Book Review: Shlemiel Crooks

Posted by Toby Bird

An outstanding and very entertaining children’s book awarded the designation of an Association of Jewish Libraries’ Sydney Taylor Honor Book is Anna Olswanger’s Shlemiel Crooks, colorfully illustrated by Paula Goodman Koz and published by NewSouth/Junebug books. The Award has been presented annually since 1968 “to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.”

Olswanger’s story takes place in the first decade of the 20th century. Not surprisingly, given the time period, the story is about Jewish immigrants in an urban setting in St. Louis, Missouri. Why St. Louis? Well, Anna Olswanger based her children’s story on real events. Olswanger is recreating and joyfully embellishing a real-life incident about her great-grandfather when his saloon was nearly robbed.

In a short postscript in her book, she tells the reader that she only learned the names of her great-grandparents, Elias and Dora Olschwanger, when, in 1982 she “started to research her family tree,” which took her to St. Louis where they had lived.

Elias and Dora Olschwanger
(Varniai, Lithuania and St. Louis, Missouri)

Part of the results of that research are two documents from the St. Louis Jewish Record that she reproduces at the end of her book in their original Yiddish along with English translations. The first document is an ad placed by Olswanger’s great grandfather in February of 1918. It reads in part:
“Eliyahu Olschwanger wishes to make known to all his friends that he has a fine and large stock of full and half-bottles of Carmel wines and cognacs. He has also purchased a large stock of Manischewitz from Cincinnati,…slivovitz, and … pesach’dik mead… Come in and order in time before the rush…”
His name, address and phone number follow.

The second article reproduced was published a year later in 1919 (in Yiddish) under the heading “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 rich material! Anna Olswanger then took these details and from her imagination she has created a vibrant children’s book. An adult story – one about an attempted robbery – becomes a children’s story replete with a talking horse. The mention of “pesach’dik” mead in the ad inspired her to emphasize the Passover connection and her great-grandfather’s seasonal business of supplying wine to his customers for their seders. So, in her story, the crooks are stealing his Passover wine. The “almost robbed” makes all the difference. A potential tragedy turns into a comedy. The crooks are foiled, the wine saved.

The period details are quite wonderful. The narrator tells this story in an animated “Guess what happened - Reb Olschwanger was almost robbed” tone of voice which pulls us right in. It’s as if we’re listening, not reading. In fact the story begs to be read aloud. The story is dotted with Yiddish words that would be fun for youngsters to try to figure out in context, for example, “Such a tummel they were making!”

Enhancing the animated narration are the colorful drawings by Paula Goddman Koz, many of them full-page. Seen are the tenements where the wash is strung out across buildings. Another image is a re-creation of what the storefront of Reb Olschwanger’s saloon might have looked like with men, women, boys and girls dressed in period clothing, and yet another is of men studying Talmud.

To hear more about how the author, Anna Olswanger wrote the book, listen to an interview by Heidi Estrin on The Book of Life Podcast. The podcast which provides information on Jewish books and other matters is sponsored by Congregation B’nai Israel of Boca Raton.

The documents provided in Shlemiel Crooks would, of course, thrill a family researcher. They are “only” a business advertisement and a report of an “almost” robbery, but there is significant information to be gleaned. Reading these documents, Anna Olswanger would have learned not only what her great-grandfather did for a living, but that he was an enterprising business man serving his community and that he most probably spoke Yiddish. She would have found out his home and business addresses and phone number. She would also have noticed that he spelled his name differently from the way she spells hers. She also would have learned the names and addresses of several of his neighbors which indicate that he lived in a Jewish neighborhood. All of this is useful information.

The following is an excerpt from the book which gives a real feel for the cadences of the narrative.

Excerpt from Shlemiel Crooks
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 Fourteenth and Carr Streets in St. Louis. This didn't happen yesterday. It was 1919.

Reb Elias, you should know, didn't have a sit-down kind of saloon with men coming in to guzzle whiskey when they should have been at home helping to fold the laundry. Oh, no! Reb Elias had 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. He was the only one in St. Louis selling kosher wines back then. Listen, he sold kosher cognac too—that's a kind of brandy—and mead, which is made out of honey and goes down easy. And for the children, he kept in the back a barrel of pretzels with lots of thick salt on them.

Meanwhile, the two crooks—potatoes should sprout in their ears—were stealing crates of Passover wine shipped special that year to Reb Elias on a boat from the Land of Israel. Reb Elias paid a little more—okay, he paid a lot more—for that wine. Usually he was buying his Passover stock from the Manischewitz family in Cincinnati, but after Mr. Balfour—excuse me, Lord Balfour—a big politician in England, promised to make a home for the Jews in the Land of Israel, Reb Olschwanger thought maybe they could use the extra business there. The Jews swatting mosquitoes shouldn't have only watery soup and a little goat's milk to drink.
An interesting outcome of the publication of the book is that it has now been adapted for the stage as a children’s musical. The premiere of the musical version of Shlemiel Crooks will be performed by the Poppyseed Players on Sunday, April 10, 2011, in Merkin Hall, Kaufman Center, New York, NY. For more information on this performance, please click here.

In conclusion, this Yiddish-inflected story with its accompanying documents is a delight to read. Anna Olswanger has truly honored her great-grandfather by writing a children’s book based on an incident from his life which helps us to experience aspects of early immigrant life in America.

Not only that, the book is a delightful addition to children's literature for Passover.

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