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Passing on a gift

An author tells how she got to tell a children’s story

 
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The cast of “Shlemiel Crooks,” a musical for children performed every year at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City. This year, it’s on April 1. Phone: (201) 501-3330.

My father was a wonderful storyteller. When he died in 1981, I wanted to hear his stories again about growing up in the Jewish neighborhood of Memphis in the 1920s. So, I began to do genealogical research to learn more about his parents and grandparents.

I went to St. Louis, where my grandparents had lived before coming to Memphis, and discovered — through synagogue records, wills, and newspaper articles — that my great-grandparents had arrived in St. Louis from Varniai, Lithuania; that my great-grandfather had taught Talmud in St. Louis’ Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol synagogue; that he had given money to help Jews in Europe suffering in World War I; and that when he died in 1923, he had left behind a tzedakah box for what was then the Yishuv, the Jewish Settlement in Palestine. From ships’ passenger lists, I discovered that he — and later his sons, then his wife and daughters — came to this country with only a single piece of baggage.

Those early years of genealogy research deepened my connection to Judaism. I wanted to be observant and as learned as my ancestors. I wanted to say Kaddish for them because no daughters or sons remained alive to preserve their memory. I wanted to pay tribute to the ancestors I had discovered through my research.

So I decided to write a children’s book about them.

I started my writing career as a playwright. During graduate school, when I was pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in playwriting, I went to London in the hope of finding a group of actors for whom I could write. While I was in England, I made a trip to one of the university towns and visited a large bookstore (this was before Barnes & Noble). Wandering throughout the store, I entered the children’s section, and discovered picture books. Between the covers of each book were the script, costumes, lighting, and stage set, everything I would need to produce a play — except that I did not need a theater. My tribute to my great-grandparents would be a children’s picture book.

I found the kernel of my story in a Yiddish newspaper article I uncovered during my genealogy research. The article was about the attempted robbery of my great-grandfather’s kosher liquor store in 1919. This is the English translation of the article:

“Reb Eliyahu Olschwanger Almost Robbed

“Shlimazel crooks, their work was unsuccessful. Last Thursday at 3:00 a.m. in the middle of the night, several men drove to the saloon of Reb Eliyahu Olschwanger at the corner of 14th and Carr Streets. They opened the saloon and removed several barrels of brandy and beer. Mr. Mankel, who lives on the second floor, upon hearing what was going on in the saloon, opened the window and began shouting for help. Benjamin Resnik, from 1329 Carr Street, hearing the shouting, shot his revolver from his window. The band of crooks got scared and left everything, including their own horse and wagon and ran away. Police immediately came and took everything to the police station.”

What could be funnier than this for a children’s book? Crooks who left with less than what they came with. From that Yiddish article I created “Shlemiel Crooks” (not “Shlimazel crooks,” as in the article, as I suspected that “shlemiel” was a more widely known word). After adding the ghost of pharaoh, the prophet Elijah, and a talking horse to the story, I was in business.

I submitted “Shlemiel Crooks” to over 100 publishers. I received over 100 rejections. Along the way, the magazine The Young Judaean published the story in its spring 1998 issue, and it won the 1999 Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Magazine Merit Award for Fiction. Still, no offer came from a book publisher.

In 2003, frustrated by all the rejections, I decided to self-publish “Shlemiel Crooks” as a miniature book for Judaica collectors. Almost immediately (the universe has a sense of humor), I received an offer from a publisher to publish it as a children’s picture book.

The offer came from NewSouth, a small publisher in Alabama with, as far as I knew then, no Jews on its staff. This was not the big New York publisher I had been waiting for, but I said yes, and it turned out to be a happy choice. The book became a Sydney Taylor Honor Book, Koret International Jewish Book Award Finalist, and a PJ Library choice.

Last year, “Shlemiel Crooks” also became a musical for children. It is now an annual event the Sunday before Passover at Merkin Concert Hall in New York. This year, the performance will take place on April 1.

“Shlemiel Crooks” allows me to pay tribute to my great-grandparents. Although I do not have my own children to give the story to as a gift, the way my father gave his stories to me, I can give the story of my great-grandparents to any child who reads “Shlemiel Crooks,” or attends the annual performance at Merkin Hall.

I am grateful to be able to give this gift to children.

Anna Olswanger is the author of “Shlemiel Crooks” and the forthcoming “Greenhorn.” The musical “Shlemiel Crooks” will be performed on April 1, at 11:00 a.m. at Merkin Concert Hall in New York.

 
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Stay tuned for the return of comments

Sarah Lamstein posted 21 Mar 2012 at 04:04 PM

Fascinating article!!

 

Her own voice

Neshama Carlebach talks about her father, her faith, her music, and kol isha

To say that Neshama Carlebach was born into a family that surrounded her with music is to understate blandly and grandly and ludicrously.

She was born into a family that understood music to be, as she puts it, “the heartbeat, the pulse, the life-saving force. It helps connect you to the people beside you, to yourself, and to God. It allows you to look at yourself, and to think about why you’re here.

“Music is the voice of the soul.”

Her father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, was a man of intense charisma, who used the music he created and played and sang to mesmerizing effect, at times bringing people back to the Judaism they had never known before they left it. It is not an overstatement to say that his music has reinvigorated religious services across the religious spectrum; much of the joyous life that exists in some parts of the liberal world can be traced back to him. His songs and niggunim are so well known that many of us think they must be folk melodies with age-old roots, not 20th-century composed works.

 

Safam turns 40

‘Jewish supergroup’ to play concert in Fair Lawn

So they’re not as old as, say, the Rolling Stones — they’ve been together a mere 40 years, compared to the Stones’ 52 — and they are famous in a much smaller world. Still, in that world, Safam is a very big name.

So the fact that it is choosing to celebrate its 40th anniversary in Fair Lawn is big news.

Safam’s four founding members — who, impressively, still are Safam today — met at the Zamir Chorale. Most of them were graduate students, and all of them lived in Boston. Each was pursuing a career, but they all loved to sing. Soon they realized that as much as they loved singing choral music, it was not enough for them.

 

‘The Megillah of Itzik Manger’

When Adar begins, joy increases.

And Adar II means a double helping of the joy encountered in the National Yiddish Theatre — Folksbiene’s critically acclaimed musical production of “The Megile of Itzik Manger,” which has returned to Baruch Performing Arts Center for a two-week limited engagement through March 16.

Several of the inspired design team, including production designer Jenny Romaine and lighting designer Natalie Robin, have returned, and Moti Didner, the Folksbiene’s associate artistic director, is directing once more. That is great news.

 

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Musical Passover journey

 

Debut CD showcases talents of newly ordained rabbi

Educator takes on roles of songwriter, singer, and instrumentalist

With so many good things happening recently, it’s not surprising that Rabbi David Schlusselberg of Teaneck is on a high.

In March, he was granted semichah — Orthodox rabbinic credentials — by Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He also recorded his first CD, “Mizmor L’Dovid,” for which he not only wrote the songs but provided the vocals and played many of the instruments.

Rabbi Schlusselberg, 27, is thrilled with both accomplishments. “I love teaching at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston,” he said. An instructor of Talmud, Bible, and Judaica electives, Rabbi Schlusselberg said he definitely plans to continue at the school — this despite the fact that since the CD came out, his 12th graders have made him feel “like I’m famous.”

 

Her own voice

Neshama Carlebach talks about her father, her faith, her music, and kol isha

To say that Neshama Carlebach was born into a family that surrounded her with music is to understate blandly and grandly and ludicrously.

She was born into a family that understood music to be, as she puts it, “the heartbeat, the pulse, the life-saving force. It helps connect you to the people beside you, to yourself, and to God. It allows you to look at yourself, and to think about why you’re here.

“Music is the voice of the soul.”

Her father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, was a man of intense charisma, who used the music he created and played and sang to mesmerizing effect, at times bringing people back to the Judaism they had never known before they left it. It is not an overstatement to say that his music has reinvigorated religious services across the religious spectrum; much of the joyous life that exists in some parts of the liberal world can be traced back to him. His songs and niggunim are so well known that many of us think they must be folk melodies with age-old roots, not 20th-century composed works.

 
 
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