Monday, September 11, 2023

Q&A with Geri Kolesar




Geri Kolesar is the author of the new children's picture book biography Dream by Dream: The Story of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. She lives in Cincinnati.


Q: What inspired you to write a picture book biography of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900)?


A: I belong to the Cincinnati congregation Isaac Mayer Wise built. Our temple librarian knows I write for children and pointed out that there were no children’s books about this amazing man. Didn’t he deserve a place on the children’s bookshelf?


I have been a member of Isaac M. Wise Temple since moving to Cincinnati over 20 years ago. I served as an officer and trustee on the temple board for many years. My three children attended religious school and celebrated many life cycle events there. So I have been saying his name for a long time, but I had no idea the full spectrum of his contributions to Reform Judaism until preparing to write this book.


The more I learned, the more I became inspired to create a child-friendly way to celebrate what is unique about Reform Judaism by personalizing and bringing to life one of the most important Jewish figures in American history.


Rabbi Wise’s indefatigable pursuit of his dreams despite personal, professional, and societal obstacles across a lifetime is incredibly inspiring. I am grateful to the publisher at Kar-Ben, Joni Sussman, for helping to bring his story to children.


Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything you learned that particularly surprised you?


A: What I knew about Rabbi Wise did not seem child-friendly. He is known for his theological writings, the organizations he founded, the buildings he built.

I hoped his childhood could provide an interesting story spark. But I quickly discovered there is little known or written about his childhood or his life before coming to America. Thankfully, there were exceptions to this, including a few chapters in a beautiful biography written by his grandson, Max Benjamin May.


My research was made easier by several local rabbis with extraordinary expertise about Rabbi Wise who were excited by the idea of a children’s book about him. One of these rabbis was director of the unparalleled American Jewish Archives at Hebrew Union College. He answered my many questions and pointed me to reliable resources.


As for surprises, virtually everything about his childhood surprised me because so little is known about that time in his life. What surprised me most from his time in Cincinnati was learning of the 40-acre farm he purchased outside the city.


One of the most important Jewish figures in American History -- who wrote tomes, authored novels, founded a newspaper and many of the institutions still essential to Reform Judaism today -- also owned a thriving farm with livestock, orchards, abundant crops, a smoke house and cider press! The farm was located nine miles from downtown Cincinnati.


Today, that sounds like a reasonable commute. But in 1861, it meant traveling by train and horse-drawn carriage, which he did for decades. Why? After living in a part of Europe where Jews weren’t allowed to own land, purchasing and living on his farm was daily affirmation of his dream for freedom of religion.


Q: What do you think Sofia Moore's illustrations add to the story?


A: Everything. Her artwork elevates the story. The illustrations are detailed, beautiful, and make the book come alive. I am extremely grateful that Kar-Ben paired us on this story.


Q: What do you see as Rabbi Wise's legacy today?


A: Isaac Mayer Wise is well-known for his contributions to Reform Judaism of North America. I cannot do justice to the volumes already written about this. But I can speak, on a personal level, about what his legacy has meant to me.


I grew up in a non-observant household. I knew I was Jewish but I didn’t start to feel Jewish until a special evening in the historic Plum Street Temple, one of Rabbi Wise’s dreams come true. He opened doors for women to be equal participants in temple life. I spoke of this in more detail in a recent Kar-Ben blog post.


I am grateful to Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise for the doors he opened for people generations later and honored to share his story with young readers.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m back to my comfort zone of fiction where I get to invent the protagonist and all the supporting characters. Spread across my desk are a couple more picture book manuscripts, and calling me from a drawer is my middle grade novel--my true passion project. All weave in humor and hope, social issues and Jewish themes.


Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There is an extensive Dream by Dream Educator Guide for curious minds of all ages. It may have taken as long to pull it together as it did to write the book! The Educator Guide can be downloaded from Kar-Ben’s website here, Dream by Dream Educator Guide, or downloaded from my website.


Our overarching goal with the book and Educator Guide is to share in a child-friendly way the rich and important roots of American Reform Judaism. I hope we created meaningful resources for overworked teachers trying hard every day to make a difference. Teachers are superheroes!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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