New Book Tells the Story of Passover, With Wine in a Central Role

In a tale all ages can enjoy, Shlemiel Crooks centers around the averted theft of kosher wine

At last, a wine book for children. (I’ll have to call my agent and tell him to resubmit my masterpiece, Daddy’s Awful Fond of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.) Well, not really, but this charming book teaches the story of Passover through the theft of kosher wine from a saloon in St. Louis in 1919. The colored wood-block illustrations lend a look that blends the old and modern, but the star of the show is the voice of the narrator. If the name Hyman Kaplan means anything to you, or you have a well-thumbed Joys of Yiddish handy, you should drop what you’re doing and go buy this book.

The story is that Reb Elias Olschwanger has augmented his usual stock of Manischewitz with wine made on recently resettled land in Israel. («Reb Elias thought maybe they could use the extra business over there. The Jews swatting mosquitoes overseas shouldn’t have only watery soup and a little goat’s milk to drink.») According to the retelling here, the wine was likely made from vines originating from the seeds of grapes carried during the Jews’ exodus from Egypt after they were freed by Pharaoh. («So! You think grape seeds couldn’t last all that time, three thousand six hundred years to be exact? What are you? An authority on grapes?»)

Pharaoh–still alive in spirit–somehow gets a whiff of this wine made from his grape seeds and incites a couple of crooks to steal the wine. They are interrupted during the burglary by a talking horse and by neighbors Resnik, Mankel and Mrs. Moskowitz, and leave not only without the wine, but also without their own horse and cart. The moral, both of Passover and Shlemiel Crooks, concerns honoring origins and traditions no matter where the wind takes you.

And in a neat twist, the last couple of pages reproduce a newspaper story concerning an attempted burglary in St. Louis in 1919. Author Anna Olswanger, it turns out, descends from the original Reb Elias. The story, then, is partly based on facts she discovered in researching her family. It’s a fine, funny and warm tip of the hat to identity and legacy.

Shlemiel Crooks, by Anna Olswanger, illustrations by Paula Goodman Koz (New South Books, 36 pages, $15.95)

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