Kid Lit Review of “Shlemiel Crooks” by Anna Olswanger, A Passover Story

This adorable story, based on a true incident that happened in 1919 to the author’s great-grandparents, is told in the style of Yiddish folktales. The author’s great-grandfather, Reb Elias Olschwanger, had an establishment in St. Louis that sold kosher wine, brandy, and cognac for use on the Jewish Sabbath and on Jewish holidays. He was the only seller of kosher wines, so he and his store were important fixtures in the community.

On February 21, 1919, the St. Louis Jewish Record reported that thieves tied to steal several barrels of brandy and beer. (A photocopy of the article is included at the back of the book.). As Olswanger tells it, “the two crooks – potatoes should sprout in their ears – were stealing crates of Passover wine shipped special that year to Reb Elias on a boat from the Land of Israel.”

In the course of explaining what happened, Olswanger retells the story of Passover – also in a humorous way, “in case you haven’t been reading the book of Exodus in the Bible lately…”

The crooks – “a trolley car should grow in their stomachs” – were about to make off with the wine when they were yelled at by neighbors, and they got scared and ran off:

“How scared? I’ll tell you. They ran away like their pants were on fire and left Reb Elias’s wine sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, not to mention their horse and wagon in the street.”

We learn that Reb Elias was so grateful he placed an ad in the St. Louis Jewish Record to wit:

“Elias Olschwanger wants to thank all his friends on Fourteenth and Carr streets who stopped the no-good crooks from stealing his wine. Don’t worry, he’s still got a fine stock of full and half-bottles of Land of Israel wine and brandies for Passover. Also, now he’s delivering in a horse and wagon, you shouldn’t have to come to him, you’re so busy. Only, in case the shlemiel crooks come back for the horse and wagon, you could order now maybe? E. Olschwanger, Liquor Company, 1028 N. 14th Street.”

Colorful woodblock print illustrations by Paula Goodman Koz feature plenty of historical details.

Some of the details about Passover and references to the Talmud may need explanations for the recommended audience of four and over, but will provide an opportunity for adults to offer children an amusing take on this Bible story.

Evaluation: Readers of all ages, including adults, will appreciate the humor and the message of “divine justice” in this story.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Junebug Books, an imprint of NewSouth, Inc., 2005

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