Caldecott-winning author and illustrator Mordicai Gerstein has managed to do, in a 32-page picture book, what biblical commentators, clergy and Sunday school teachers have been trying to do for centuries: explain the inexplicable story of Abraham and Isaac. God's command that Abraham bind and sacrifice his son is one of the darkest and most puzzling chapters of the Hebrew Bible. Try teaching the story to a roomful of first-graders without scaring them silly. I did, and subsequent phone inquiries from concerned parents let me know I did not succeed.
Now, however, Gerstein's The White Ram: A Story of Abraham and Isaac comes to the rescue. On the big horns of one fluffy, faithful critter rests the meaning and power of the most troubling story in Genesis. What if a ram, created at the beginning of the world, waited in the Garden of Eden until called by God to substitute itself for the boy, Isaac? And what if the ram's usefulness went beyond this act to fulfill other roles in a divine plan? Gerstein's hero does this in a satisfying balance of text and art: a just-right mix to engage both adult readers and young listeners. The author's verbal and visual storytelling deftly addresses the terrifying image of a father on the verge of killing his own son, and transforms it into miraculous proof of God's love. The White Ram is a new story crafted from an old tradition. In Judaism, biblical stories are part of a much larger universe of narrative, spun from centuries of rabbinic interpretation. These Midrashim (plural), often quite fanciful, are designed to fill or explain mysterious gaps or questions in sacred text. The mysterious gaps in the Abraham and Isaac story provide ample material for countless Midrashim, and Gerstein is quick to credit the role of these tales in his own unique and moving version. Though it's especially appropriate for Rosh Hashanah, The White Ram should transcend boundaries of religious traditions to become a classic in libraries sacred and secular. Like its hero the obliging ram itself, the book can be a unifying element in our own complicated and sometimes troublesome story. Joanna Brichetto recently received a master of arts degree in Jewish Studies from Vanderbilt University.