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Drawing on tradition for a visual generation
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Drawing on tradition for a visual generation

Julie Schwartz Wohl: ‘Pictures help connect the kids to the text’

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Julie Schwartz Wohl’s goal was to create a kid-friendly prayer book.
Julie Schwartz Wohl’s goal was to create a kid-friendly prayer book.

Richly colored illustrations by a local artist and Jewish educator adorn and enliven the pages of Siddur Mah-Tov, a new family prayer book published by Behrman House in April.

Illustrator Julie Schwartz Wohl, education director at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, said her goal was to create a kid-friendly prayer book whose illustrations bring the Hebrew and English text alive.

“We wanted the illustrations to speak to adults and to really translate the prayers so they could be used as teaching tools,” said Wohl, who holds a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

She hopes the siddur will close a gap she sees between the word-heavy content of Jewish prayer and the high-tech world kids inhabit.

“Jews are the people of the book, and we pray with words; but our kids are increasingly visual, and a service in Hebrew is hard for them to access,” she said. “We wanted to create a service that is authentic, and we thought the pictures could help connect the kids to the text.”

One page, for example, features warm red tents on golden-hued sand under a deep blue sky and a glowing desert sun. On the facing page is the “Mah Tovu” prayer (“Your tents are so good, O Jacob”).

On another page, a large red heart illustrates the “great love” of “Ahavah Rabbah,” a prayer preceding the Sh’ma.

The siddur, published in both Reform and Conservative formats, is Wohl’s second collaboration with the book’s writer, Rabbi Lauren Kurland, director of education at Ansche Chesed, a Conservative congregation in New York City. They met as students at JTS, where they adapted stories from the Talmud for children. Neither project was ever intended to be published.

The siddur was conceived strictly as an in-house project at Ansche Chesed around 2005, when congregant Chris Rothko, son of famed artist Mark Rothko, and his wife, Lori Cohen, suggested that they could use a better siddur with more illustrations for the congregation’s service for five- to seven-year-olds.

Kurland planned to purchase new prayer books, but when she found nothing that fit the bill, Rothko offered to support the creation of a new siddur. Kurland chose the text and did the translations and brought in Wohl to illustrate. They self-published Siddur Mah-Tov in 2006.

After a few years of congregational testing, Kurland and Wohl created a revised edition, and Rothko underwrote a hand-stitched, bound edition for Ansche Chesed. The book eventually found its way to Behrman House, where they “jumped on it,” according to the publisher’s sales and marketing head, Jessica Gurtman.

Siddur Mah-Tov is something of a departure for the Springfield-based Behrman House, which generally focuses on educational texts. Only two other prayer books have been issued by the publisher, one for Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, and another for learners in a havura setting.

“When we saw this siddur, we fell in love with it,” said Gurtman. “The artwork is beautiful, and the language is great for young families. It’s so inclusive for everyone.”

A leader’s guide will be published in July.

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