What made you want to write a book about mitzvahs?
Julie Merberg (JM): The incredibly positive response to “My First Jewish Baby Book” proved that there are plenty of Jewish parents, like myself, who want to introduce their kids to the cultural aspects of Jewish life in a fun way. Our editorial director, who isn’t Jewish, was completely enchanted by stories her preschool teacher friend would share about teaching mitzvahs to her young students. She suggested that we publish a book about mitzvahs, and I loved the idea!
What’s the most surprising mitzvah you came across while doing research for or illustrating the book?
JM: It was pretty fascinating to see how many of the 613 official mitzvahs are not applicable to modern life—there are a whole lot about steering clear of idols. But there are also key themes that come up over and over—particularly the idea of helping those less fortunate—that are still practical. I also love that we’re commanded to rest, not only on Shabbat, but on every holiday. That idea of taking a break from the chaos of life to get quiet and contemplate is timeless, and probably more applicable now.
Beck Feiner (BF): The surprise for me came from how little gestures can actually make an impact. For example, giving someone a compliment or sharing a snack. These actions can have a bigger impact than one thinks, so I wanted to give these little mitzvahs as much importance as the bigger ones.
What’s your favorite mitzvah in the book?
JM: So hard to choose! I’d have to go with tikkun olam. Before the book was written, I knew it was going to end there. And I enjoyed thinking about ways that the very big idea of healing the world could be translated for very small children.
BF: I loved illustrating tikkun olam. It’s the last spread of the book, and I wanted to make an impact with a powerful illustration. I am very concerned about the state of our earth, so I wanted kids to connect with and understand this idea about how they can help.
Why do you think mitzvahs are the perfect teaching tool for this age group?
JM: While many mitzvahs are outdated or irrelevant for little ones, there are also plenty of ideas—don’t fight, don’t lie, share your food—that resonate for the preschool set. And the ritual- and holiday-related mitzvahs offer enjoyable, easy ways for kids to get into Jewish holidays. Inviting friends over for latkes is a mitzvah! What could be more fun?
“It’s a Mitzvah!” is your second book together. What’s your favorite part of collaborating?
JM: Beck lives in Sydney, Australia, so it’s been amusing to discover regional differences in Jewish customs. When she sent her first Purim illustration, I learned that, in Australia, kids dress up as anything for Purim; she had drawn a girl in a fairy costume. Whereas here we tend to dress up as characters from the Purim story; in the finished illustration, the girl is dressed as Queen Esther, delivering a Purim basket. But it’s also really cool that this woman who lives halfway around the world knows exactly what I’m talking about when I say something like, “We need a tzedakah picture.”
BF: I love when an author like Julie has an idea for a book but still allows an illustrator to have input in each spread. We have a great open way of communicating with each other and haven’t let the fact that we live so far apart come in the way of this collaboration. The result is something pretty special.
Reprinted with permission.