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Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour 2012: Interview with author, illustrator, Durga Yael Bernhard

Thursday, 9 February 2012

I have a secret.
The secret is that this post was so much fun to craft. Interviewing Durga Yael Bernhard, who goes by Yael, was like having a chat with a friend. Her expertise, creativity, and passion are engaging. I read Around the World in One Shabbat: Jewish People Celebrate the Sabbath Together, in advance of the interview. Afterwards, I ran right back to it, with newfound knowledge, to better appreciate the story and the artistic renderings. It was like reading a page of text on its own and then reading it with the commentary; a whole new world of understanding.

Yael, I really loved the book! Before we get into the artwork, I’d like to step back and ask, first, where did the idea first originate? What was the initial spark that made you think, “a book about Shabbat observance around the world?”

I’ve always loved the thought that on every Shabbat, Jews all over the world are doing the same things: cooking a special meal, setting the Sabbath table, lighting candles, reciting blessings, going to synagogue, reading the weekly Torah portion, eating great food and relaxing. It’s easy to imagine children everywhere who are just like my own daughter growing up with this tradition. I want all children to have an inside peek at what the Sabbath is really like; and I want parents to know how much it supports family life to have a sanctified day of rest.

I’ve written and/or illustrated a number of books that explore the commonality of children all over the world. A Ride on Mother’s Back (1997, written by Emery Bernhard, still in print) shows how babies in many cultures are still carried through daily activities, and what they learn from that unique perspective. While You Are Sleeping: A Lift-the-Flap Book of Time Around the World (2011, just named as a Children’s Book Council Notable Book) shows one moment in time in the lives of children all over the world. These books explore the universality of children’s internal experience as they move through the daily rhythms of their lives. Similarly, Around the World in One Shabbat: Jewish People Celebrate the Sabbath Together invites readers to share in a tradition that marks the cycle of each week. What better window on the Jewish Diaspora and the world?

Which comes first to you: the text or the images? And at what point did the notion of weaving the appropriate blessings through the primary text come to you?

What came to me first was the core concept of the book. Since I am first and foremost a visual artist, images always come next. In this case, the first sketch I did was a challah as a weaving of many household scenes “braided” together. From the oval shape of this drawing came the idea that each illustration would occupy the basic shape of a horizontal oval, symbolizing the world and the cyclical and inclusive nature of Shabbat. Other drawings grew from there. The blessings seemed only natural, as they are the verbal consecration of Shabbat – and children’s knowledge of language and music are indelibly interwoven with their memories and experience.

I really like how you use the different time periods of the Shabbat as a framework. Did that idea come first or did you just write the vignettes and then realize that the framework was inherent in the text itself?

The framework came first. Like the spokes of a wheel, the various stages of the cycle of Shabbat give us opportunities to participate. I began by asking: when does the Sabbath really begin each week? Since observant Jews do not cook during Shabbat, the cycle begins with food shopping and preparation. One visit to the Machane Yehudah in Jerusalem confirms that by Friday morning, something is already different. Torah study for the weekly parshah begins even earlier than that. The benefits and effects of the Sabbath extend beyond the 25-hour cycle of the actual day of rest. Each stop along the way involves children in one way or another.

How did you arrive at the particular locations? I know that you have a passion for African culture and Eastern religions. Did that love influence your choices?

No. My goal in choosing locations was not to show what attracts me personally (which is always changing), but to create a well-rounded portrait of the Diaspora. My editor and I wanted to portray a diverse selection of Jewish cultures. We decided to include some of the largest Jewish communities in the world (France, Germany); some that may be lesser known to American readers (Argentina, Australia, and Morocco); some that are waning (Ethiopia, Russia); some that are growing (Mumbai); and some that are not indigenous at all but composed of international travelers (Thailand). We wanted to include rural scenes (Ethiopia, New England) and city scenes (Montreal, Istanbul); older synagogues (France) and a brand new synagogue that is based on a real one (Germany). Anchoring all this are scenes from Israel which are the “bookends” of the story – and the soil in which the Sabbath tradition finds its roots.

Are there any stories in the book that particularly resonate with you? What about the illustrations? Any favourites?

Yael at the shuk

The scene from New England resonates because I have been to that synagogue, and watched my own daughter reaching for the challah during the Hamotzi blessing there. But the opening scene from the Machane Yehudah is my personal favorite, because I took all my own photographs there specifically for this book. In fact, I have painted myself into that scene, wearing a blue shirt and straw hat while shopping with a friend. The little boy, Avi, in the scene is based on a photo from that friend’s childhood. The teenager, Rachel, is based on an Israeli friend’s daughter. And the grandmother carrying the challah is based on a woman in Jerusalem who became my friend on that trip.

Because you have characters from around the globe, what type of research is involved in making certain that you are portraying them accurately, as far as the illustration goes? And the scenery? And the overall timbre of each scene?

A great deal of research is involved. I use everything from personal photos and notes taken on my own travels, to interviews, library research, images found on the internet, newspapers, websites such as, and museums such as Beit Hatfutsot (the Museum of the Diaspora) in Tel Aviv. Researching contemporary first names in other cultures was especially tricky, as children’s names gain and lose popularity with each generation. I wrote a blog post “What’s In a Name?” just on this subject.

In your YouTube clip, I recognized snippets from all different pages in the book on one page. What motivates you to tackle them in either a particular or random order? Do you wake up and think…”aha! I dreamed the perfect texture and design for the rug in the India scene and I must sketch it immediately”…and then think…”and I am in the mood to work on the hut over in Ethiopia as well?”

I only grouped those illustrations together because they are all “spots” (small, free-floating images) that would be placed later on each page amongst the text. I did not paint these spots at the same time, but rather worked on each one simultaneous with the main scene to which each one belongs. This way, skin coloring, clothing, and details such as fabric, furnishings and architecture in each scene are done all at the same time for consistency.

I normally begin working on each scene by gathering books and photos, then making a desktop collage out of many images from that culture. The collage covers my whole computer screen. This allows me to view many things at once in an effort to establish the overall look or “timbre” of each culture.

How did you arrive at Hinei Mah Tov as the song? Was there something about this particular song? For that matter, does music play any role in your act of creating?

I often listen to the music of a particular culture while working on a illustration from that culture, in order to evoke the right feeling. Somehow, it puts me in the right mood. I chose Hinei Mah Tov because it is so well-known, and represents well one of the main themes of Shabbat. While I was working on that illustration of the little boy singing zemirot in his grandfather’s lap, what came to mind most of all were memories of the sounds of singing coming from residential windows as I walked with a friend through the streets of Jerusalem one Erev Shabbat – mingled with the sounds of clinking silverware and babbling babies – all clearly audible in the striking absence of city traffic. This was a real treat for me. I live in a rural area of the Catskill Mountains of New York, and am more likely to hear an owl hooting or a coyote howling on Erev Shabbat than the sound of human voices.

Thanks so much, Yael, and mazal tov on this achievement!
Around the World in One Shabbat: Jewish People Celebrate the Sabbath Together is available at Jewish Lights. And, like all quality children’s lit, isn’t just for kids.

*The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. Presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) since 1968, the Award encourages the publication and widespread use of quality Judaic literature. Gold medals are presented in three categories: Younger Readers, Older Readers, and Teen Readers. Honor Books are awarded silver medals, and Notable Books are named in each category. Thirty-three outstanding books were selected from among the over one hundred and twenty titles evaluated by the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee during 2011. The Committee recommends them for library, classroom, and home use. A complete list of all 2012 Award, Honor, and Notable Books can be found here.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Thursday, 9 February 2012 10:34 am

    Great interview! And tomorrow morning will be at the machene yehudah shuk, of course!

  2. Thursday, 9 February 2012 7:00 pm

    What a great interview! I felt like I was there in the room with the two of you…. I love the video and the illustrations, wow. Can’t wait to get this book!

  3. Wednesday, 15 February 2012 5:43 pm

    I really loved this interview. We have quite a few of Durga’s books in our collection. This conversation gave me an entirely new perspective on her work. These stories of hers are deep and personal on so many levels…I had no idea. Thanks You!


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