reis­sued now. Is there any chance that we can also look for­ward to any­thing new in the near future?

YG: One new book—All Kinds of Kids—was pub­lished around six months ago. And two favorite oldies—The Adven­tures of Jere­my Levi and Hel­lo Hed­dy Levi just came out this week after a long inter­val. Feld­heim has recent­ly reprint­ed all four Mim­my Sim­my books and the five Sav­ta Sim­chas are back on the shelves with new cov­ers. All of these books were out of print for sev­er­al years. Dr. Mitz­va is planned to reap­pear again along with a sec­ond, new Dr. Mitz­va book before the sum­mer (he’s the great Doc­tor of Most­ly Everything!). 

As far as new ideas, I have a large col­lec­tion of poet­ry I’d love to put out. Unfortu­nately, most pub­lish­ers are not inter­est­ed in poet­ry. Can it be that only the poets read poetry? 

Aside from that, I would like to see the rest of the Sav­ta Sim­cha series trans­lat­ed into Hebrew. Believe it or not, not a sin­gle one of my many grand­chil­dren has read any of my books in Eng­lish unless it was a school assign­ment (which takes all the joy out of the read­ing). Sav­ta Sim­cha exists in French and Ger­man and one vol­ume is in Span­ish, but only three of the five books have appeared in Hebrew. I’m work­ing on it now. Wish me luck. 

MHM: Thank you for so much sto­ry­telling plea­sure over so many years and for shar­ing part of your own sto­ry with us.

YG: And thank you for ask­ing! Giv­ing plea­sure to so many read­ers is a source of great plea­sure for me. And know­ing that a third gen­er­a­tion is read­ing the books is absolute­ly lovely!

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is a librar­i­an and edi­tor of ref­er­ence books. She is the chil­dren’s and young adult sec­tion edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World.

Relat­ed Content:

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.