Mystery Bear Serves Up Purim Lite
By SUE EDELMAN
THE MYSTERY BEAR
A Purim Story
By Leone Adelson
Illustrated by Naomi Howland
32 pages. Clarion Books. $15.
a child, Purim was always my favorite Jewish holiday. And why not? Purim has it
all: a danger-ridden story, a brave female heroine, cool costumes, raucous
parties, yummy hamentaschen, and the challenge of waiting to hear the name of
the villain mentioned in the story so you can drown out his name with
noisemakers. Still, I must admit that Purim was temporarily tainted for me when
I was about six or seven years old and my mother got the date wrong for
dressing up for services. Excited to show off my Queen Esther get-up, complete
with luxurious purple velvet cape, I entered the sanctuary only to discover
that I was the only one in costume. I cringed with embarrassment throughout the
service and wished I could disappear. Other than that one setback, I always
So when the chance came to review the childrenís book The Mystery Bear: A Purim
Story, I seized the opportunity. I was surprised to learn that this
illustrated storybook by the late Leone Adelson, illustrated by Naomi Howland,
was published not by a Jewish book publisher, but by the mainstream Clarion
Books, an imprint of the educational publishing behemoth Houghton Mifflin.
Would this book serve up a watered down Purim, bearing little of the festive
exuberance of the holiday? Happily, it does capture the spirit of the Jewish
people at Purim time, while providing an introduction to the holiday for
novices and the very young. Yet it stays very close to the surface, presenting
the tale within a decidedly typical childrenís storytelling format.
After a long, cold, snowy New England winter, the on-the-verge-of-spring
setting of The Mystery Bear gave me hope that this too shall thaw. From
the first page, I was drawn in by Howlandís gentle gouache paintings of Little
Bear, wide-eyed and startled to be awake, hungry and alone as his mother
continues to hibernate. The sweet little croci that dot the pages are like
Little Bearólife awakening from a long winter.
Hungry Little Bear emerges from his den to find that the snow is almost melted
and, lucky for him, thereís a smoky smell in the air, a sure sign that thereís
something good to eat nearby. He follows the scent to a little house where
grownups are putting food on the table and children are making a racket with
horns and rattles. Heís torn. The food is tempting, but the noise is
frightening. The dilemma gets worse for Little Bear, as a crowd of costumed
people comes through the woods toward the house, singing and playing
instruments and drums. Their din is scary, but theyíve got the one thing this
hungry bear canít resist: honey.
So Little Bear decides to go for it. Heís a little surprised when he walks
right in the front door and no one stops him. In fact, no one even thinks he
looks strange to be there in a house full of humans. Heís in luck! This is a
Purim party and he has the best costume of anyone, which, the guests point out,
makes it important for him to help himself to all the yummy food. They all try
to figure out who is inside the great bear suit, but they canít agree.
The hidden identity of Little Bear hints at the real Purim story, in which
Queen Estherís Jewish identity is kept from her husband, King Ahasuerus. Esther
and her uncle, Mordecai, function as assimilated Jews
in Ahasuerusí court. Estherís life and that of the Jewish people were
threatened by Haman, who wanted to destroy all the Jews. She had to reveal her
Jewish identity to the king in order to save the Jews. And here is Little Bear,
assimilating to human life in order to enjoy an early spring feast. Revealing
his identity, would, of course, make him an unwelcome guest at the Purim party.
Surely, thatís not as serious as Estherís plight, but remember, this is a
Only a little boy named Itzik suspects that heís a real bear and soon the secret
is out. The people run screaming from the house, and Little Bear is too sleepy
and full to chase them. He just wanders back to his den to finish his nap along
with his mother.
Itís nice that this simple childrenís book finds a way to paint a portrait of
what Purim celebrations are about, alluding to the characters that populate the
Purim story, introducing the traditional foods, the concept of a Purim spiel,
the customs of drowning out the sound of Hamanís name with noisemakers and
dressing in costume. A one-page backgrounder on the Purim holiday follows the
story. Oddly, it makes no mention of the fact that Esther kept her Jewish
identity a secret from the king.
Ultimately, this is a conventional storybook that offers an easy introduction
to the holiday of Purim. While it manages to capture the spirit of Purim and
some of its traditions, it avoids delving into the holidayís significance and
ends up being simply a childrenís story that happens to take place at Purim
time. Read it to your kids for a pleasant bedtime tale, but donít let it be the
only Purim story you tell them this year.