“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 modern 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 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.
Shlemiel has a music all its own. 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 its Yiddish-inflected English, punctuated by amusing curses, readers of all ages can hear the language of a Jewish community of another time, while delighting to the jewel-like illustrations by Paula Goodman Koz on every page.