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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!!

 

What’s next for Paul Shaffer?

David Letterman’s sidekick on his ‘dream job,’ Jewish upbringing

A Jewish upbringing taught Paul Shaffer, David Letterman’s musical director and sidekick for 32 years, the value of giving back.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Mr. Shaffer served as musical director for “The Concert for New York City,” and in 2012 he accompanied Adam Sandler in “12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief,” a fundraiser for Hurricane Sandy victims. He also was the national spokesperson for Epilepsy Canada.

“My mother taught by example,” Mr. Shaffer said. “She was a great supporter of Israel. She was a great supporter of local charities and gave her time to Hadassah, as well as to the ladies auxiliary at the hospital.

“Growing up, I watched this, so it just came natural to me. Getting involved in charities and fundraisers myself became a great opportunity for me to use my musical talents to do some good.”

 

‘The Law of Return’

“I am one of a kind and you need me,” Jay Pollard announces to his Navy intelligence superior in the off-off-Broadway play “The Law of Return.”

He describes his Navy mission as the obligation “to save lives for a safe home.” But which lives and what home? Playwright Martin Blank does not present any clear-cut answers in this crisply written and directed play (Fourth Street Theatre in the East Village) about the notorious American spy who still is serving a 30-year sentence for espionage on behalf of Israel.

Was Pollard a traitor to the country of his birth and to the nation that entrusted him with its secrets when he passed information to one of its closest allies? Was he a righteous Jew who did everything necessary to protect the Jewish homeland, a country where he finally felt at home? Was he a naive weirdo who imagined that as the smartest guy in the room he would never get played by opposing security services?

 

Local writer tarnishes the golden child syndrome

Aren’t all our children exceptional?

Nowadays, children seem to come in three varieties: just perfect, extraordinarily wonderful, and totally amazing. Then there is David Zuckerman in Stephen Kaplan’s play “Exquisite Potential.”

David is in a category all his own — divine.

David’s father, Alan, is convinced his 3-year-old son is the messiah, and he has been keeping a list of reasons that prove he is right. When Alan and his pregnant wife, Laura, go to their rabbi to discuss the ramifications of this notion, things get really weird.

 

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Recycling his roots

Musician Billy Jonas talks about music, the environment, and Jewish life

Having started his career playing on his family’s pots and pans, Jewish musician Billy Jonas has maintained this homemade performance ethic while spreading his messages of simple living and environmentalism to a shared home throughout the world.

After beginning in the kitchen, Mr. Jonas soon moved to the music room, where he picked up the piano, guitar, and trombone. These days, the multitalented multi-instrumentalist plays on pretty much anything he can find, including cans, bottles, buckets, and other recycled instruments of creativity.

When fans come to Mr. Jonas’s concerts, they often find a stage strewn with what at first appears to be a pile of refuse. From oil drums to an empty soda can to five-gallon water bottles, Mr. Jonas takes pride in making treasures out of others’ trash. “I can’t help but smile and get happy when I hear a frying pan played well,” he says, noting his passion for “sounds, forms, and subject matters that are off the beaten track.”

 
 
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