The Christmas Mitzvah by Jeff Gottesfeld and Michelle Laurentia Agatha

Hello, Jeff Gottesfeld! Hello, Michelle Laurentia Agatha! Thank you so much for stopping by to celebrate The Christmas Mitzvah. I’m grateful you introduced me to Al Rosen and his generous heart.

Jeff, I’m curious: when did you first learn about Al Rosen of Milwaukee, Wisconsin?

Jeff Gottesfeld: It’s the weirdest thing, because with so many things I write, I can pinpoint the moment I learned of the story or thought of the idea. Twenty-One Steps, for example, was on a Memorial Day visit to the Los Angeles National Cemetery in 2016. No Steps Behind was reading Beate Sirota Gordon’s New York Times obituary in early January, 2013. With The Christmas Mitzvah, I am not exactly sure. I was in Milwaukee WI for a youth theater project in late 1997, so I bet it was then since that’s Al Rosen’s hometown. Amazing how long this book percolated for me.

Michelle, please tell us about the materials you used to create The Christmas Mitzvah’s art.

Michelle Laurentia Agatha: While reading the manuscript that Jeff wrote, I felt a sense of comfort and community. The story made me realize that we are not alone in this world, and there are so many acts of kindness that we experienced throughout our lives. This is something that I would like to express through my illustration. Before I start the illustration process, I gathered a lot of reference photos of Al Rosen, Hanukkah parties, Milwaukee, and various settings of community. I would like to make sure that the illustration rightfully depicts Al’s life and good deeds.

Then, I start sketching using pencil and paper. I got a lot of amazing feedback that helps me improve my sketches further during this process. After I finish sketching all of the pages, I finalized the paintings digitally. As this is the first book that I illustrated, I was able to keep improving my illustration through the digital method.

Jeff, I love scenarios. Here’s a scenario for you: Imagine you’re booktalking The Christmas Mitzvah to 200 2nd-grade teachers. 

Jeff Gottesfeld: It’s Christmas Eve in the snowy Midwest. A Jewish man who celebrates Hanukkah realizes that an overnight store clerk he knows has to work all night, instead of having Christmas Eve with his family. Most good people would feel bad, but do nothing. But Al Rosen is not just good, he’s very good. He offers to learn to run the shop until dawn, so the clerk can go home to his loved ones. Not only that, until he’s very elderly, Al takes on strangers’ jobs on Christmas Eve not just because it’s a good deed, but because it’s holy. A mitzvah. There’s no stranger’s job that he’s too proud to do. He even inspires others to do the same, on religious holidays that are not their own.

I write in The Christmas Mitzvah how we live in a world that too often mistakes wealth for worth. Al Rosen was a door to door salesman. He never made a ton of money. He wasn’t handsome, or super-talented, or famous. But he is an example of how absolutely everyone can be good and make life better.

Michelle, please finish the following sentence starters:

Al Rosen inspires me a lot. As Jeff mentioned, Al didn’t just feel bad and do nothing, but he went out of his way to help others so they can spend holidays with their families. His actions taught me that there are many unexpected ways to help others, even in areas that we tend to overlook. Additionally, Al’s deeds didn’t just stop there, but his kindness has been paid forward by others as well. Al didn’t wait for the world to change, but he starts the change himself – and he influences others to do the same.

Picture books have been a huge part of my life. I remember receiving hand-me-down picture books from my mom and cousins. My parents read me those books every night. I found it amazing that I was able to travel to different places without actually leaving my house. For this reason, I pursued further education in fine art and started my career as a children’s book illustrator. I want other children to experience the same excitement as I did back when I was little. I always stop by the children’s book section in book stores. The abundance of stories and beautiful illustrations still amazes me to this day.

Jeff, please finish the following sentence starters:

Michelle Laurentia Agatha’s illustrations made me laugh from the very first time I saw her sketches. She has such a great eye for whimsy and humor, which is perfect when you have a book about a salesman trying to be a hotel bellhop, diner waiter, or the guy who cleans chicken coops. She depicts Al and his family over a lifetime – the kid and grandkids that do the Christmas mitzvahs with him. I also loves that she shows Al’s community its diverse glory. Everyone who sees Michelle’s art will find people who look like them.

School libraries are going to find this super-popular and a holiday season perennial – maybe the ideal holiday season book for our new century. It’s entertaining, above all. The illustrations are irresistible, and stand up to repeated readings. Plus, it underscores all the right values, of kindness, compassion, and taking individual action to make people’s lives better. It’s the holiday spirit brought to life, for everybody.

Jeff Gottesfeld writes for page, stage, screen, and television. He's won many awards, including ones from the American Library Association, the Association of Jewish Libraries, and the Writer's Guild. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

Michelle Laurentia Agatha was born in Indonesia. She's always had a huge interest in cartoons and illustrated books. Michelle earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, California.

Look for The Christmas Mitzvah on September 7, 2021. 


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