Words often do not translate easily between languages; the Yiddish term bupkes is a perfect example. While it literally means “nothing,” Leslie Kimmelman and Roxana de Rond show that it has a distinct and emphatic tone that is missing from its English equivalent. Beginning by emphasizing the colorful impact of the word, A Book About Bupkes explores how blank nothingness can become just the opposite.
According to Kimmelman, the term means “Nothing! Zero. Zilch.” But bupkes is a tricky concept: pointing to a nothing necessarily makes it a something. A park that has been cleared of trash — and now contains bupkes — is a beautiful environment. A sink emptied of its dirty dishes — and thus filled with bupkes — is a sign of accomplishment. De Rond’s playful illustration shows a girl and her father washing dishes together, surrounded by the artfully arranged clutter of a busy kitchen. The sink overflows with soap bubbles, and the contents of cracked eggs spill onto the floor, but joyful collaboration results in a sparkling scene, including the kosher cookbook that is now visible on the counter. Rather than eliminating a chaotic mess, this act of love defines the book’s very essence. The examples build from tangible changes, which are easiest to understand, to more conceptual ones. When the girl is sitting alone on a bench and makes a friend, their activity together leaves the bench vacant but their hearts full.
The cumulative effect of both words and pictures implies the performance of a mitzvah in every scene. A Book About Bupkes changes the familiar notion of bupkes into something truly new.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.