Several years ago, Geri Kolesar was chatting with Andrea Rapp, the librarian at the Isaac M. Wise Temple, when Rapp brought up an interesting point.
“The namesake of our temple [does] not have any books on our children’s bookshelf,” Kolesar remembered being told. “Didn’t he deserve a place there?”
That kickstarted Kolesar, a children’s writer and member of Wise Temple, on a five year journey to write “Dream by Dream: The Story of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise,” a children’s book – likely the first – about this founding father of American Reform Judaism and towering figure of the Cincinnati Jewish community.
All proceeds from the book are going to the Plum Street Temple Historical Preservation Fund, which maintains the synagogue that Wise built in downtown Cincinnati in 1866.
“I like to see it as a gift back,” said Kolesar, who raised her kids in Wise Temple and had her adult bat mitzvah at the Plum Street Temple. The book is “not going to be a New York Times bestseller, so it’s not going to start a new endowment or something. But…I hope people can also feel good about [contributing].”
Published in fall 2023, the book follows the main events of Wise’s life. Born the son of a schoolteacher in Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic) in 1819, Wise overcame poverty to get a Jewish education and make his way to the United States.
Overflowing with ideas about how Jewish practice should change for the modern era, he eventually came to lead the K.K. B’nai Yeshurun synagogue in Cincinnati, which was renamed the Isaac M. Wise Temple to honor Wise after his death in 1900. The picture book ends with one of Wise’s prized accomplishments: The founding of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati to train rabbis.
The story is illustrated by Sofia Moore, a Ukrainian-American artist, with childlike but detailed artwork that evokes a sense of nostalgia.
Though Wise’s life was full of drama, vision, and accomplishment, the book was not easy for Kolesar to write. For one, her work is usually fiction, and tackling a figure like Wise was especially daunting for her first foray into nonfiction.
“I’ve been in a wonderful writing group here in town for children’s writers, and about half of them write nonfiction,” Kolesar said. “So I’ve read plenty of [nonfiction] manuscripts…I was always marveling at the amount of research that they did, and their recall of the facts, and I just didn’t see myself as that person.”
Kolesar kept doing research for the book, then abandoning the project, then feeling called back, then abandoning it again. But the more she learned, the more inspired she was by Wise as a flawed but incredibly visionary person. He spent much of his life on failed endeavors to create a national rabbinic organization and a rabbinical college – though eventually succeeded at both.
“What really drew me back is, his story is one of inspiration…he did try things that didn’t always work. And he didn’t have all the answers. But what he had was incredible persistence and will,” Kolesar said.
“I eventually felt incredibly connected to him, and I would, not infrequently, go to visit him at his grave site, which is right nearby, and just felt like I needed to finish [the book].”
Another challenge was figuring out how to portray Wise’s life in a child-friendly way. The politics of early American Judaism, founding of institutions like the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Hebrew Union College, and philosophy of Reform Judaism are not exactly easy or engaging subjects for kids.
“I really had hoped that I would just read a bunch about his childhood, and find some cool anecdotes and somehow build upon that,” Kolesar said. “Sadly, there’s very little written about his childhood – he didn’t really like talking about it, which isn’t unusual for immigrants of that era.”
Instead, she worked backwards from what she found compelling about the adult Wise, and crafted the story around qualities like persistence and education.
But in tackling this project, Kolesar wasn’t alone, finding support from a brain trust of Cincinnati Jews like Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, senior rabbi at Wise Temple, and Rabbi Dr. Gary Zola, who recently retired as the executive director of the American Jewish Archives.
“Multiple drafts were circulated, and I was especially concerned because of [Wise’s] notoriety in the Reform Movement…making sure that…[the book was] strongly grounded in the reality of what transpired,” Kolesar said.
After three years of research and writing, and two years of manuscript preparation with Kar-Ben Publishing, the book was published. Now the Wise Temple library does have a children’s book about its namesake, and Kolesar has gotten a positive response to the book. She has also led programs about the book with kids at the synagogue.
“We had a discussion, their questions were very high level – I was surprised,” she said. “I was pleased that it seemed to hold their attention, because despite all these anecdotes, there’s still a hefty amount of things in the book that are not…inherently interesting to children.”
The book also comes with an educator guide. Kolesar hopes the guide will make it easy for overworked Jewish educators to teach Wise’s story in all its aspects. “I’m just hoping that we get the word about Isaac Mayer Wise out there into the world,” she said.
There’s plenty to Wise’s story that didn’t make it into the book, including Kolesar’s most surprising discovery: That Wise and his family had a 40 acre farm nine miles outside of Cincinnati. The farm was fully operational, with livestock and cider presses, and Wise lived there while commuting into the city center for work.
Unfortunately, the farm and its buildings no longer exist, with only a plaque commemorating the location as Wise’s home.
“Back then it involved a train and a horse drawn carriage just to get to Cincinnati proper,” Kolesar said. “As busy as he was, as many balls as he kept in the air, I just find it sort of unfathomable that this existed.”
Kolesar has a theory about why the farm was important to Wise. When he was born in Bohemia, Jews couldn’t own property. But in the United States, owning property was a symbol of the opportunity Jews could find in this new land, the same opportunity that allowed the Reform movement to flourish.
“I picture [Wise] every day in this horse drawn carriage, emboldened in himself,” Kolesar said. “And feeling a deep sense of satisfaction and gratitude for the freedom that America offered.”