The Crankiest Kids' Book This Passover Season


By Anna Olswanger
Illustrated by Paula Goodman Koz
32 Pages. NewSouth Books. $15.95
Ages 4-8

I once knew a guy, a friend of a friend, who was raised a secular American Jew. Then one day he got bit, and bit hard, by the religion bug. He changed his name to something more biblically appropriate, got married, produced a batch of kids, grew a beard, and began living a life devoted to Torah. Fair enough.

One Passover eve, my wife and I were invited to his house. Before things kicked into high holiday gear, I played a bit with his three kinder. As I did this, he turned to me and said from beneath his beard, in an impossibly Old World voice (think Rod Steiger in The Chosen): “You like my children?” I thought, “Dude: You’re from the ‘burbs!’ Couldn’t you use your normal voice?”

Well, more than once I remembered that not-quite-convincing voice as I read Anna Olswanger’s tart little volume, Shlemiel Crooks. Olswanger’s narrator, unlike my friend above, had the Yiddish inflection down perfectly. Not for a second did I question its authenticity. It was, in fact, enormously entertaining. He constantly spewed curses on the “crooks" of the title. (Note: though Olswanger doesn’t identify the nameless narrator as a man, I heard him speaking in a man's voice.) These weren't your standard four-letter curses but the sort of creative oaths one finds in Shakespeare. The a-plague-on-both-your-houses sort, Yiddish-style. Of the crooks, the narrator said that

·      onions should grow in their navels

·      potatoes should sprout in their ears

·      they should die of heartburn

·      a trolley car should grow in their stomachs

·      worms should hold a wedding in their bellies

(He also added, at one particularly creative moment, that the second crook's teeth should "fall out except one, then he could have a toothache.")

It's hard not to love these colorful and pungent Jewish curses. They remind me of something S.J. Perelman once said: “There are nineteen words in Yiddish that convey gradations of disparagement, from a mild, fluttery helplessness to a state of downright brutishness.” The fact that this cranky narrator is in charge of a kids’ book, a kiddie volume about Pesach no less, is charming as hell.

But what's really charming about this book is the creative way Olswanger frames the story, which is based on an event that happened in 1919 to her great-grandfather, a St. Louis saloon-owner named Reb Elias Olschwanger. Reb Elias, the narrator says, ran "the kind of saloon with housewives—grandmas, even—coming in to buy bottles of wine and brandy, unopened of course and strictly kosher, for the Jewish Sabbath." Word gets around that there's a shipment of wine from "the Land of Israel." The narrator says the grapes that made this wine were from raisins—specifically, the raisin seeds—that the exiled Israelites "schlepped across the desert." And as if to forestall criticism from a young reader, he adds, "So! You think grape seeds couldn't last all that time, three thousand six hundred years to be exact? What are you? An authority on grapes?"

The author then sends the ghost of Pharaoh to St. Louis, who whispers to the crooks that they should get their mitts on the wine, while the narrator explains the importance of the Passover vino: "no wine, no Prophet Elijah." The shnook crooks seem to have things under control, and under cover of night they dive a horse and wagon to the saloon, at the corner of Fourteenth and Carr Streets, and bust into the joint. But then the horse magically calls out "Crooks! Crooks!" and wakes up the neighbors. They shout things like, "Thieves! Gonifs! They're robbing my friend Reb Elias Olschwanger! What! They want to take the bread out of an old man's mouth?" A guy known as "Resnick across the street" fires a pistol into the air. The crooks run off, and, next thing you know, Reb Elias is delivering his liquor in a horse and wagon—"you shouldn't have to come to him, you're so busy."

This is some wonderfully oddball Passover story. And it's not just the words. The illustrations, by Paula Goodman Koz, are lively washes of the life in early 20th-century immigrant America. Yes, it looks a bit strange when Pharaoh nudges his angular elbows into the frame—and frankly, the time-transport stuff seems slightly out of place in a story that works so hard to be historically accurate (at one point, the crooks kibbitz about "whether they should be betting their money on Pal Moore or Kid Regan in the bout coming up at the Coliseum")—but I'm not going to complain too much on this account.

My hope—as an editor, as a writer, reader, and parent—is that this funny, cranky volume will convince a few would-be memoirists to find new ways to approach their family-based material, or maybe it'll show a few children's authors a thing or two about how "nice" books for kids are inevitably dull. I won't say that these authors should have Hyundais dropped on their laptops, but, well, you get the idea.