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Shlemiel Crooks

Shlemiel Crooks

by Anna Olswanger, Paula Goodman Koz (Illustrator)

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"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." So begins Anna Olswanger's charming folktale Shlemiel Crooks, the story of Reb Elias and the


"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." So begins Anna Olswanger's charming folktale Shlemiel Crooks, the story of Reb Elias and the thieves who try to steal his Passover wine. Based on a true story, Shlemiel is an imaginative introduction for young children 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. A modern-day parable, Shlemiel has a music all its own. In its Yiddish-inflected English, punctuated by amusing curses, young readers hear the language of a Jewish community of another time, while delighting to brilliant illustrations on every page. The New York Times Book Review called Shlemiel Crooks "well told and illustrated." Booklist noted, "Shtetl humor and magic realism come to St. Louis in 1919 in this wry Pesach story . . . The best thing here is Olswanger's Yiddish storyteller's voice, particularly the hilarious curses she weaves into the story. Great for reading aloud." It was named 2006 Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Young Reader's Category from the Association of Jewish Libraries and a 2005-2006 Koret International Jewish Book Award Finalist in the BabagaNewz Childrens' Literature category.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publishers Weekly
If the fools of the fabled village of Chelm knew any better, they might be a little jealous of the attention Olswanger pays to a pair of bumbling thieves in her amusing if convoluted debut picture book. In 1919 St. Louis, the two shlemiel crooks of the title plan a heist of Reb Elias's new shipments of Passover wine, egged on by the ghost of the Pharaoh that had enslaved the Israelites in Egypt. Fortunately for Reb Elias, the "lowlife" klutzes make enough noise to rouse the sleeping neighbors and are forced to flee the scene of the crime, leaving the goods-and their horse and cart-behind. Inspired by archival newspaper accounts of a similar event experienced by one of her forebears, the author stirs bits of family history, Jewish heritage and humor into her literary stew, with an unusual recap of the Passover story added in. Unfortunately, the result is a mish-mash of digressions and confusing plot elements that will likely puzzle younger readers. The predominant Yiddish inflection and phrases are sure to give adults a chuckle, but may prove tiresome to the picture-book crowd. Newcomer Koz delivers arresting woodblock print artwork featuring thick black lines and a deep, jewel-tone palette. Her attention to old-world detail and a few funny scenes of the crooks in action or on the run give this project plenty of visual charm. Ages 4-8. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
With glowing endorsements from Uri Shulevitz, Eric Kimmel, Fran Manushkin, Stephen Kellogg, Arthur Yorinks, and other well-known names, this first book by author Olswanger promises to be a hit. Based on two newspaper articles from the St. Louis Jewish Record in 1919 about her great-grandfather, it tells the story of two robbers who tried to burglarize his liquor store just before Passover. Such a crime was far worse than it may seem, since they were stealing his special kosher wine, imported from the Holy Land of Israel especially for the Passover Seder ceremonies. Who could tolerate such wickedness? Especially when it was instigated by the ghost of Pharaoh, the same one who had enslaved the Hebrews in Egypt and necessitated the famous Exodus in the first place. Well, "the crooks—onions should grow in their navels" get their comeuppance as the story ends, and if you do not have a stomach-ache from laughing about how it all transpired, you just do not have a sense of humor. The Yiddish-inflected rhythms used to tell the tale may be unfamiliar to many, but they are undeniably funny and deftly evocative of the immigrant Jewish experience in America decades ago. Read it, so worms should not hold a wedding in your belly. 2005, Junebug Books, Ages 3 to 8.
—Judy Chernak
School Library Journal - School Library Journal
Gr 3-5-This delightful story is based on a true incident reported in the St. Louis Jewish Record in 1919, in which Reb Elias Olschwanger's liquor store was almost robbed of its Passover wine (brought in special from the Land of Israel no less) by a couple of inept thieves. But that's not the whole story because Reb Elias also recounts his own version of the exodus from Egypt, with the Hebrews absconding with linen and jewels and raisins-raisins? Anyway, you remember the part where Pharaoh chases after the Israelites and ends up in the Red Sea? Turns out his ghost is still wandering around St. Louis of all places, whispering in the ears of the crooks to go rob the store, only they get scared off by some noisy neighbors and a talking horse. This tale is a pleasure and a hoot; it rings so true with the voice of a Yiddishe grandmother that it's practically historical fiction (minus the ghost). The boldly colored, expressive illustrations enhance the humor so you shouldn't get bored.-Teri Markson, Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School, Los Angeles Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

NewSouth, Incorporated
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
8.86(w) x 10.66(h) x 0.34(d)
Age Range:
7 - 9 Years

Meet the Author

Anna Olswanger is the coordinator of the Jewish Children's Book Writers' Conference each fall at the 92nd Street Y in New York, and is a literary agent with Liza Dawson Associates in Manhattan. She teaches writing at the Center for Training and Education at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and at Stony Brook University School of Medicine and Hospital. She lives in Fair Lawn, New Jersey.

Illustrator Paula Goodman Koz was born in Peru and grew up in Philadelphia, the West Indies, Central America, Pittsburgh, and Riverdale, New York. She settled in Manhattan and enrolled in a printmaking program at the National Academy of Design. She also studied at the New School, and has been a freelance illustrator in New York. She lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.

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