Jewish Legends in Picture Books Appealing Tales of Magic, Spirits

Article excerpt

TWO OF THE MOST popular Jewish legends are those of the Golem and the Dybbuk. Both legends have received appealing retellings by David Wisniewski and Francine Prose, although that of the Golem has survived the transition to a story for children somewhat better than that of the Dybbuk.

For centuries, the Jews of Eastern Europe found themselves tfalsely accused tof using the blood of Christians in the making of matzo - unleavened bread - for Passover. Enemies of the Jews would kidnap and kill a Christian child and hide the body in the cellar of a Jewish home. When the body was found, a pogrom would take place in the Jewish ghetto, with rape, pillage and murder.

These pogroms occurred again and again, and there was little the Jews could do to prevent them. Out of their helplessness, they created the fantasy of the Golem, a man made out of clay and brought to life with kabbalistic magic, who is the subject of many tales in which he guards the Jews of Prague against their enemies. The Golem is a Frankenstein-like figure, with powers to protect that are virtually limitless. Indeed, it has often been speculated that the legend of the Golem inspired Mary Shelley to write "Frankenstein," replacing kabbalistic magic with the magic of science. In "Golem" (32 pages, Clarion Books, $15.95), Wisniewski has done an excellent job of retelling this mystical tale, greatly assisted by his own stunning papercut illustrations, which bring to life the awesome atmosphere in which the Golem was created out of clay by Rabbi Judah Loew to confront the enemies of the Jews and protect his people. It is a haunting, memorable tale, and the best adaptation for children of this famous legend yet to appear, well-deserving of the Caldecott Medal (for illustration) it won this year. …