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.
Ages 5-8

As 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 liked Purim.

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 childrenís book.

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.