“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 on every page add to the fun.
A family musical based on Shlemiel Crooks, commissioned by the Kaufman Center's Poppyseed Players, premiered at Merkin Concert Hall in New York in 2011.
Shlemiel Crooks is a Sydney Taylor Honor Book and PJ Library Book. For more information, contact Anna Olswanger or NewSouth Books.