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A Conversation with Erica Silverman

Erica Silverman

My recent series on Queen Esther and Purim sprung from having read Raisel's Riddle by Erica Silverman, which I picked up purely because of its connection with Cinderella. Little did I know, I would find myself more interested in the Purim festival which Raisel attends in the story. 

In addition, she has written the wonderful When the Chickens Went on Strike, which was a Sydney Taylor Honor book. Sholom's Treasure won the Sydney Taylor Award and was a runner-up for the National Jewish Book Award and her many other books have received the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award, the California Young Reader Medal, ABA Pick of the List, the Theodore Suess Gerisel Honor and... on and on.

One thing I was unsure of from reading Raisel's Riddle was how much of it was your own invention. Clearly, it's based on Cinderella, but are the other aspects from a particular Jewish folktale?

I did set out to create a Jewish Cinderella. Actually, my editor at the time started it - she sent me a news clip about a storyteller who included a Jewish Cinderella in her repertoire. I'd see it in a couple of Jewish folklore collections and a variation of it had already been published as a picture book, The Way Meat Loves Salt, by Nina Jaffe and Louise August. While I think it's a lovely book, it seemed to lean more heavily on the Cinderella tradition. I was intrigued and challenged by the idea of writing a Jewish Cinderella that might reflect Jewish culture and values more specifically.

Raisel's Riddle

How did the riddle-telling aspect become central?

Clever Gretchen. Clever Katya. Clever Manka. All of these are riddle tales involving girls who riddle. They appear in many cultures.

I love riddle tales and knew early on I wanted to blend a riddle motif into my Cinderella. To my delight, my reading on Jewish life in Eastern Europe turned up a lovely tidbit - that it was customary to tell riddles at Purim feasts. How perfect! Setting it at Purim allowed me to send Raisel to a Purim ball in a costume, so that she wouldn't be recognized. Slowly, things fell into place.

There is something inherently Cinderella-ish about the story of Esther to begin with. Her Jewish identity seems allegorical with Cinderella's own humble origins, being in constant fear that people will know what she really is.

Years ago, I read a book by Jane Yolen called Touch Magic in which she described motifs as being like the bits of colorful paper in a kaleidescope- shake them up and new forms, new images and new stories appear. The folklore tradition is so rich, so full of possibilities.

Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa

Clearly, your Jewish identity is very evident in several of your books. But what about the Cowgirl Kate books? Do they come from the same place?

I'm so glad you think it's cool that I resist easy categorization! From a marketing perspective, it's actually a problem. Publishers like authors they can "brand." How can you wrap up books as diverse as Big Pumpkin, Raisel's Riddle and Cowgirl Kate under one label? If someone can figure that out, I'd love to know!

How about this? It turns out that Cowgirl Kare is actually a Jew! After she finishes up her day at the ranch, she goes home and eats knishes!

Yes, Cowgirl Kate rounds up the chickens for chicken soup. But then she becomes a vegan and decides to just take care of the chickens and make miso soup!

She lives miles apart from Raisel in time and place, but despite their differences, both are independent, intelligent and resourceful.  I do like to portray strong female characters in my work, whatever their setting. For the Cowgirl Kate books, as a city girl, I had to do lots of research to create an authentic ranch setting. And if I'm doing my job as a writer, it's the character's emotions, needs and relationships that are at the heart of any of my stories.

When the Chickens Went on Strike

My favorite book of Erica Silverman's is When the Chickens Went on Strike. She based it on a short story by the great Sholom Aleichem (most renowned for having written the tales upon which Fiddler on the Roof was based), and illustrated by Matthew Trueman.

I found it to be a completely ridiculous story, kind of an absurd Animal Farm with a religious foundation instead of a political one. But also extremely funny. Taking place on Rosh Hashanah, it centers specifically on the practice of kaporos. This is when a Jewish person, in order that they may best absolve themselves of any wrongdoing before the eyes of almighty God, proceed to take a live chicken and wave it about above their heads, all the meanwhile reciting prayers.
When the Chickens Went on Strike takes place in a small village around the turn of the century, and it is about an ending of these customs and a sense of understanding which comes to the community.

I found that Erica's book is featured prominently on a website called Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos. To my shock, I found that this practice of kaporos still happens to this day! I had no idea. I asked Erica if she was familiar with the alliance.

I haven't seen this website, but I was contacted a few years ago by a group called United Poultry Concern, and I suspect there's a connection. They take on all issues related to the protection of chickens, including Kapores (Of course they are vegans). They wanted to order copies of my book and discovered that they were not available anywhere. I had bought a small number years earlier when they were remaindered (sigh) and so was able to supply UPC with some books to sell on their website. On my suggestion, UPC did contact the publisher (Duttons), but there was no willingness to reprint unless it was for a very large order.

When I first read the book, I had no idea that this was a real thing. It felt like an absurd allegory for religious traditions in general, not something that was actually real, and certainly not something which had any kind of contemporary significance.

I had been aware of (what I thought were) rare occasions of a return to kapores among some religious communities, but was quite shocked to learn that it seems to have made a resurgence! Sholom Aleichem must be rolling over in his grave (groaning and gaffawing)! And his story, written so long ago, has meaning again. Who could have foreseen it? Back in the late 19th century, Sholom Aleichem was documenting the transition from the old Jewish world to a more modern one. 

Today, many Jews who want to hold onto this tradition, use money instead of chickens in the ritual and then make a donation to a worthy cause with the money. This balances tradition and modernity in a way that I imagine Sholem Aleichem would approve.

Sholem Aleichem

Why did you select this particular story of his as a children’s book?

It did seem an unlikely choice for a picture book because of the very odd subject matter. But from the first time I read this story, it totally tickled me. I loved the idea of the chickens rebelling, refusing to be exploited. I loved the way they fought back and refused to compromise. On it's simplest level, it is a funny children's story with lots of clucking and crowing. But it has many layers of meaning.

Sholem Aleichem had great compassion for animals, so there is a pro-animal message certainly. But it's also about anti-semitism. Never far from the surface of his writing, was his acute awareness of the terrible oppression of Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe. In this story, the chickens are used as scapegoats in an old ritual. But I believe he's making an analogy to the way Jews have been used as scapegoats throughout history. And during Aleichem's lifetime - like the chickens in the story - the Jews in Russia were beginning to fight back, to challenge their oppression.

Finally, there's yet another layer to this story - the issues of tradition and change within Jewish culture. On the most basic level, this is a story about the transition from the old world to the modern one as it was experienced by Jews who were emerging from centuries of isolation in ghettos and shtetlach. Sholem Aleichem was a genius at capturing this transition. He did it in a way that was simultaneously critical of the old ways and tender towards them. He made his readers laugh, but the underlying pain of change and loss was never far from the surface.

So you have all of these levels of depth going on in this very simple, seemingly silly story - compassion for animals, minorities fighting back against oppression, a challenge to old superstitious ways, capturing the tension between tradition and change with the message that the culture and its people can survive the growing pains. This made me love the story enough to want to retell it, even though I knew that the Kapores ritual would be very foreign and weird for most modern readers to absorb.


I thought that it was the very ridiculousness of the ceremony which almost made it the most accessible for children, like something out of a Dr. Seuss story. How much rewriting did you do?

There are no children in the original story and there really isn't a single viewpoint. I needed a protagonist that could bring the child reader into the story. So I created a boy who wants to be good but his mischievous streak gets in the way. This boy, steeped in the traditions and beliefs of his time, feels threatened by the chickens leaving. He worries that he won't be cleansed of his misdeeds and won't have a chance for a fresh start in the New Year. This boy evolves toward a place of compassion for the chickens and an understanding of his own strength.

A picture book story, like any story, is about character growth, and in my retelling, it became a story of a boy growing into believing in himself and his ability to be good on his own, without the Kapores ritual.

The rest of the rewriting process involved polishing words, tightening text, making sure I had enough action and scene change going on for page turns and to give the illustrator enough interesting imagery to work with while leaving enough room between the words for his imagination - but those are the challenges inherent in writing every picture book.

As an aside, it was only later, when I started working on my biography of Sholem Aleichem, that I learned that Sholem himself was a mischievous child. In his case, it was being the class clown that got him into trouble, but his ability to make people laugh also saved him, time and again. But that's another story!

Part of the Conversations with Stoerytellers series.

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