Treasures From the Old Country

by Sue Edelman

 

Kibitzer and Fools: Tales My Zayda Told Me

Written and illustrated by Simms Taback

48 pages. Viking $16.99

Bookshelf - Kibitzer and Fools

Is Yiddish culture in danger of extinction? As fewer and fewer Jewish children grow up with a grandparent or other relative in their lives who was born in the old country, the rich culture and language of the Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe is slowly evaporating from the consciousness of young people. Celebrated author and artist Simms Taback seems to have identified this trend and set out to remedy it with his latest book, Kibitzers and Fools: Tales My Zayda Told Me.

Taback, perhaps best known for his Caldecott Award-winning book, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, does double-duty as writer and illustrator on Kibitzers and Fools. Each of the 13 stories, brought by the author’s zayda or grandfather, “from his little village in Poland,” ends with a pithy saying that sums up the message of the tale. Clearly Taback’s mission is to convey the rich heritage of his grandfather’s world — and his language — to the children of today. Yiddish was Taback’s first tongue, so it’s no surprise that the love and reverence he has for the language is fused into the telling of the tales. He patiently offers translations for the Yiddish words as they appear, and also offers a glossary in the back for easy reference. It’s clear that he hopes that the language will not be lost and he sees the newest generation as a good place to start his campaign.

The stories are slick with humor, irony, and compelling (if often dopey) characters. Who can resist the rabbi who suggests moving a mountain at the edge of town to solve the problem of overcrowding, or the farmer who makes soup out of his one healthy chicken to try to nurse to health his sick one? Enhancing the charm of the stories are the tiny comic details that pepper the colorful and expressive illustrations. One example is how Taback cleverly places small bits of photographed faces inside the illustrations and alters them for comic effect with rosy cheeks or beards. In fact, an adult reading this book with a child would be well advised to pause after reading each page to find and discuss the tiny gems that Taback has woven into the design — the headline on a folded newspaper tucked in a man’s coat pocket reading “So Much Mishegas in the World,” a goat riding in a cart his owner pulls, the rabbi’s mismatched shoes and socks, or a startled mouse hiding in a desk drawer.

Taback’s tales are reminiscent of the tradition of the Chelm stories about the foolish inhabitants of the town of Chelm and the misadventures that occur as a result of their lack of good sense. In the first story, “The Sign,” we meet Motke Rabinowitz, a fish peddler who puts too much stock in what others say. When he puts up a sign above the doorway of his new fish store in hopes of bringing in business, Motke is influenced by kibitzers (busybodies) who offer advice on altering the words on the sign. By the end of the story, each word on the sign has been nixed by a different kibitzer, and the fish peddler is back where he started: signless. The final punch line comes when yet another kibitzer comes by, notices the lack of business at the fish store and suggests — what else? — putting up a sign! As is the case with each story, “The Tale” ends with a saying to sum things up. “A kibitzer can be a pain in the neck, but more than one can make you moishe kapoir [all mixed-up]!”

In much the same way that Leo Rosten’s classic book, The Joys of Yiddish, illuminates the Yiddish language through the lens of Jewish culture in the shtetl, Taback’s book illuminates Jewish shtetl culture using a selection of expressive Yiddish words, from chutzpah (nerve) to zhlub (oaf). Once children read or hear this collection of stories infused with not just the vocabulary, but also the charm, humor and irony of shtetl life, they are sure to have a newfound appreciation for the faraway places where Yiddish culture once flourished.

It’s no surprise that Taback dedicates the book to “The great Yiddish storytellers — Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, and Mendele Mocher S’forim.” Perhaps an introduction to Yiddish sensibilities in literature through this book will enhance the chances that children will be receptive to reading these masters’ work when they are old enough. That would make Simms Taback happy. I’m sure.

Sue Edelman is the editor of BabagaNewz.com, one of the many web sites produced by Jewish Family & Life! In her spare time, she is a freelance writer, editor and web geek. She is also the long-time host of “Something About the Women,” a community radio program in the Boston area featuring music by women artists (www.satwomen.com).

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