By Toby Klein Greenwald
I have known Karen Guth for many years, both as a friend, and as a fellow English teacher. We are accustomed to sharing with each other our successes, challenges, and methods to introduce creativity into our lessons and elicit creativity from our students.
So it was no surprise to me to see Guth, who has been writing an educator’s blog — “ETC English Teaching with Creativity” — for years, start another blog, called “Tell Me a Story Bubie,” which seeks a way to share original stories with the world — specifically (but not only), the world of grandchildren and grandparents.
Guth was born as Karen Jacobson and raised in Denver and lived there until she and her husband, Eric Guth, originally from California, made aliyah in 2000 with their two boys, Aaron and Adam.
Bubie’s in Bidud, an illustrated, bilingual (English and Hebrew) children’s book about what it’s like when Bubie and Zadi (Grandma and Grandpa) are in bidud (quarantine), is written in verse, appropriate for ages three and up.
She describes in easy and non-scary language the realities of quarantine, masks, hand-washing, what one can do on one’s own, missing one’s family and friends.
There are also messages, of course.
But despite this, I’m not sad.
I call you and my students on Skype, Google and Zoom,
Though it’s hard spending so much time in my room.
I’m not angry at all; I’m just trying to think,
What can I do with all this time on my hands,
To make others happy and come up with new plans?
Spoiler alert: This will all end one day, and the family will get together for a glorious picnic.
In 2003 and 2006, respectively, Guth edited two books for the Gush Etzion Foundation. The first, published during the second intifada, was called Courage and Hope: Inspirational Writings by Youth in Gush Etzion, and then a sequel was published in the aftermath of the destruction of Gush Katif (the Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip).
They were both illustrated by Meital Kuchar, who was a 12-year-old in 2003, and who lives in Efrat (as do Guth and I).
Meital — now Meital Maor — who went on to become a graphic artist and cellist, a graduate of both the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and of The Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, also illustrated this latest book. Gush says she did it “with sensitivity to the diverse Jewish communities in which we live.”
Guth and her husband Eric are modern Orthodox, but Guth’s son and daughter-in-law live in Meah Shearim and are part of an extreme chasidic group. Guth’s grandson and granddaughters, from the age of three, wear only black clothing, as do their parents (even beyond the requirements of their particular chasidic faction).
“The women and girls are in capes. My daughter-in-law wears a black scarf all the way down to the floor and a black cape over her black dress,” says Guth.
She wanted her grandchildren to be able to enjoy the book and not have it banned by their parents, so the compromise she arrived at was to have the children in the book dress in modest clothing, but in lovely pastel colors, as is the dress mode in most haredi communities.
“The grandchildren see themselves in the book,” says Guth, “and I told their parents, ‘You can’t do a children’s book in all black clothing.’”
What inspired you to write this book?
“The ‘tell me a story Bubie’ that I began to write, on my blog, was therapy, a way to face the reality in which we were living.
“We were told that our grandchildren couldn’t eat in our home anymore and we couldn’t take them places. They come rarely and we couldn’t read the books that we read our children growing up.
“Their parents didn’t want us to read to them anything in English, with the exception of stories about tzaddikim (legendary righteous people), and they didn’t want Hebrew either, as they only speak Yiddish, so I started writing simple little stories.
“Then I heard about other grandparents whose kids would not eat in their homes, and I thought, maybe this is a way for me to express our values and pass them on.
“I do it in story form — that girls and boys can be whatever they want to be, in addition to moms and dads.
“They can be artists and doctors and engineers and musicians. That isn’t really what their education is teaching them.
“I also wanted them to be sensitive to people who have handicaps. I have a handicap; I have no hip on my right side (after two failed replacements), and have a significant limp. Sometimes, while walking with them in Meah Shearim, we see people who are blind or deaf, and I didn’t want my grandchildren to be afraid of people with disabilities.
“We took them to the Shalva playground once and they asked me why Hashem created children with those problems. I told them that all children are a gift from Hashem, and we can learn from each other.
“In 2020 I wrote a story about shoes, “The Shoes That Have Their Own Path.” We buy our granddaughters new shoes twice a year. The shoes in my story would not go beyond Meah Shearim, and the girl wanted to go meet a girl on the other side of the street from her neighborhood, but her shoes wouldn’t allow her to cross the street, so they had to figure out how to get across the street.
“The message is clear: There is a big world beyond the confines of their insular community and, even though the people may not dress the same as our grandchildren do, they might find that they have many other things in common and it is worthwhile to get to know ‘the other.’
“One of my Bubie stories is about girls in a kingdom where the king makes them each wear only one color of clothing and they figure out how to wear different colored clothes and wear them when they’re together and hide them. Someone sent a comment on my blog that the story was very seditious,” she smiles.
“We speak only English to them because that is our native language, so their parents don’t mind. They speak Hebrew outside of the house but their Hebrew skills are not strong; they are really in a cloistered community.
“I decided to write the stories in a high level of English because they’re not just for our grandchildren. They want to hear stories about our lives and about things that happened to us in the past and then they want to hear made up stories.
“I brought them my book, and their parents didn’t ask me to take it home. They kept it on the bookshelf so they can take it down and read it and they were very excited about it.
Is the story in the book accurate?
“This accurately represents what I went through back in June, 2020. One of our teachers came back from New York and got COVID and the whole school had to go into bidud. At that time, if two people in your school or workplace had it, everyone went into bidud. I couldn’t visit my grandchildren then because I was also in bidud, and they didn’t know what it meant. You had to be inside your house and be careful; you had to try to not expose them and once you were out, there was a time that you could only go within a 100-meter limit.”
How did the book evolve?
“This was a smaller piece within a larger story on my ‘Bubie’ blog, and I decided this would make a nice young children’s book. I wanted it to be open to Hebrew speakers also, so I needed a translator. Michal Yechieli Coppenhagen was a former student of mine who translates from English to Hebrew and she said she’d be happy to. I asked her to keep the rhyme and she did a beautiful job. Children’s books are so short, you really have the option of having one side English and one side Hebrew.”
The book can be ordered on her Tell Me A Story Bubie website and shipped anywhere from Israel.
“Some people have asked if this book will be available after there’s no more COVID, but the grandchildren of a friend of mine said to her that this is a book about what they went through, and it’s going to be their history and something that they will cope with. When their children or grandchildren say, ‘Tell me a story,’ they will talk about the time they lived through a plague.
COVID is still around, but this little book will help grandchildren get through it with a bit more joy.