“A Cape for Kali” Review and Q & A with the author Rabbi Galina Trefil

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Dearest readers,

Thanks for being so patient with me. Non bloggy life has overtaken me a great deal and I got rather delayed posting this. Ultimately, I know life will keep happening and it’s on me to do my job and to share with you my reading finds, now and not in some indefinite future. So, here goes….

This review is specially dear to my heart as the book reviewed is written by my dearest friend of 18 years. We met as wee teenagers at Camp Swig in 1997 and haven’t looked back since. We are more than best friends, we are family, we laugh and fight just like we are blood 🙂

“A Cape for Kali” is a delightful story, beautifully illustrated by Kaleb Temple, with a double hit of anti-bullying message and of celebration of differences. A multi color furred bear named Kali gets bullied and picked on the very first day of school for having green, red and blue fur. Dejected and rejected Kali comes home to her mommy vowing to not go back to school ever again and asking why she had to look so very different from the other bears. Kali’s Mama hugs her little girl and tells her that she is beautiful and her bright fur, a proud composite of her ancestral history  and their experiences is something to be proud of and love. Feeling special and adored, Kali decides to come back to school but not until she has a beautiful (superhero like!) cape to go along with her red, green and blue fur.  Mama happily makes Kali a cape and Kali comes back to school where the other bears are still being mean but it no longer bothers her because Kali has become a beautiful, strong and proud red, green and blue bear princess and their words don’t bother her one bit. Her cape is a red wheel that flows proudly on her red, green and blue fur, a perfect punctuation of Kali’s Romani heritage because after all the Romani flag is a red wheel on the green earth against the deepest blue sky.

I don’t have children but when I do, the message within “A Cape for Kali” is one of the most important messages any parent should pass onto their child. Kids of so many different ethnicities, religions, orientations, and appearances face bullying in various forms. When I was a kid myself, I got picked on incessantly by the kids in my class. I was a quiet, shy, short, bespectacled Jewish girl with her face in a book and I couldn’t tell you the number of times that I had my appearance and my ethnic heritage thrown in my face verbally and occasionally physically. I don’t recall now whether I was ashamed that I was different (after all it’s been about twenty years) but I do strongly remember being quiet, keeping out of the other kids’ ways just so that they would stop torturing me. I never told my parents I was bullied and in retrospect I feel sad that I didn’t trust them enough to share my pain with them like Kali does with her mom. Knowing my parents, they would have probably wanted to talk to the kids’ parents. Maybe that’s why I didn’t tell them. I do know that they would have also tried their best to make me understand that there was nothing wrong with me and that I was beautiful and special just the way I was. I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to wear a cape but I know I would have smiled a little brighter with such powerful words resonating in my mind.

I grew up with a vague sense of what being Jewish meant, my parents never hid the fact of it but there were no rituals, no stories, no books with a patently Jewish message. I knew I was different but there wasn’t much encouraging me to explore what it was or even somewhere for me to see a positive message. Like Jews, Roma (please never “Gypsies” as it is a highly deregatory term) have been persecuted and enslaved for centuries without much of an outside interest of actually learning about the people beyond the stereotype. Scenes like Kali’s first day are far too common in the world and having a book like “A Cape for Kali” not only gives voice to the maligned people but also reminds them and everyone else that they are beautiful in their differences and their different experiences and no one has the right to make them feel any less than important and special..

Because this delight of a book has such an important message, I wanted to make the review itself extra special by introducing you all to the author, my best friend and my sister, and share the Q & A we did for this book. But first I want to share just a few of my sister’s many accolades because what kind of a sister would I be if I didn’t gush about all of her accomplishments?  Rabbi Galina Trefil published  “The Incomplete Ones: A Tale of Slavery”,  a Romani rights historical fiction novel with more than several novels in the queue to be published in the next few months. Rabbi Trefil has written for such  online publications as Jewcy, Tikkun, and Neurology Today. She has testified in front of the Nevada State Legislature and has been interviewed by the BBC Rokker Radio. Rabbi Galina Trefil is also the founder of Romani Yehudim Cultural Center for ethnic Romani Jews, a wonderful educational hub I am a member of myself,  She also has a bimonthly blog, “Romani Eyes on Gypsy Film,” featured on the website World Artists Initiative Khetanes. Her work has also been featured on the blog Don’tSayGypsy.  “A Cape for Kali” is her first children’s book. You can look at Rabbi Trefil’s work here 🙂

1.Tell us more about yourself. How long have you been writing? What types of books? Etc Whatever you want to tell the readers about yourself.

I finished my first novel at thirteen, but I experienced a great deal of sexism early on because I was a female writer.  This created a tremendous lack of confidence in me regarding publication, so, for most of my life, I just kept my initial work and the dozen plus other novels & half-dozen screenplays/ plays that followed essentially hidden in a drawer.  I decided to finally start publishing a few years ago and, eventually, will get around to letting the majority of my work see daylight.  My first book published, “The Incomplete Ones: A Tale of Slavery,” explored the historically-accurate 500-year human trafficking perpetrated against the Romani people, particularly women, in 19th century Transylvania.  It was a very heavy-duty book to put together, took years of research, and I knew I wanted to publish something a bit lighter for my second release….  I never assumed that I would write a children’s book…but it was a very delightful process which I hope to repeat several times over.

2.      How did you choose the title of the book?  Why “different is beautiful?”

Many do not realize that the Romani people are Diaspora Indians.  I wanted my main character to showcase the connection in as simple a way as possible—namely, linguistically.  “Kali” is a Romani first name for girls as a result of our Hindu origins.  I picked it because it is something which both Romani and Indian audiences will recognize and identify with.  I feel that this tie to our ancestral homeland must be emphasized as strongly as possible, which is why I sought out, even prior to publication in English, a translator for a Hindi edition of the book.  I was amazingly lucky in finding a best-selling Mumbai author, Neil D’Silva, (“Maya’s New Husband,” “The Evil Eye and the Charm,”) who was willing to undertake that project….  As for why “different is beautiful,” Romani people are very frequently made fun of on account of our physical traits—absolutely including skin color.  This bullying successfully makes some children ashamed of their appearance.  My hope was that such children who have been picked on because of being “too dark” might come away with a bit more self-esteem about their own beauty, as defined by nature rather than anti-Asian humiliation and fair-skinned brainwashing.

 3.      What inspired you to write a children’s book?

I heard of a Romani child inside the United States who was bullied so badly due to being dark-skinned that she had to be taken out of the public school system.  This angered me very deeply on her behalf and also brought back discrimination memories to my mind that I had experienced as a little girl.  The book was a way of reaching out to that child and to all the other Romani children who yearn so desperately for equality in the educational system and yet are denied it.

4.      What’s your favorite children’s book?

“Little Bear” and whole series for “The Wizard of Oz.”

 5.      What’s your son’s favorite book?

“Corduroy.”  “Monster’s University.”  “Something from Nothing.”

6.      Why did you decide to write a book on this specific topic?

As a mother, I wanted to make sure that my children have access to books that reflect the life and culture of someone from their own ethnic background.  I didn’t see that available.  This is the same reason why I would like to someday write a book about the Romani Jewish perspective.  A lot of people don’t even know that Romani Jews exist…and yet there are many of us.  How will that lack of knowledge about us impact my own kids when they are old enough to realize that it is there?  Not positively.  That’s for sure.  So I have to, as a writer, make an effort on my family’s behalf to fix these things.

7.      Who do you see as the ideal reader of “A Cape for Kali?

I would like all children from the young grammar school age group to be able to relate to Kali.  Yes, the book is absolutely about a Romani character, but I never use the words “Romani” and certainly not the pejorative term “Gypsy.”  So many children, from all backgrounds, go through bullying that I think, even subtracting the racial discrimination in the story, it is accessible to anyone.  Unless someone was Romani themselves or familiar with the Romani people, I doubt that they would read the book with any idea that it is mainly written for a Romani child audience.  Of course, Romani people would know it automatically because we know what our flag, (Kali’s cape,) looks like.

8.      How did you decide on bears as the characters of the story?

The subject material is quite serious and, given that the target age group is 4-8, I wanted to soften that somewhat so kids wouldn’t be too overwhelmed.  I especially wanted to make it gentler because I knew that portraying Kali’s pain on a human face could be potentially upsetting for children who have actually experienced racism or colorism….  I thought, “Who doesn’t like teddy bears?  They’re sort’ve like ice cream; tend to just help improve people’s mental well-being.”

9.      What was your own experience like in school?

I went to a particularly elitist, predominantly White, proselytizing grammar school.  Because I was mixed-blood, belonging to both ethnic and religious minorities, other kids would spit on me during class; call me names.  Rather than stop them, my teachers advocated me being put into special ed, stating that this was the only way to “protect me.”  I scored high enough on tests that I skipped a grade, but that made no difference to the administration.  If the school hadn’t been threatened with a lawsuit, I have no doubt at all that I would have been segregated from the non-minority children into special education.  After the lawsuit threat, the school backed off, but allowed the bullying to continue.  It got so bad that I used to sit on the time out steps of the playground reading a book just to avoid being attacked.

10.   What inspired you to use the multi colors/rainbow similar shades as the symbol of beauty?

Kali’s fur is red, blue, and green because these are the colors of the Romani flag.  To non-Romani people, she might just look like a bright, pretty bear…and, in that fashion, the symbolism is subtle.  But the colors being put together is a thing that all Romani kids will recognize automatically and, hopefully, walk away the impression that, despite massive pressure to, they should not assimilate by trying to appear physically as belonging to a group that they don’t.  Kali is good enough as she is; no change needed, just like them.

11.   What do you hope the readers will take away from reading “A Cape for Kali?”

For Romani readers, pride.  For non-Romani readers, a better understanding of Romani culture.  Many children’s books have “Gypsy” characters, but we’re almost always the bad guys, boogeymen, kidnappers, or fortune-telling novelties.  This is ignorance and racism at its best and it is striking at the most vulnerable portion of the population: small, impressionable minds.  The non-Romani child that is capable of identifying with a Romani main character is not likely to grow up an anti-Romani bigot.  This is essentially why all minorities need books showcasing their people in a strong, compassionate, positive light: for the self-esteem of their own and the education of others.

12.   What’s next for you on the writing horizon?

Two projects will be released in the next few months….  Firstly, my Draculiţa series, which is likely to be 8-10 novels in length, is due to debut as soon as the cover and interior artwork is completed.  It mainly falls under the genre of Gothic historical fiction, with an emphasis on medieval Eastern European women’s and minority rights, (or lack thereof.)  Also, my second children’s book, “Helpful Shlomo,” is currently undergoing illustration by Kaleb Temple.  In it, the main character, Shlomo, an observant Jewish cat, humorously instructs children in what, as a rabbi, I consider to be a crash course summary of Jewish culture: tzedakah, Tikkun Olam, and a lifelong commitment to study.  Shlomo, like Kali, will hopefully be a repeat character for future books.  But, while the Kali series I have plans for is an ever-more serious political exploration of the rise of prejudice and neo-Nazism in modern Europe, Shlomo is a counterbalance…trying, through irony and laughter, to emphasize the good of embracing one’s traditions and history.

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Thanks for reading as always. Look up Rabbi Trefil’s work on Amazon to purchase it and to learn more about her,  look up Rabbi Galina Trefil’s Facebook page here. As for me,  I am waiting anxiously for “Helpful Shlomo.”

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4 Comments

Filed under Personal Reflections, Reviews

4 responses to ““A Cape for Kali” Review and Q & A with the author Rabbi Galina Trefil

  1. Great interview and such a wonderful book review 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so happy to have found this blog! I’m here due to a shout-out from Josh Wrenn at https://myfridayblog.wordpress.com/. What a wonderful review and interesting interview. The Romani culture is something about which I know almost nothing. Thank you for this article. I look forward to reading “A Cape for Kali” as well as more of your blog 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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