Local grandmother, inspired by grandson’s first word, writes ‘Challah!’

Ellen Kahan Zager
Ellen Kahan Zager (Photo by Jennifer Bishop)

Inspired by her young grandson’s love of challah, Ellen Kahan Zager was spurred to write, illustrate and self-publish her children’s book, “Challah!” that could capture the joy he feels for his favorite food.

A member of Beth Tfiloh Congregation and B’nai Israel as well as a past president of the Macks Center for Jewish Education, Zager, 65, built a career for herself in graphic design. She got her start in the field of children’s literature by collaborating with Chizuk Amuno Congregation member Harriet Cohen Helfand. Together, they co-authored their illustrated retelling of the creation story, “And There Was Evening, And There Was Morning,” selling 33,000 copies to PJ Library alone.

Those interested in purchasing the book should reach out to Zager at [email protected].

“I wrote it, originally, for my grandson [Elior], whose first word was ‘challah,’” said Zager, who lives in Baltimore’s Little Italy neighborhood. “It’s still his favorite food. And any carbohydrate, until he developed any kind of vocabulary, he identified as ‘challah.’ So it really didn’t matter what the food was, he called it ‘challah.’”

Her grandson’s habit of referring to things that are not challah as “challah” helps explain the specific design of Zager’s new book. “There are six spreads where there’s a picture of something that’s not challah. ‘Challah? No.’ And then the seventh picture is, of course, ‘It’s challah, yay!’” she explained.

Some of the pictures of items that qualify as not challah include a blueberry muffin, a chocolate layer cake, a croissant and pancakes.

(Courtesy of Ellen Kahan Zager)

As her background is in art direction, rather than illustration, one of the biggest challenges Zager faced came from creating the book’s artwork, she said.

Zager views the primary audience for her book as parents and grandparents who have Jewish children between birth and 4 years old, she said.

Zager chose to self-publish “Challah!,” as she has found working with a professional publisher to be challenging. “It was a very, very difficult process,” Zager said. “Not that I was looking to make a lot of money. But there was so little money in it, and so much aggravation, that I decided not even to pursue it this time.”

Though the book is available for purchase, Zager’s primary motivation for creating the book was for the enjoyment of her grandson. She thought, ‘Oh, well I’ll get ISBN numbers, and I’ll put them up for sale, and if there’s a market out there, great, good for me.’”

Zager also wanted to have an outlet to focus her creativity. “This keeps my creative juices flowing,” she said. “I need to create. When you’re a creative person, when you’re an artist, you have to have outlets for your creativity.”

Zager is working on a new book focused on the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren in the midst of social distancing, she explained.

“The idea is that grandparents love their grandchildren even when they can’t see them,” she said. “And they will love them always.”

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  1. thank you so much for this article about challah! and me! a couple of corrections. i want to give full credit to harriet cohen helfand for being the primary writer of “and there was evening” as it was her initial idea and manuscript which i subsequently co-authored. importantly, i was the designer and illustrator! we were extremely fortunate to have found a publisher for our book. the difficulty for me was delivering a fully designed book to a publishing house. this was highly unusual and very challenging to negotiate. and most important, the book is only available by contacting me directly at [email protected] or on lulu.com


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