|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.