No Easy Way for a Matzo Ball to Be Free


The Matzo Ball Boy
By Lisa Shulman
Illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger
32 pages. Dutton Juvenile. $15.99

What does the world look like to a matzo ball? My guess is that it would seem a hostile place, particularly at this time of year, when many a plump Pesach dumpling lands in a bowl of chicken soup, only to meet with an inevitable, unhappy, spoon-fed fate. (Think, for a moment, of how many matzo balls we Jews consume each year!) Now imagine a matzo ball—one with brains and legs—who escapes from the kitchen and lights out for the territory. Actually, you don’t have to imagine anything: Lisa Shulman, author of a sly new kids' book, The Matzo Ball Boy, has done it for you.

A nameless bubbe, who lives "in a tiny cottage at the edge of a small village in a far-off country whose name sounded like a sneeze," has to spend Passover by herself. To stave off her loneliness, she makes a little matzo ball boy ("A friendly face in her soup was better than nothing") and plops him into the soup. But when the bubbe lifts the pot’s lid, the matzo ball boy sees his chance. "And where do you think you're going, my little matzo ball boy?" she asks. "Boy-shmoy," is his response. "I'm the matzo ball man, bubbe, and I'm off to see the world." Out the door he sprints while she calls after him, "Wait! Wait! Put on a jacket or you'll catch your death of cold!"

Funny stuff. Jewishly funny, in fact. The book itself is very Jewish, in that it's a commentary on an earlier work. Says Shulman, on the jacket flap: "One day, while I was making soup and my daughters were reading the story of the Gingerbread Boy, I suddenly realized what a delicious story I could cook up with just a few familiar ingredients." Shulman’s main innovation: adding several tablespoonfuls of wit. The matzo ball boy is just as impertinent as the gingerbread guy—they both sing the same refrain, “Run, run, as fast as you can”—but our hero has a real Yiddishe Kop. He says to the fox, who, as in the gingerbread story, offers to transport the hero over the river on his back: "You must think I'm a real schlemiel! Do you think I don't know that old trick? First you get me on your back, then on your head, then onto your nose, and then I'm nothing more than a nosh for you! Feh!" Then he jumps into the river and out-swims the fox. "For someone who came from a pot of hot soup, this river will be a refreshing change. I'm not made of gingerbread, you know."

But this book isn't a collection of matzo ball-based shtick. Shuman’s text makes a serious point: namely, that the journey to freedom is never an easy one. This book centers on the conflict of two desires: the matzo ball boy’s desire to liberate himself from the constraints of provincial life, and the desire of everyone else to eat him. The rabbi, the town yenta, even the schneider or tailor, all take one look at him and say, "Oy! Oy! You look good enough to eat, little matzo ball boy!" In a sense, there’s a real ironic reversal here. There’s a great deal of literature about Jews being persecuted, about Jews on the run, but rarely are the Jews the people doing the chasing.

The matzo ball boy is fast, and he outruns all his would-be consumers, until he’s taken in, at the end, by a poor couple who live in a small cottage in the woods. At first they seem to be his salvation—then they gobble him up.

So what, in the end, is the moral of the story? That society disapproves of the autonomy of its members, and wants to keep everyone down on the shtetl? That all people, regardless of social station or learning, are prey to base appetites? That Jews just can't get enough of matzo ball soup? Well, the truth is, the text is too sophisticated to deliver a simple didactic message. The moral ambiguity is built into the ending. Consider the way Shulman reports the matzo ball boy’s demise: "Well, who's to say how it happened? Perhaps he fell in… perhaps he was pushed? All we know is that the poor man and his hungry wife had a delicious meal of matzo ball soup that night." She ends with a wonderful punch line sandwiched between two parentheses: "(You were maybe expecting a different ending?)"

The Matzo Ball Boy is a fun way to introduce your young child to the notion of Passover. Yes, it's not a terribly serious book, but it will acquaint your kid with various Pesach concepts and add some nice Yiddishisms to a youngster’s vocabulary.What else? The illustrations, by Rosanne Litzinger, are cute and colorful: the matzo ball boy, for instance, looks like a flesh-colored snowman with a little wave of matzo-meal hair on his head and a celery-slice smile. Best of all, this kids’ book will actually put a grin on the face of many a beleaguered parent.