Brave Like Queen Esther: Celebrating Activism in Jewish Children’s Books

By Robin Jacobson. 

Jewish texts and stories, however ancient, often seem eerily relevant to present-day events. This year, the Purim story reads like a newly reported sexual harassment scandal. Beauty pageants! Powerful men demeaning women! Even Queen Esther feels like a modern heroine. Like the women in the #MeToo movement, Esther broke silence, revealed her secret, and used her voice to protect others.
For children, no matter what they know or don’t know about recent headlines, Esther’s bravery is a valuable take-away from the Purim story that can continue past the holiday. Try reading books with your kids that celebrate brave girls and women. The six exceptional picture-book biographies described below memorably introduce some inspiring activists. Ask the kids how these people are like/not like Queen Esther.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Two beguiling books – Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality by Jonah Winter and I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy – tell the story of Justice Ginsburg’s struggle to become a lawyer despite discrimination against Jews and women. Although sexual harassment persists, it is still hard to imagine that Ginsburg had to study in the bathroom at Cornell University to avoid the social stigma attached to girls who studied openly. Even as a student at Harvard Law School, Ginsburg could not enter the Law Library periodical room, which was open only to men.

While a law school professor in the 1970s, Ginsburg directed the influential American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project, overseeing and arguing Supreme Court cases protesting the unequal treatment of women and men. Recognized as one of the nation’s leading lawyers, she became a court of appeals judge and then a Supreme Court Justice.

Clara Lemlich

Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markle presents the inspiring tale of Clara Lemlich, a young Jewish immigrant sweatshop worker in New York City’s garment industry. Infuriated by filthy working conditions and draconian rules (pricking your finger and bleeding on cloth could cost you your job), Lemlich led what was then the largest walkout of women workers in United States history. By the time the strike ended, hundreds of bosses agreed to shorter workweeks and higher salaries and allowed their employees to form unions. Emboldened, workers across the country began to strike too, leading to improved conditions in American workplaces.

Golda Meir

Goldie Takes a Stand: Golda Meir‘s First Crusade by Barbara Krasner is a fun introduction to Israel’s fourth prime minister, focusing on Golda Meir’s childhood in Milwaukee after her family emigrated from Kiev. Nine-year-old Goldie organized her school friends into the American Young Sisters Society to raise money to buy textbooks for classmates who couldn’t afford them. When the girls’ pennies proved insufficient, Goldie decided to “think bigger.” She persuaded the owner of a large hall to donate his space for a fundraising gala.

Emma Lazarus

A beautiful pair of books – Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty by Linda Glaser and The Story of Emma Lazarus: Liberty’s Voice by Erica Silverman – celebrate an early advocate for American immigrants. Born into a privileged, wealthy Jewish family in New York City, Emma Lazarus nonetheless dedicated herself to Russian Jewish immigrants housed in miserable conditions on Manhattan’s Ward‘s Island, teaching classes and advocating for better housing, food, and sanitation. The experience inspired her to pen the immortal poem imagining the Statue of Liberty as the “Mother of Exiles” welcoming refugees to America.

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