By: Robert Lebowitz
The Challah Girl, a charming new illustrated Jewish story for children and young adults, is a traditional fairy tale that carries much contemporary meaning.
Writer and poet Bracha K. Sharp’s first book, published by Mosaica Press and distributed by Feldheim, is set “a very, very long time ago” in an unnamed Jewish town that is at once a medieval village and Eastern European shtetl, located in between mountains and ruled by a Jewish king. The only character who is named in the village is Zlatah Leah, a young woman who happens to bake the best challah throughout the region.
The peaceful and harmonious atmosphere is suddenly interrupted by a messenger of the king who bursts onto the scene with terrible news: Prince Isaac, the son of the king and queen, can no longer laugh or smile, causing his parents great worry and concern. The messenger asks the town rabbi to dispatch any townsman to the palace who might have some special talent which would bring back cheer to the prince. The rabbi does so, saying that, “…with my blessing, the king and queen have requested that any villager who feels he can help should go to the royal palace and present the prince with something that will make him smile again.” It is then that Zlatah Leah offers to make one of her famous challahs for the melancholy young man. With her family’s reluctant agreement, Zlatah Leah begins her solo trek to the palace.
Zlatah Leah thus begins the hero’s journey, which, as one might expect, is met with many challenges: her several efforts to make her excellent bread are met with mishaps and consequent failure. Zlatah Leah then realizes that the regular recipe upon which she has relied for so many years with so much success will not work here. Overcome by a genuine concern for the prince’s welfare, she prays that she will find the right ingredients to make the bread that will renew his enthusiasm for life.
It is here that the author skillfully uses the ostensibly simple fairy tale structure to address topics such as sadness, reliance upon one’s strengths (noting that an excess of pride is different than inner belief in one’s capabilities), the utility of prayer, the healing power of gratitude and being concerned for the welfare of others rather than merely for yourself. Sharp, however, weaves these spiritual ideas seamlessly into her story so they are not presented in a didactic or overstated manner. They flow naturally out of the fanciful and engaging tale.
Illustrator Anita Tung’s unpretentious and detailed draftsmanship complements the tone of the narrative. Through Tung’s thoughtful and colorful mixed media paintings, the reader is able to inhabit both Zlatah Leah’s tight-knit Jewish community as well as the royal palace, and is brought closer to experiencing Zlatah Leah’s emotions through the nuanced attention to her expressions.
Although The Challah Girl is set in a Jewish environment, the story is universal enough to be enjoyed by readers of any religious or cultural background. Additionally, Jews of practically any denomination will appreciate the sensitivity with which Sharp and Tung portray Zlatah Leah and her uniquely moving tale.
Robert Lebowitz is a licensed social worker who has many years of experience in Jewish communal service. He enjoys writing, drawing, and reading Jewish books.