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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!!


‘This Is Our Youth’

It is the early 1980s, and three Jewish young adults meet in an Upper West Side apartment.

They are the children of relatively affluent left-leaning parents, “the last pathetic remnants of Upper West Side Jewish liberalism,” as one of the three describes them, but of course that has not protected them from the vicissitudes of life.

In “This Is Our Youth,” playwright Kenneth Lonergan captures with humor and pathos that particular stage of our lives when our psychic pain has not yet calcified into bitterness but has begun to set into its final form. Lonergan’s sensitive ear for the way young people express themselves makes the play both bitingly funny and deeply insightful into the myriad ways we disappoint ourselves and others.


Are you listening?

The case for Israeli music

Growing up in New Jersey, we didn’t listen to much Israeli music. Sure, we would sing “Al Kol Eileh” and “Bashana Haba’a” from time to time, but that was about it. The lyrics were hard to understand… and since the internet hadn’t been invented yet, you needed to find a real, live Israeli to translate for you.

Jewish music, however, was a different story. The music was available at my local Judaica store, the lyrics were either in English or borrowed from prayers we recited regularly in shul, and of course, we listened regularly to Art Raymond on WEVD Radio. As the son of a cantor, I grew up listening to Jewish music… but Israeli music was completely off my radar.



What’s the most sacred concept in American Jewish life today?

Religious ritual? Sex? Motherhood? Of course not; those topics are routinely mocked, often savagely.

Israel? Maybe, but there are plenty of voices willing to criticize, especially when there is no war.

No, it’s the Holocaust. That seminal event quickly shuts even the most irreverent mouths, and it’s that nimbus of inviolability that makes the one-man play “Hoaxacaust! Written and performed by Barry Levey, with the generous assistance of The Institute of Political and International Studies, Tehran” so exciting.

It should be said right off that Mr. Levey takes the Holocaust very seriously, so seriously that he is able to poke fun at the excesses and trivializations to which it is subject. In the same way that “The Producers” used broad comedy as a weapon, “Hoaxacuast!” uses sharp satire to pierce the gasbags declaiming on the subject.



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.


Violinist Rhodes a special guest at JTS Israeli Chamber Project


Theater party set for November

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