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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!!

 

Two opportunities to laugh

Stand-up comic, Israeli theater troupe perform in Manhattan

The next month offers theatergoers two chances to exercise their Jewish funny bones.

The performances represent different aspects of the Jewish humor tradition, but both succeed in making the audience laugh with delight. Brad Zimmerman’s “My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy” stands firmly in the Borscht Belt school of stand-up, and I mean that as a compliment. Although Zimmerman adds some poignant reminiscences of his parents, this show is built around jokes. Zimmerman has a laconic, deadpan delivery, just right for his story of moderate success, long delayed, and the audience at the Triad Theater, 158 West 72nd St., lapped it up.

 

After midnight, the (Jewish) stars come out

From Tevye the dairyman to Maroon 5’s Adam Levine to “Let It Go” singer Idina Menzel, Jews have always been at the forefront of the music scene. Burt Sugarman and Mark Goodman are no different. As one of the pre-eminent television and film producers in history, Sugarman’s rolodex of connections would make any A-lister blush. Goodman, one of the first on-air personalities for the MTV network, had his finger on the pulse of pop music for years.

The two industry icons spoke to JNS.org about the recent release of a collector’s edition DVD set of Sugarman’s pioneering television program “Midnight Special” by StarVista Entertainment/Time Life. From August 1972 to May 1981, the program offered a live look at virtually all of the top performing artists of the day, from Sugarman’s beloved country music to comedy. Among the hundreds of Grammy-winning and chart-topping guests were Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, Randy Newman, John “Bowzer” Bauman and Sha Na Na, and the KISS duo of Stanley Eisen and Chaim Witz (aka Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons). “Midnight Special” also featured legendary comic talents as George Burns, Bill Crystal, Andy Kaufman, Robert Klein, and Joan Rivers.

 

‘Sheriff of Mars’ tells story of Daniel Antopolsky

It was an era of steel strings, guitar heroes, and storytellers. High on heroin. Rebellious. Outlaw country music, the hallmark of Nashville’s powerful and angry music scene of the 1970s, was the brew of greats such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Townes Van Zandt.

But there is another, little-known music hero of that era: Daniel Antopolsky. A Jewish lad from Augusta, Ga.—the grandson of immigrants who settled in the south and ran a hardware store on Main Street—the “Sheriff of Mars” fled the aggressive U.S. music scene for a tranquil life on a farm in Bordeaux, France.

Over the last 40 years, Antopolsky has written nearly 500 songs. Now, for the first time ever, his music is being shared with the world through a new documentary and music album, the latter produced in conjunction with some of country music’s finest players and by award-winning producer Gary Gold.

 

RECENTLYADDED

‘Sheriff of Mars’ tells story of Daniel Antopolsky

It was an era of steel strings, guitar heroes, and storytellers. High on heroin. Rebellious. Outlaw country music, the hallmark of Nashville’s powerful and angry music scene of the 1970s, was the brew of greats such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Townes Van Zandt.

But there is another, little-known music hero of that era: Daniel Antopolsky. A Jewish lad from Augusta, Ga.—the grandson of immigrants who settled in the south and ran a hardware store on Main Street—the “Sheriff of Mars” fled the aggressive U.S. music scene for a tranquil life on a farm in Bordeaux, France.

Over the last 40 years, Antopolsky has written nearly 500 songs. Now, for the first time ever, his music is being shared with the world through a new documentary and music album, the latter produced in conjunction with some of country music’s finest players and by award-winning producer Gary Gold.

 

After midnight, the (Jewish) stars come out

From Tevye the dairyman to Maroon 5’s Adam Levine to “Let It Go” singer Idina Menzel, Jews have always been at the forefront of the music scene. Burt Sugarman and Mark Goodman are no different. As one of the pre-eminent television and film producers in history, Sugarman’s rolodex of connections would make any A-lister blush. Goodman, one of the first on-air personalities for the MTV network, had his finger on the pulse of pop music for years.

The two industry icons spoke to JNS.org about the recent release of a collector’s edition DVD set of Sugarman’s pioneering television program “Midnight Special” by StarVista Entertainment/Time Life. From August 1972 to May 1981, the program offered a live look at virtually all of the top performing artists of the day, from Sugarman’s beloved country music to comedy. Among the hundreds of Grammy-winning and chart-topping guests were Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, Randy Newman, John “Bowzer” Bauman and Sha Na Na, and the KISS duo of Stanley Eisen and Chaim Witz (aka Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons). “Midnight Special” also featured legendary comic talents as George Burns, Bill Crystal, Andy Kaufman, Robert Klein, and Joan Rivers.

 

Alice in Wonderland — The Musical

 
 
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