Review: The Rabbi and His Donkey

The Rabbi and His Donkey

by Susan Tarcov, illustrated by Diana Renjina

Kar-Ben Publishing (imprint of Lerner Publishing Group), 2023

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Dena Bach

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The Sultan’s personal doctor, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, rides from his town early every morning to visit the Sultan in his palace in Cairo. The Rabbi has an exhausting, busy day of seeing many patients — from the Sultan to those who were waiting for him at his home even as he is dismounting from the animal who brought from the palace. As writer Susan Tarcov explains in the endnotes, The Rabbi and His Donkey is based on letters written by Rabbi ben Maimon, also known as Rambam or Maimonides, the renowned 12th century rabbi, physician, and philosopher. In this fictional narrative, Maimonides’ hectic life is seen through the eyes of a donkey named Hamor. Every day, Hamor bring the Rabbi to and from the palace, listening to Maimonides talk through his wise ideas. As he listens, the donkey becomes wiser too. When the Sultan replaces the donkey with a much faster horse to give Maimonides more time to write and tend patients, Hamor feels left behind. That is until Maimonides too learns a valuable lesson. That the time he spends riding and talking to the donkey is important. It gives him the time he needs to think.

The illustrations by Diana Renjina, reminiscent of 12th century Ottoman illuminated manuscripts, set the narrative in the place and time that Maimonides lived, featuring his Sephardi ancestry and culture. The characters are brown-skinned, and the images are warmly colored in golden hues, suffused with light, further emphasizing the Middle Eastern setting as well as highlighting Maimonides’ importance in Jewish history.

This narrative is an age-appropriate introduction to a prominent, influential figure in Judaism. It is always refreshing to see picture books set in less commonly portrayed, yet equally important, periods and cultures within Jewish history. Within the story, the author includes many quotes from Maimonides’ writings, hopefully sending readers young and old onto deeper reading of his texts and teachings. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity that the illustrations do not do as much to deepen the path to Jewish cultural content. I found it perplexing that the title of the book most prominently illustrated was not Maimonides’ most well-known book Guide for the Perplexed, the source of several of the quotes in the narrative.

Tarcov’s narrative can appeal to those looking for a dive into Jewish history, Judaic scholarship, and Sephardic culture, as well as those looking for the more universal messages of the value of connections with animals and the natural world, and the importance of taking time out of our busy days for thought and reflection.

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Reviewer Dena Bach studied Illustration at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and has an MA/MFA in Children’s Literature and Writing for Children from Simmons University. Currently the illustration editor of The Shmooze, she has worked as a bookseller, bookkeeper, fine artist, calligrapher, illustrator, writer, and a teacher of children from ages 2-14. No matter how many children’s books she reads a day, the magical pile of books on her bedside table never seems to get any smaller.