Why aren’t there collections of parshiot hashavuah — writings about each one of the Torah portions, divided as they are read from the sefer Torah, the Torah scroll, every week — for 10- to 13-year-olds?
Why don’t people understand that preteens relate to stories more if they can identify characters like themselves in them?
Why does everything have to be so boring?
There is now! They do get it! And no, it doesn’t have to be!
In their new book, “An Angel Called Truth and Other Tales From the Torah,” Rabbi Jeremy Gordon and Emma Parlons have put together short takes on each of the Torah’s parshiot, as well as the Torah portions we read on festivals. Each is written in the first person, each is from the perspective of a young person, and many are seen by girls.
Some of these characters — Leah, say, or Nachson — are in the Bible. Some of them — the daughter of Korach’s sidekick On, among others — are in the midrash. And others — Bezalel’s daughter, or characters from the future, or the girl who sees a rash on her arm — are made up.
Rabbi Gordon heads the New London Synagogue, the shul where he grew up; he was educated at Cambridge and ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. (He’s a Conservative rabbi, but because he works outside North America, he’s called not Conservative but Masorti.)
The children in the age range he’s writing for “spend a lot of time in shul, because they’re preparing for bar or bat mitzvah,” he said. “And I spend a lot of time looking for good material for children their age. I was thinking about what good material would look like, and it occurred to me that just as younger children like protagonists their own age, so do older kids. They’re not going to empathize with 120-year-old Moses the way they would with a 13-year-old — if only you could find a 13-year-old in the biblical narrative.
“The other thing on my mind was gender,” he continued. “There certainly are a lot of men in the Bible, but there are not so many women, so we try to find as many of them as possible.”
Ms. Parlons is a member of New London; she has children of bar and bat mitzvah age, so she was painfully and personally aware of how hard it can be to keep them engaged in shul.
She urged Rabbi Gordon to write the stories, and volunteered to do part of it herself.
So the two hunted for women and children. And when they couldn’t find them, they made them up.
“One of my favorite stories is the one for B’midbar,” Rabbi Gordon said. That’s the parsha where all of Israel is counted — except it’s only the men who count. “Clearly, there would have been women there as well.” So he wrote one in. The story is about a girl, Eliana, who wants to be counted in the census that begins the chapter; Elitzur explains to her that she can’t be counted because she can’t fight. She goes back to her family perhaps unmollified —that’s not clear — but unmystified.
That section, like all the book’s sections, ends with a series of questions. It asks its young readers about whether women should fight in armies, about the truth and value of the concept of different but equal, and about how the changes in technology and understanding over the last 3,000 years might change the answers to those questions.
When he told the story of Jonah, Rabbi Gordon and Ms. Parlons took the sailor who went below deck to tell the runaway prophet about the storm and converted him into the captain’s daughter.
A few parshiot tackle the question of annoying siblings — older ones, like Ishmael, for Isaac, and younger ones, like Judah’s, and the two older sons of Aaron’s, whom God kills for unspecified reasons while the two young ones look on in terror.
The story about the girl with the rash — about the ever-popular parsha called Tazria, in the heart of Leviticus — ends with questions “about how, if you are unsure about something going on in your body, you feel about telling your parents about it. That’s a question that’s likely to have a certain resonance for kids who are at an age when their bodies are changing in ways that they may or may not be ready for.”
The stories use humor, Rabbi Gordon said; he worries that it might prove to be too English, but that fear seems unlikely to prove true.
He is thrilled with the illustrations, which are created by Pete Williamson. He and Ms. Parlons found him through an unconventional method. “We went into a bookstore” — pre-covid, of course — “and started flicking through books. Pete has illustrated some of my absolute favorite books to read to kids.
“We rang him up, and he was up for it. He is a serious player.”
London, like New Jersey and New York, is pretty much locked down right now. “At the moment, we are only allowed into the synagogue to stream a service,” Rabbi Gordon said. “My way of working has been totally transformed by this horrible pandemic.”
He has been talking about his book on Zoom across the United States, in a way that he could not have had the time or the money to do had he had to be present physically. Because he thinks that his book can be useful in schools and shuls, he’s discounting them in bulk, and would love to work on curricula, he said. Information about his book is on the book’s website, anangelcalledtruth.com.
When they were inventing characters for their book, Rabbi Gordon and Ms. Parlons did not have to invent Rebecca. She was there waiting for them, by the well, painfully drawing bucket after bucket after nearly endless bucket of water, Rabbi Gordon said. The story makes clear that “Rebecca was lurking just around the corner when she overheard Eliezer asking for water for his camels. It is clear that she was listening in.”
As his version of the story points out, in a box, Eliezer had 10 camels. Each camel drinks about 200 liters in three minutes. “That’s roughly the weight of six 10-year-old children,” we’re told. “Rebecca was desperate to leave home,” Rabbi Gordon said. “She does not like being there at all. She is so desperate that she was willing to do back-breaking work.
“I have never heard a midrash about it. That is one of the great absences in the rabbinic canon. No one has ever told the story of her getting that water to try to understand what she would have felt.
“So we did.”