Jewish Education, Writing Children’s Books and the Vilna Gaon

A story of Rabbi Elijah of Vilna influenced my decision to become a Jewish educator and ultimately, a writer. He is often referred to as the Vilna Gaon or Genius of Vilna. Born in 1720, he was studying the Bible and Talmud by the age of 6. Although he grew to be proficient in all things Jewish, he continued to study 18 hours a day. According to a popular Jewish legend, a young student asked his Rabbi why he studied so much. He answered, “If the Vilna Gaon studies Torah 18 hours a day, the rabbis in Poland will study 10 and in the more enlightened climate of Germany, the rabbis will study 6 and the rabbis in England will study 2, then the Jews of England will at least keep the Sabbath. But if the Vilna Gaon only studies 10 hours a day then the rabbis of Poland will study 6, and the rabbis in Germany only 2, and the rabbis in England only ½ hour, what will become of the Sabbath observance of English Jewry?”

As a Jewish educator, keeping Jewish learning alive has been a priority. Early in my career, I taught two-year-old children and I wanted to find a way to engage them in learning about Jewish holidays and traditions. I was familiar with secular rhymes and finger plays and saw how they delighted young children. So, I decided to write Jewish rhymes to introduce the holidays to the children I was teaching. For each holiday, I created new rhymes and accompanying finger puppets as well as flannel board props to engage the children. The collection ultimately became my first published book, Fun with Jewish Holiday Rhymes.

Later, when I began teaching older children I used the limited resources available to me at the time. One of my favorite stories was The Mouse in the Matzah Factory by Francine Medoff, a wonderful story that allows the reader to observe the process of making matzah. Through the eyes of a little mouse, we watch the care that is taken from growing and harvesting the wheat, to transporting it to the matzah factory and finally, baking it into matzah.

I think this story more than any other inspired my writing. I wanted to create a relatable character that would engage young children —a character who exhibits childlike curiosity and who wants to discover and participate in the events occurring around him. And so, Sammy was born!

The first Sammy holiday adventure was Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah. Although Sammy spins webs, he has a desire to spin dreidels like the child in the story. At the time, I never dreamt I would be writing additional Sammy Spider stories. I was thrilled when my publisher wanted me to write more Sammy holiday books and today there is an entire Sammy Spider holiday series featuring the precocious little spider. Sammy has been translated into French, Dutch and Spanish, and one day I hope the stories will also be published in Hebrew.  Although I have written picture books about other characters, Sammy Spider remains my favorite.

Today, I am happy to see that there are many wonderful Jewish Children’s books and that Sammy is in good company. The Mouse in the Matzah Factory that so inspired me, has been republished with colorful illustrations in place of the monochromatic sepia colors of the original. I shall forever be grateful to the little mouse that took me on a journey of discovery and led me to Sammy Spider.

(originally published in the Prosen People in November 2017)