Review: I Am Hava

I Am Hava: A Song's Story of Love, Hope & Joy

by Freda Lewkowicz, illustrated by Siona Benjamin

Intergalactic Afikomen

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Mirele Kessous

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I Am Hava is an unusual and exceptional picture book that can be appreciated by all ages, from 5 year olds all the way up to adults. The story describes the origin of the song Hava Nagila. Voiced by the melody itself, we are taken on a journey from the niggun’s origins in Poland to its present form as the beloved, well-known song we recognize today. What you get is a poetic history lesson that contains rather sophisticated ideas (persecution, redemption, etc.), many of which will fly over the heads of younger readers but will resonate with older ones. Hebrew and Yiddish words are sprinkled throughout the book, although whether the author uses the word mitzvah correctly is up for debate. Hava narrates that: “I spread hope and joy even in times of trouble. That was my mitzvah.” The word mitzvah means a commandment from God given to people to perform. Technically, having a melody spread hope and joy in times of trouble is not one of God’s 613 mitzvot. 

The text works in a poetic, flowery kind of way that complements Benjamin’s sweeping, richly-colored illustrations. We see Hava depicted as a flying, blue-skinned woman with long hair and draped in a shawl that resembles a combination of a sari and a tallit. She weaves among musical notes, scenes of Israel, and other historical moments. While this may seem a bit far-fetched and abstract, it actually works. The back of the book contains a useful note with extra tidbits of historical information. You might not realize where the book is going in the beginning, but by the end it makes perfect sense. Give this highly original read to anyone from your child to your Bubbe.

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Reviewer Mirele Kessous is the Assistant Library Media Specialist at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. She is a certified librarian with a specialty in children's/young adult library services and moonlights as an illustrator. She married an Israeli and has 3 small children.