From Passover to Shavu’ot

Drawing Holidays With Children

In the Jewish tradition, the 49-day period that stretches between the springtime holidays of Passover and Shavu’ot mark a special time.  It begins with Pesach (Hebrew for Passover), which commemorates the story of Exodus, when the Israelite slaves were liberated from Egypt approximately 3264 years ago (1250 BCE).  From there, seven weeks are formally counted (known as “counting the Omer”) until we arrive at the holiday of Shavu’ot (Hebrew for “weeks”), which commemorates the giving of the Torah:  the sacred teachings of the Jewish people that were given to Moses at Mount Sinai.

This spring, I had the privilege of marking this “season of liberation” with two different groups of children.  At Temple Emanuel in Kingston, NY, I worked with students on an illustrated haggadah, or “telling” of the Passover story.  Each child was assigned one part of the seder to illustrate in the style of a medieval illuminated manuscript.  At the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, a class of fourth-grade Judaics students drew their impressions of Shavu’ot, and what it means to receive the Torah.  From liberation to revelation, these drawings are fresh and spirited.  I am honored to share them with you.

Children relate easily to the archetypal stories that stand behind these holidays.   Moses sees a burning bush that is possessed of divine spirit and is not consumed.  God sends plagues that thwart the evil intentions of the cruel Pharoah.  The Red Sea parts, and the Israelites flee to freedom.  Mount Sinai spews forth fire and smoke.  And the sacred literature of the People of the Book, also known as the Etz Chaim, or tree of life, is given to humanity forever.

Many of you are familiar with these stories . . . so without further ado, I present these beautiful drawings for your viewing pleasure.  The ancient festivals of Passover and Shavuot are transformed into a feast for the eye!

Rachzah: ritual hand-washing at the Passover seder

Hiding the “Afikomen” – a challenge for young children to find the hidden matzah

Maror: eating bitter herbs to remember our ancestors’ lives of slavery

Hallel: singing songs of praise and freedom

Shavu’ot: the Torah scroll becomes a Tree of Life – a collection of sacred literature that is rooted in ancient times, and continues to grow into the future

The teachings of Torah are a lifelong gift of guidance, likened to the devoted love of a parent that is passed from one generation to the next.

Each individual may relate directly to the Torah, and is free to interpret it as he or she understands it.

As the sacred scroll unrolls, so too does our understanding of it evolve with the unfolding of time.

Lastly, I share with you my own interpretation of Shavu’ot.  For me, the holiday is an honoring not only of tradition, but of a lifelong source of artistic inspiration.  I started this painting two years ago with the desire to create a “visual Torah” that imparts a sense of the different landscapes in which the Jewish tradition is rooted: the craggy mountains and wide deserts of the Sinai; the rolling pastures and olive groves of the Galilee; the buildings and streets of Jerusalem; and the fertile valleys where almond trees blossom each spring, bringing the promise of new life.

“Shavu’ot” – Copyright © 2014 Durga Yael Bernhard

Thanks to the talented young talmidim at Temple Emanuel and the WJC for their wonderful drawings!   As a children’s book illustrator and arts-in-ed teacher, I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with young artists.  It really brings the holidays alive, and affirms our connection to the cycling of the seasons.

Chag Sameach (happy holidays) to all!

D Yael

D Yael Bernhard

Author / Illustrator of
NEVER SAY A MEAN WORD AGAIN - New!! - A Publishers Weekly Starred Review
WHILE YOU ARE SLEEPING- Charlesbridge Publishing A Childrens Book Council Notable Book
AROUND THE WORLD IN ONE SHABBAT - Jewish Lights - A Sydney Taylor Honor Book
GREEN BIBLE STORIES FOR CHILDREN - a National Green Book Festival Notable Book
A RIDE ON MOTHER’S BACK - an American Bookseller Association Pick of the List
- and more!

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Never Say A Mean Word Again


A Timely Tale
of Conflict Resolution


For the last two winters, along with shoveling snow, moving firewood, and making muffins with my daughter on snow days, I’ve been busy illustrating several new picture books.   The first, to be published this week by Wisdom Tales Press, is titled NEVER SAY A MEAN WORD AGAIN: A Tale from Medieval Spain.  It is written by Jacqueline Jules, the author of over two dozen books for children, some of which are favorites on my daughter’s bookshelf.  I was delighted to have the opportunity to collaborate with Jacqueline.

It’s always a special challenge to illustrate another author’s story.  After all, no two people think, or imagine, alike.  Fortunately, most authors are pleased to see their carefully crafted words translated into images.   I try to represent not just the facts, but also the feeling of a story.  This is especially challenging when the setting is a faraway place – and in this case, a faraway time as well.

NEVER SAY A MEAN WORD AGAIN is based on a tale that took place in Spain a thousand years ago.   In the story, a Jewish boy named Samuel, whose father is the top advisor in the royal court, stumbles into conflict with a Muslim boy named Hamza.   Though Samuel appears blameless, his father, who is considered the wisest man in the kingdom, commands his son to take responsibility for the problem.

The characters of both the royal vizier and his son are based upon the historical figure of Samuel Hanagid, the highest advisor to the Muslim ruler in 11th-century Spain.

Medieval Spain was a place of rigid laws and tightly-structured forms, evident in the bold and intricate designs of vaulted ceilings and arched doorways, tablecloths and ceramics, tapestries, clothing, and illuminated manuscripts.   Beauty and precision abounded.  Yet the ornate curves of this epoch were devoid of feeling, as if the artists strove to be anonymous.   I felt a cold draft sweeping along the stone walls and dimly-lit chambers of this epoch.  There my protagonist lay awake at night in his curtained bed, trying to figure out how to stop a bully from ever saying a mean word to him again.

My special challenge with this book was to lighten up the Middle Ages, and infuse its heavy architecture with humor.  Samuel bears the consequences of his clumsiness in ways he never could have imagined.  I wanted this book to show the reader that here as everywhere, boys will be boys.  And that is their saving grace.

I began by collecting photographs of the Middle Ages.  I grouped them in folders on my computer, opened the images on my desktop, arranged them into collages, and took screen shots.

A collage of Spanish medieval architecture makes handy illustration reference.

With the collages open on my computer screen, I had all the visual information I needed right in front of me.  I started sketching in pencil – first scribbling in the margins of the printed manuscript – postage stamps of trial and error, only drawing the vaguest shapes.  Later I enlarged these scribbles, and began articulating more detail.

To bring the designs of medieval Spain into the story, I reduced them to silhouettes, then sculpted the shapes slightly to make them like Samuel – clumsy and cheerful.   Silhouetted, textured, and surrounded by white, the lugubrious designs of medieval Spain began to transform.

Architectural images become the structural design of a double-page spread.

Samuel is clumsy in his thinking, too, taking his father’s instructions as permission to punish the boy who bullied him with words.  But his own good nature takes over when he realizes his adversary wants a friend more than an enemy.   Before we know it, the two boys are catching frogs together.

Samuel & Hamza get into a water fight.

Would that their adult counterparts could yield their grudges so easily!   Children value play over pride, and this story lovingly reminds us that we all began this way.  May every child who reads NEVER SAY A MEAN WORD AGAIN take its message to heart.   Read below for first reviews!

You can order NEVER SAY A MEAN WORD AGAIN from, from Wisdom Tales Press, from your local bookstore, or a signed copy directly from my webstore.   Consider donating a copy to your library!


“Inspired by a legend about a Jewish vizier who advised the Muslim ruler of medieval Spain, this story tells of a conundrum faced by a boy named Samuel and the counterintuitive wisdom of his father, the vizier. After Samuel accidentally offends Hamza, the tax collector’s son, and incurs endures his rage (“Donkey Brain! Stupid! Look what you did!”), Samuel’s father instructs him, “Make sure Hamza never says a mean word to you again.” With illuminating details—such as the boys’ headwear, backdrops of thick stone walls or heavy wooden doors, geometric patterns in mauves and browns, and a vine and flower motif—Bernhard’s (Around the World in One Shabbat) illustrations convey an elegant, multicultural castle environment. Energy and movement infuse the paintings, which humorously render Samuel’s contemplated strategies (“Maybe he could train a monkey to sit on Hamza’s shoulders. The monkey could clamp Hamza’s lips shut”). Jules’s (the Zapato Power series) down-to-earth narrative communicates Samuel’s subtle internal transformation as the unexpected, amusing, and touching outcomes of his attempts to obey his father turn a power struggle into a budding friendship.”  Ages 4–8. 
Reviewed on 04/18/2014 by Tory Abel
[Publishers Weekly starred review]

“Jules has crafted a folk tale that is sure to please. She writes in a gracious and enjoyable way, with simplicity and humor.  A story of bullying, acceptance, and friendship, NEVER SAY A MEAN WORD AGAIN is a delightful account of turning meanness and rudeness into kindness and friendship.
Durga Yael Bernhard has constructed appealing illustrations, with Moorish-influenced designs. Her muted color choices and smooth designs complement the text wonderfully, calmly propelling the story forward.  The internal layout is pleasant and easy to follow, with a striking font that is easy to read, and perfectly accompanied by the illustrations.” [Foreword Reviews, May 2014]

“NEVER SAY A MEAN WORD AGAIN was a delightfully unexpected treat. When I read about the book, I was not sure how I would like it. I’m so glad I gave it a chance. The story was so deeply inspiring. What started out as an inadvertent action led to a situation of challenge that needed to be addressed. The way that Samuel handled the challenge, while at the same time trying to honor his father’s request, proved to be a beautiful lesson on what really matters above all else.
The illustrations in this book were perfectly matched to the tale written. I loved the colors and texture. My eyes were drawn to the details.”
[Kim Teamer to be posted on Goodreads]




The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin
A Toyshop Tale of Hanukkah
written by Martha Simpson
illustrated by D Yael Bernhard
Wisdom Tales Press







Just Like Me, Climbing a Tree:
Exploring the Wonder of Trees Around the World
written & illustrated by D Yael Bernhard
Wisdom Tales Press



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Papercut Peace


Celebrating Sukkot at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation


For the last eight days, the holiday of Sukkot has been celebrated by Jews all over the world.  Like many ancient holidays, this one has several meanings.  It is the culmination of the “Days of Awe” or Yamim Noraim – from the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year – through Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  During this ten-day period, Jewish people everywhere engage in deep soul-searching and take stock of goals for the year to come.  Then Sukkot begins – the time of relaxation and joy in the harvest of our inner work, our community, and the fruits of nature.

Sukkot means “booths” in Hebrew, referring to the booths that act as temporary shelters during the eight days of the holiday.   The booth has three tent-like walls – typically canvas or burlap, in the U.S. – and a roof that is partly covered with organic material.  One must be able to see the stars through a sukkah (singular of sukkot).  The sukkah symbolizes the temporary shelters that the ancient Israelites slept in during their forty years of wandering through the desert from Mt. Sinai to the Land of Israel.  The sukkah is meant to remind us of the impermanent nature of our lives, as well as our dependence upon the Source of Life that sustains us.

Sukkot is also a harvest festival.  Each sukkah is hung with the fruits of the harvest – gourds, vines, flowers, nuts, and fruits – and other decorations to make the sukkah comfortable and pleasant.  Why decorate something temporary?  Because it is a commandment , or mitzvah, to invite guests to dine in one’s sukkah, and to be joyful there.   These special guests are known as ushpizinan Aramaic word simply meaning “guests”.

The ushpizin were invited into the sukkah at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation in the form of paper leaves.  We cut large leaf shapes from colored paper, and drew on them.  Some children drew the traditional ushpizin: our ancestral forefathers and foremothers:  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.  Others chose to bring their family ancestors and deceased relatives into the sukkah.  Some children drew pets they wished to remember.   In the Sephardic tradition, special honor is also given to Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David, for each of these exalted persons represents uprootedness, and each in his wanderings brought benefit to the world through the characteristics of lovingkindness, strength, holiness, and sovereignty.  Our temporary dwelling in the sukkah can inspire us to emulate  these qualities.

The paper leaves also remind us that it is our duty to include the poor among our guests, for it is written that the spirits of the ushpizin will not enter a sukkah where the poor are not welcome.   The great scholar Maimonides admonished that anyone who sits comfortably within his own walls and does not share with the poor is performing a mitzvah only for his stomach.   We are meant to open our homes – and our hearts – to the needy.  What better way to celebrate the abundance of the harvest?

The Hebrew prayer “Sukkat Shalom” (Canopy of Peace) brings yet another meaning to the holiday of Sukkot.  A true canopy of peace is not a rock-solid fortress, but a tenuous hut made from living things, open to the sky, exposed to the elements, welcome to guests and compassionate to the poor.  Most of all, a sukkat shalom must be tended with ongoing effort and care, for it is built to last only with the loving touch of human hands – and the creativity of children.

May you be sheltered with peace in the coming year – a tender and tenuous peace.

Chag Sukkot Sameach – Happy Sukkot Holiday – to all!







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