The Bible is not for children, as at least one rabbi has observed. True enough, many biblical stories - such as the terrifying reception given to visitors of Sodom, or the mortifying mistake made by Lot's daughters after that evil city was destroyed - are on the face of it inappropriate for kids. Yet reading and rereading the biblical narrative at different stages in life bring different rewards, and to ensure an indelible impression, children are traditionally introduced to the tales as early as possible.
Luckily, some biblical stories are supremely suitable for the young, and the action-packed Book of Jonah is one.
ArtScroll explains in its introduction that it chose to make a children's book for this story so as to prepare the young ones for the Yom Kippur afternoon service when it is read. The result is impressive looking, with quality glossy pages whose detailed, old-fashioned cartoon illustrations are fun to turn over.
Author Shmuel Blitz notes that to make the English translation that appears alongside the Hebrew text more appropriate for children, he went for a simplified adaptation rather than a literal translation. That's a mercy, for it means that the gorgeous Hebrew narrative has been ruined in the English by only half, and spared the full ArtScroll treatment.
Still, that's shame enough. ArtScroll translation guidelines seem to rule unkosher any words that carry aesthetic appeal, even for children. The English text plods dutifully alongside the powerful Hebrew original, presumably to prevent the translation of the sacred script from serving as good literature. Even so innocuous a Jewish Publication Society (and King James) translation as "great fish" for dag gadol (commonly recalled as the whale) is flattened here to "large fish."
People often describe ArtScroll's reliably dreadful English translations as "unsophisticated." However its rendering of Jonah's roaring declaration of Jewish identity into the dull non-English of "I am a Hebrew. I fear Hashem, the God of the Heavens, Who had [sic] made the sea and the dry land" smacks more of a cloying, arbitrary adaptation of the magnificent King James version: "I am a Hebrew and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land."
Perhaps some religious reason will be brought out for the use of the unnecessary, and not just incorrect, "had."
But even in the realm of religious requirements the book disappoints. Sprinkled among the bilingual biblical narrative and the illustrations are little caption bubbles that pad out the text's plain meaning with explanations, interpretations, and what one hopes are pearls from the midrashic, talmudic and late rabbinic tradition.
There is no way to know, because unlike the usual practice in Jewish texts, no references are provided. This might prove annoying to the parent presumably meant to read aloud the bubbles, the print of which is too small to tempt young children to try to tackle on their own.
The story of Jonah is a fascinating tale, ever eerily relevant: a Jewish prophet flees from his God-given mission of leading a sinning gentile city-state into repentance, is stopped by God en route, and ends up sick at heart when the offending gentiles do indeed hearken to his prophecy. Jonah is distraught because, according to tradition, he has thereby put his fellow, unrepentant Jews to shame. The narrative ends with God patiently explaining to Jonah that as the creator of this great city of gentiles - and their animals! - it is only natural that He care for their welfare.
There can be no better source for a must-have Jewish children's book than this story, with its illustration of God's omniscience and of His mercy for all His creations, including the non-Jew - all woven around a fantastic sea adventure. One day, that book will be published.