The mentch of Yiddelseas

Welcome to Yiddelseas, where marine life meets Yiddishkeit, and a message of mitzvot echoes.

mench book 88 224 (photo credit: )
mench book 88 224
(photo credit: )
Mr. Mentch By The Mamas Illustrated by Iosi Salem Pitspopany 32 pages; $9.95 Mr. Mentch enjoys helping his fellow fish. He swims through town attending to the various needs of his neighbors, whose names and speech are peppered with Yiddish. If he's not helping Mr. Shlemiel get down from a ladder, he's saving Mrs. Yenta from an encroaching lobster. He is the quintessential mentch, who does for others without asking for anything in return. But when the last night of Hanukka rolls around, Mr. Mentch finds himself left out of the Showtime festivities - a veritable talent show of maritime skill, including a magic show and musical performance. It is here that he must find his own unique skill, his special gift, and the ending does not disappoint. Welcome to Yiddelseas, where marine life meets Yiddishkeit, and a message of mitzvot echoes through the water. This aquatic backdrop is the setting for Mr. Mentch, an animated children's book by "The Mamas," sisters Jacqui Hochenberg and Liza Kramer, which carries the theme of realizing individual potential and recognizing one's special gift. Sitting in a Modi'in coffee shop, The Mamas explain how two former full-time career women came to be writing English-language children's books in Israel. "We wanted to make a nice Jewish book that everyone could enjoy," says Hochenberg. "This has a Jewish message but not necessarily Halacha. And it's accessible to all types of Jews; Orthodox, Conservative, Reform." Born in South Africa and raised in Sydney, the sisters explain that they've wanted to get into children's books for a long time; however, geography stood in their way. Both sisters made aliya in their early 20s and were married in Israel, but Kramer took a job offer in London and Hochenberg found herself back in Sydney, working for a large company. "The goal was always to come back to Israel," says Hochenberg. "But it was hard to find the right opportunity." Her husband ended up selling his business and they decided they could either start over in Australia or try again in Israel. "We also had a religious problem with our kids," says Hochenberg, who wanted to raise her children in a more Jewish environment. They decided to return to Israel, and her sister soon followed suit. "Once she was here," Kramer explains, "I knew I had to come back as well." Back in Israel, they both decided it was time to do what they had been talking about for years. "We just decided now is the time, and we're going for it," says Hochenberg. "A lot of people move to Israel, and they become casualties of Israeli society," her sister chimes in. "They say oh, it was easier where I came from, and when they make aliya, they sort of settle to become less than they can really be. People were negative at first, and said what a hard industry children's books is. But we didn't let it stop us." They began writing Mr. Mentch, and at the time, both of their schedules permitted them to commit fully to the book. Kramer had transferred her job from London to Israel, but was only working a few times a week with at-risk kids, while Hochenberg was working from home importing copper and jewelry from South Africa. "We met on a daily basis to brainstorm concepts," says Jacqui. "We went over ideas, images, and wrote and rewrote over and over again." The sisters worked nonstop on the book for over six months and even started doing their own distribution. "The demand was there," says Hochenberg. "But I found myself living at the post office." It was at this point that they decided to look for a publisher that knew the States and catered to the Jewish world as a whole. They found Pitspopany, which agreed to take on 1,000 books as a trial, and from there, Mr. Mentch took off. With the first installation of Mr. Mentch already in bookstores, The Mamas plan on continuing his adventures with an ongoing series. Scholastic Books has purchased a large order from them, and The Mamas have already started working on the next book. They hope to follow up with Mr. Mentch posters, dolls and notebooks as well. "We're hoping that Mentch-y becomes the Mickey Mouse of the Jewish world," laughs Hochenberg. While the sisters are both mothers themselves, they have a certain youthful quality that comes through. After all, it was their imaginations that created this underwater community, and they seem to be having as much fun writing the books as the kids who read them. "You start to realize that their are no boundaries," says Hochenberg. "Nothing is too far-fetched. What adults might find weird or fantastic, the kids just love." At the same time, they knew that a message was needed. "I wanted to do something that incorporated creativity with doing something for others," she adds. "And when you see the way kids react to the book, it's just the best feeling." The Mamas also use their kids as a sort of test audience. They pitch ideas to them or show them concepts and see what resonates. "If our kids don't like it, they tell us. We also pay attention to what colors they like, and we write down sentences they say." "They say truth comes out of the mouths of babes," says Kramer. "And it's true, kids just say it as it is. There's so many great things in the Jewish world. Fun and inspiring things, and if you can bring that down to a kid's level, then they can have them too."