Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange loves telling stories.
“We have a preschool, with roughly 100 children, precovid,” he said. The school had eight classes, and its students ranged from 18 months to 4 years old. “One of my favorite activities as a rabbi is celebrating Shabbat with the preschoolers,” the 3- and 4-year-olds. “Every Friday morning I would go from class to class and we’d celebrate Shabbat together.
“I would tell them a story, usually about the Torah portion, or a holiday that was coming up; I’d craft it in an age-appropriate way, with messages that I thought it was appropriate for them to learn.”
They’d look up at him, he’d smile at them, and he’d tell stories.
“The first time our preschool director, Dana Weitz, heard me share one of these stories, she asked, ‘Where did it come from?’ and I said, ‘I made it up.’ And she said that I should write them down and do something with them.’”
So he did. The result is “The Littlest Candle — a Hanukkah Story.”
“I grew up, in South Brunswick and then North Brunswick, with my father writing books my entire life,” Rabbi Olitzky said. His father is Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, who has done pioneering work in Jewish outreach throughout his career. Father and son are similar but different; Jesse is a congregational rabbi, and Kerry’s career has been more organizational. Jesse is a Conservative rabbi, and Kerry’s ordination is Reform. But both rabbis Olitzky write.
“My father has published well over 50 books,” Jesse Olitzky said. “Most of them are for adults. But I’ve always been so impressed by his ability to write, and to write in a way that connects with people.
“I always had a vision of us writing a book together, and he had that vision as well.”
A few years ago, Kerry Olitzky wrote his first children’s book. It’s called “Where is the Potty on this Ark?” The title is straightforwardly descriptive; “it’s a children’s book about Noah’s ark, and it’s a potty training book,” Jesse Olitzky said. “A Jewish potty training book.” It’s published by Kar Ben.
So the father and son decided to write a book together. It was going to be a children’s book, based on a story that Jesse had told in Beth El; it would be a Chanukah book, because there’s a market for Chanukah books every year.
First, he had to figure out how to make the transition from a story he told to a story he wrote down, Rabbi Olitzky said. “It’s a very different thing.
“It’s about reactions,” he continued. “To someone who is used to telling stories, and giving divrei Torah, it’s about cadence and tone and word choice. When I tell a story to children, I act it out, using different voices. When it comes to writing a children’s book, in some cases the fewer words you use the better, depending on the age you’re writing for. You are really depending on the illustrations to help tell the story.”
Through a congregant, he made the connection with a publisher; Lili Rosenstreich, the congregant’s friend, is expanding her publishing house, Endless Mountains Publishing, to include a Jewish children’s imprint, Kalaniot Books. “And we settled on the story because its themes, of being a mensch and helping each other, really resonates.” The book is able to tell a specifically Chanukah story, “about how we don’t take away light. We add light,” and also tell a universal story about humility, service, and generosity of spirit.
The publisher also found the illustrator, Jen Kostman, who “is wonderful,” Rabbi Olitzky said. “This story is so much about imaginary things. It’s about candles in a drawer talking to each other, and the life they live in the cabinet waiting to be lit for Chanukah. You really need powerful illustrations to help a child understand this idea.”
He tested the story on children, he said, but “it’s the illustrations that bring this story to life. They help us tell the story in a way that we were unable to do before.”
He and his father might write more children’s books together, Rabbi Olitzky said, but not right now. “This one was a passion project. But I’m a full-time congregational rabbi. That’s always a full-time job, but especially now, when my time and energy are going to help sustain a mostly virtual community.”
The preschool that he so loves still meets in person, Rabbi Olitzky said. Everyone is very careful, of course; “we have been meeting safely based on state guidelines. Thus far it’s been really positive and in some ways very precious. It’s also very sad to see little 3-year-olds with face masks on all day.
“My rabbinic colleague Rabbi Rachel Marder and I still have been celebrating Shabbat in the classrooms, but we’ve been Zooming in.” The children are very carefully segregated in their school pods, and the rabbis are outsiders there. “That means that we still are having Shabbat with the kids, and they still are getting up and dancing with their stuffed Torah,” but the kids are in the classrooms and the rabbis are not.
“It is certainly a different experience than the experience that I hope and pray we can get back to sooner rather than later,” Rabbi Olitzky said.