Naama Benziman is the author and illustrator of the children's picture book Lenny and Benny. It is based on a story from the Talmud. She has created many other picture books, and she lives in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Q: What inspired you to write this new version of a story that appears in the Talmud?
A: I live and work in Tel Aviv. In Israel, we have experienced disagreements and arguments that have become extreme. We are aware of the outcome of oppression that involves miscommunication and pain.
These uneasy issues might seem far and remoted from our families, but I think that they affect us in many ways. Conflicts are actually part of any relationship.
Children deal with competition almost daily, with their brothers and sisters, with their parents and with their friends. We often hear about bullying in schools and kindergartens. Kids easily feel frustration and anger as they are young and vulnerable, struggling to grow up and find their place in the world.
Keeping that in mind, I thought that it would be interesting to have a new look at the Midrash about Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. It is a story of confusion and ignorance that result in destruction. I was searching for an innocent incident that creates a conflict, and I tried to describe both sides, so that we can see how difficult it is for all of us to find peace.
Q: What did you see as the right blend between the original story and your own version?
A: Lenny and Benny is a completely independent book. It can be read with no connection to the Talmudic tale. However, I do think that if you are familiar with original story, it adds another dimension to the reading.
Of course, the Midrash of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza deals with baseless hatred and Lenny and Benny are two cute bunnies jumping in the forest. Nevertheless, the book suggests that we might find some similarities between the sensitive, rigid and stubborn bunnies and ourselves. As we are aware of our expressions of anger and fear, we can be more considerate to others and avoid misunderstandings.
Q: Did you work on the illustrations along with the text, or focus on one before turning to the other?
A: When I am illustrating a book that was written by another author, the process is a lot simpler.
When I am the author, I can choose different ways of telling. The narrative can be shown through the pictures or written in words. I work on the illustrations and the text simultaneously, experimenting and looking for the right balance between the verbal and the visual channels.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?
A: As parents and educators, we believe that every child is unique. Yet every child deals with the comparison between him or her and other children, and sometimes feels jealous and insecure. It is not always easy to forgive, and I tried to describe these difficulties as they really are.
The end of the book is open to interpretations, although I meant it to be happy. I hope that kids will look at the competition between Lenny and Benny from a safe point of view, think it over and find different ways for communication and for solving the conflict.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: About a year ago I started making a new picture book. It was postponed, like many other things, because of the Corona pandemic. I believe that I will continue this book when the time is right. Meanwhile I am creating commissioned illustrations for a book about a mysterious and dreamy cat.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I enjoy painting my cute and beloved dog, Krecker. Please have a look.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb