Once upon a time, when Jay Bernstein’s children were little, he read them bedtime stories to help them fall asleep. But the stories usually put him to sleep as well.
“I was always looking for books that were simple, but edgy and fun,” says Bernstein, a Ranchleigh resident.
He also had one other criterion in mind — he wanted to read his kids “books with Jewish themes.” But the Jewish children’s books he found tended to be “simple but not very fun.”
So Bernstein picked up his sketchpad to draw and write his own Jewish children’s books, the ones he wanted to read to his kids — but with his sense of humor.
Now, at age 60, Bernstein has dusted off the books that had been “sitting in a box in the closet” all these years and self-published his first children’s book. Bernstein describes his style as “Dr. Seuss with a Jewish theme,” and the title of his book “Shlufferville” (CreateSpace) strongly suggests just that.
Like Dr. Seuss, Bernstein uses rhymed prose and colorful illustrations to get across his quirky story and ideas. Unlike Dr. Seuss, Bernstein’s topic centers around Chanukah, the Festival of Lights that will be observed this year from Dec.12-20.
In his book, Queen Willa of Shlufferville — located on a hill in the kingdom of Greater East Kishka — takes it upon herself to wake up her rather lethargic town and get them excited about the Jewish holidays. (Shluff is the Yiddish word for sleep.)
“Everyone and everything in Shlufferville was boring/it was a great place to live, if you enjoy snoring./How dull was Shlufferville? So dull you could scream! The stores only sold vanilla ice cream.”
“Ultimately,” Bernstein explains, “the queen comes up with an idea for Chanukah that seems to do the trick. So it’s a book about Chanukah, but it’s also a book about [all] the holidays as well.”
Visual storytelling comes naturally to Bernstein, a longtime Jewish community activist and co-host of the now-defunct longtime radio program, “Shalom Baltimore.”
“I liked to draw as a hobby,” says Bernstein, who can be found during the day working as a government contracts attorney. “I painted and doodled and drew.”
As Bernstein dreamed in color on paper, the ideas simply flowed. He wrote one book titled “Sam the Ram Shofar Man” about a “jazz trumpet player who finds a horn lying around and becomes a shofar player at a synagogue,” Bernstein says.
He also created and told “The Story of Mitch Mezuzah,” a baseball-playing doorpost parchment encasement. And years before the wildly popular “Toy Story” or “Night at the Museum” movies, Bernstein wrote “The Lions’ Club All-Night Party.”
“It’s about the lions that are embroidered on the curtain that covers the ark at the synagogue,” says Bernstein. “They jump off the curtain and have a party in the synagogue.”
Bernstein’s wife, Dina, encouraged him to get the books published at the time, but traditional publishing companies balked. Bernstein says he learned how tough it can be to sell a product in a niche market.
“Children’s books occupy a small market,” he says. “Jewish children’s books are an even smaller market.”
But the publishing world evolved as Bernstein’s children grew up. Now, his eldest son, Yehuda, is 30 and a father himself. His daughter, Atara, is 27 and youngest son, Ezra, is about to turn 22.
And with the internet and other economic factors, today’s publishing marketplace has been turned on its head. This new publishing reality, coupled with a little more encouragement from his wife, recently gave Bernstein the impetus to self-publish the book and make his stories available to the public.
His first published book might be an old favorite of his, but Bernstein is still writing children’s books. He recently wrote and illustrated a book for his 3-year-old granddaughter, Rayna, as a birthday present.
“It’s a counting book — ‘Rayna’s Rainy Day,’” Bernstein says. “It’s about a girl going to the park and she sees two balloons, three flowers and so on. Toward the end of book, [the sky] gets darker and darker, and then it starts to rain.”
Bernstein has also considered branching out from children’s lit. “Recently, I’ve thought about maybe writing a graphic novel,” he says. “That would be for adults.”
Atara Bernstein says she hopes that even while her father pursues new projects, he will continue to publish his children’s books. Atara helped him pick out her childhood favorites.
“It was so fun and exciting going through his archives of children’s books,” she says. And it was personal, too, because many of the books “were written in honor of members of the family.”
Her personal favorite?
“‘Shlufferville,’ of course,” she said. As an adult reading it, she says she loves that the book is still fun to read and compares its humor to that of “The Simpsons,” in the sense that “there’s a little edge to the humor. It’s appropriate for children, of course, but it’s still fun to read for adults.”
For information about “Shlufferville,” visit jaybernsteinbooks.com .
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