I think 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.
As I wrote in my review of it, 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.
|This actually happens|
|Alliance to End Chicken as Kaporos|
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 practive 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.
.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.
|From When the Chickens Went on Strike|
.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.
|Don't do it, little girl!|
.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!
.Thanks very much, Erica, for all the stories you’ve told and continue to tell!
*I was eminently pleased to learn this plural form of shtetl. And you should be, too!