Lilah Tov Good Night and Number the Stars

If you haven’t heard of PJ Library, it is a nonprofit that sends free books to Jewish families and friends. One of the books they delivered to younger recipients this year was titled, “Lilah Tov Good Night” by Ben Gunderheiser, and it might be one of the most beautifully simple books I’ve read with my kids in a long time. It’s one I could read and look at every day.

Sometimes less is more, and this book proves that.

I’ve wanted to share about it for a long time, but just wasn’t sure I had the right words for it. Until today, I saw someone post this review on Goodreads:

This rhyming picture book would make a nice bedtime read. Hopefully, kids will be too sleepy to ask questions about the someone threadbare plot.

The family are obviously refugees, but the reader doesn’t know why. In fact, the book starts on a rather idyllic note (at the end of “a long and beautiful day”) and then the parents pack up their kids and leave. I went back to try to look for clues as to why they felt compelled to embark upon a risky journey with a young child and an infant, but I couldn’t see any. (For the purposes of a picture book, this sort of makes sense. But I’m sure there are going to be kids who ask, “Why are they leaving their home?” Parents will have to get creative and come up with their own answers, because there aren’t any here.)

The illustrations are interesting to look at, if a little fanciful. I’m not sure what kind of Jewish refugee journey would be undertaken across the sea in nothing but a rowboat, but that’s what happens here. I guess it’s supposed to be more symbolic than literal.

Overall, this isn’t bad. It has a nice rhythm and would make a good book for winding down at the end of a long and beautiful day.

La coccinella

I immediately realized that this person had never read “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry! If they had, they would know exactly where the inspiration for this artwork (aside from just the fact that it IS historically accurate) came from. I don’t mean for that to sound like I’m shaming them. They just didn’t know. But I had happened to finally read Number the Stars only a year ago, and it put this illustrated book into context for me in a way that from the moment I opened it my heart knew what was coming and I could feel the story the pictures wanted to tell.

What does “lilah tov” mean?

In Hebrew, lilah tov means “good night”. Throughout this book, the little girl sees incredible thing on her journey and wishes them all good night. In the morning, they arrive at a new place where “soon you will be ready for dreams.” And I love that, yes, she goes to sleep after an exhausting journey, but her parents are also telling her that in this new place she can be free and become something bigger.

Number the Stars critique

If you aren’t familiar with the story, “Number the Stars,” there are two important critiques that need to be addressed even as I recommend it:

  1. It takes place in Denmark. During the Holocaust, most of Denmarks Jewish population was saved by the method illustrated in these two books. The people of Denmark rallied around their Jewish friends and neighbors in incredible feats of smuggling them out of the country in haste. Because of this, reading only the story of Danish Jews that survived because of the love and compassion and humanity of their associates makes the Holocaust seem like something less than it was. I mean, this is what the response to Hitler’s Nazi regime SHOULD HAVE looked like, which is why it’s valuable. We SHOULD be every bit as compassionate and willing to sacrifice as those Dane’s were. But, often it’s easier to do what most of the rest of Europe did – and not get in the way of a mass murdering spree. We don’t see at all in this story the horrors that happened to millions of people. There’s certainly a sense of fear and hurriedness to escape, but the reader isn’t told what would happen if the characters were caught in their escape.
  2. The story is told from the point of view of Annemarie Johannson, a Gentile. We hear her perspective as she witnesses the lengths her family goes through to rescue her friend and Jewish neighbors. We don’t really know what the experience is like for the family, and really only see the family at all for just a very small fragment of the story. Again, this is great because we should be willing to rise up to sacrifice for our neighbors and protect social justices. BUT it is so important to ask why we never get any dialogue from the refugee family about how they are being affected. How do they feel? What solutions do they come up with? What is their role in their own survival? How much did they overcome to get to safety? How much did they leave behind? What was the hardest part for them? Did they trust that their neighbors could pull off this mission, or did they just not see any other choice? Did their feelings toward their God change during this escape, how? What happened to their sense of community and culture and belonging? These are questions that can only be answered in a first-person telling of a story.

Critiques laid bear now, my opinion is that for my toddlers, an understanding of these two stories is a beautiful start to antibias. Starting on the side of not what the worst of the world has to offer to us, but what the best of us has to offer to the world, if I can get a little Ronald Raeganish real quick. When social injustice comes, we can come to our neighbors rescue. We can get them to safety. We can also do what it takes to make them safe where they stand. Make it so that they don’t feel the need to flee. To be paranoid. To fight or flight.

Baby and Me Reading

So I challenge you to read “Number the Stars” if you haven’t. You can actually find pdfs of it online for free, or your local library definitely has it. And then get “Lilah Tov Good Night” and see if you can feel the emotional story packed into this very simple rhyme.

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