August 26, 2005
Calvin professor of English Gary Schmidt has collaborated with prominent rabbi and author Lawrence Kushner to produce In God’s Hands (Skylight Paths Publishing, 2005), a picture book for children based on a Jewish legend.
“He’s such a huge name in Jewish literature,” says Schmidt of Kushner, the bestselling author of Honey from the Rock: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism and The Way Into Jewish Mystical Tradition (a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award).
Kushner is also the Emanu-El Scholar at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, the visiting professor of Jewish spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union and a commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered.
“His love of scripture as story is really profound for me,” says Schmidt, himself the author of Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, a 2005 Newbery Honor Book and several other books for both young adults and children.
In God’s Hands tells the story of Jacob, a rich man, and David, a man barely able to feed his family, and of both men’s individual experiences of the same miracle: the miracle of the challah (bread) that keeps appearing and disappearing in a synagogue’s holy ark.
Says Schmidt, “The miracle happens in a way that’s unexpected. It’s a miracle because these two are enacting God’s will.”
Schmidt originally read the story in one of Kushner’s books and approached the author about re-fashioning the tale for another audience.
“I thought this could be powerfully written for kids,” he says.
Kushner, whose writing credits also include two books for young readers, agreed.
The two also agree that working with a storyteller from another faith tradition poses some challenges for an author.
“I wrote the first draft,” says Schmidt. “There were parts that he liked and parts about which he said, ‘It sounds too much like Fiddler on the Roof.’ I learned a lot, things he would add that I hadn’t thought of before. I had never written anything before that I had to compromise so much.”
Kushner amends: “Gary has always been wonderful to work with. A few times Gary and I realized that, coming from a Christian background, he had subtly shifted the emphasis in one direction or another from its original intent. But, as soon as I called it to his attention, he couldn't have been more responsive.”
Both men worked closely with illustrator Matthew J. Baek, to ensure that the book’s setting in Israel was faithfully rendered. Both like the outcome-story and art.
“Gary has taken a very old Jewish tale and brought it back to life for a new and much wider audience,” Kushner says. “His language and sensibilities are graceful, profound, spiritual. It's truly been an honor to work with him.”
Though this is the first time they have partnered on a writing project, the two authors met each other back in 1998. That year Schmidt and students from Calvin’s New England Saints interim visited Kushner for lunch in Sudbury, Mass., where he was serving as the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Massachusetts.
“I thought there was a high likelihood that none of the kids at Calvin had ever talked to a Jewish rabbi,” Schmidt says. “It was a really, really great time.” Kushner has since participated in Calvin’s biennial Festival of Faith and Writing.
Talking with a rabbi was not a new experience for Schmidt, who grew up in a Jewish community on Long Island, New York.
“Judaism was such a huge thing in my life when I was a child,” he says. “All the stories I would hear, the holidays, all the kids at school, the neighborhood. Going to Bar Mitzvahs, going to Bat Mitzvahs. It was huge.”
His childhood immersion in Jewish culture and faith was a powerful motivator, he says, to re-tell the story of In God’s Hands.
“Here are my own children, who really don’t have that diversity,” he says “That made me want to give them at least some connection and experience.”
~written by media relations staff writer Myrna Anderson
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