by Anna Olswanger
"In the middle of the night on a Thursday, two crooks onions should grow in their navels drove their horse and wagon to the saloon of Reb Elias Olschwanger, at the corner of 14th
and Carr streets in St. Louis. This didn't happen yesterday. It was 1919." That's the start of Anna Olswanger's modern folktale Shlemiel Crooks, the story of Reb Elias and the
thieves who try to steal his Passover wine.
Based on a true story about Anna's great-grandfather Elias Olschwanger (a translation of the original Yiddish newspaper article appears at the back the book), Shlemiel Crooks is an introduction for young readers to the history of Passover, as Pharaoh and a town of Jewish immigrants play tug-of-war with wine made from grapes left over from the Exodus from Egypt.
Pharaoh's ghost comes back to pull one over on the Jews, neighbors make a tummel in the street, and a talking horse gives the impression it has a little indigestion. In Yiddish-inflected English, punctuated by humorous curses, Anna has made the language of a Jewish community of another time come alive for readers of all ages. The jewel-like illustrations by Paula Goodman Koz add to the fun.
Shlemiel Crooks is a Sydney Taylor Honor Book and PJ Library Book published by NewSouth Books.
A family musical based on Shlemiel Crooks, commissioned by the Kaufman Center, premiered in 2011 at Merkin Concert Hall in New York with the Poppyseed Players. The musical is available for licensing from Drama Source.
Praise for Shlemiel Crooks
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"... sit down and read it already."
The New York Times Book Review
"You should be so lucky as to find a Passover story that combines a surprisingly droll exposition of the flight from Egypt (right down to the pilfered raisins), with an account of the foolish crooks in St. Louis, who, in 1919, really did try to steal some of the special spirits Reb Elias Olschwanger had ordered for sale before the holiday. Well told and illustrated."
"The best thing here is Olswanger's Yiddish storyteller's voice, particularly the hilarious curses she weaves into the story: 'His teeth should fall out, except one, then he could have a toothache.' Great for reading aloud."
The Jerusalem Post
"The fun, colorful illustrations complement Olswanger's humor. Children and adults alike will laugh out loud. For the best effect, read with an Eastern European accent."
The Bulletin for the Center for Children's Books
"An entertaining and well executed tale that is chock full of subtle humor."
School Library Journal
"This tale is a pleasure and a hoot; it rings so true with the voice of a Yiddish grandmother that it's practically historic fiction (minus the ghost). The boldly colored, expressive illustrations enhance the humor so you shouldn't get bored."
"If the name Hyman Kaplan means anything to you, or you have a well-thumbed Joys of Yiddish handy, you should drop what you're doing and go buy this book."