Raisins and Almonds: A Yid­dish Lullaby

Susan Tar­cov; Sonia Sánchez, illus.

  • Review
By – March 11, 2019

The Yid­dish lul­la­by Raisins and Almonds” (“Rozhinkes mit Man­dlen”) is a sur­vivor of the lost world of East­ern Euro­pean Jews. Orig­i­nal­ly a poem by Abra­ham Gold­faden that drew on Jew­ish folk­lore, it was first pop­u­lar­ized in his Yid­dish operetta Shu­lamith (1881). The lyrics embody hope for a per­se­cut­ed peo­ple, as well as a vision of pro­tec­tive Jew­ish moth­er­hood. Raisins and Almonds: A Yid­dish Lul­la­by uses this sweet­ly mourn­ful poem as the pre­text for reimag­in­ing a child’s jour­ney to sleep, while intro­duc­ing spe­cif­ic mark­ers of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty to revi­tal­ize the poem’s aura of Yid­dishkeit for a new young audi­ence. The result is a mod­ern classic.

In Goldfaden’s poem, the child car­ries the uni­ver­sal name Yidele (lit­tle Jew), and we only see him through his mother’s desire for a future of secure pros­per­i­ty. With Raisins and Almonds, Susan Tar­cov and Sonia Sánchez cre­ate a new hero­ine in Bel­la, an ener­getic and imag­i­na­tive girl with traces of both Pip­pi Long­stock­ing and Eloise. Fright­ened by a noise under her bed, Bel­la runs to her moth­er who reas­sures her that she has only heard a lit­tle white goat whose lit­tle store is there, under your bed.” In the orig­i­nal lul­la­by, the goat is a trav­el­ing mer­chant who sells items such as raisins and almonds, which pre­dict the child’s future liveli­hood. Bel­la asks her moth­er what the goat will sell. Her response, You nev­er know. You’ll have to go and see,” is trans­formed by Bel­la into per­mis­sion to cre­ate a won­der­ful vision, one that departs sig­nif­i­cant­ly from the song.

Tar­cov cap­tures the lim­it­less asso­ci­a­tions of child­hood, as Bel­la won­ders if the goat will have a green bicy­cle hel­met or a neck­lace like her Bubbe’s. Oth­er ani­mals accom­pa­ny her on her fan­tas­tic jour­ney, includ­ing a kip­pah-wear­ing rab­bit, a rav­en­ous wolf who craves pick­led her­ring and pas­tra­mi, and a fam­i­ly of mice whose home is pro­tect­ed by a mezuzah. As Bel­la invites the crea­tures along, each one asks her about the pre­vi­ous trav­el com­pan­ion, both excit­ed and skep­ti­cal about the pos­si­bil­i­ties of what they might learn. Bel­la repeats her mother’s phrase, You nev­er know,” as she takes over the caregiver’s role of author­i­ty in her invent­ed world. Allu­sions to Jew­ish life, and rhyth­mic rep­e­ti­tion of her mother’s phrase, keep Goldfaden’s poem in the pic­ture as a dis­tant but fruit­ful source.

Sánchez’s images are wild­ly vivid, with broad brush­strokes and col­ors from nature com­bined with minia­tur­ized detail. In one two-page spread a mouse cau­tious­ly looks out of its hole across a field of light­ly sketched blue and green grass­es, and yel­low flow­ers that almost melt into the back­ground. The object of his admi­ra­tion is a com­plete­ly real­ized mouse apart­ment on top of a bureau. One mouse is white and wears glass­es. The rest of his fam­i­ly is grey; they sip from tiny red and white pol­ka dot­ted mugs at a table cov­ered with a del­i­cate yel­low run­ner. Upright books and a ball of yarn form one wall, while a sil­ver meno­rah stands guard over them. The book ends with an equal­ly rich image that brings the sto­ry full cir­cle. The white goat of both Goldfaden’s poem and the mod­ern tale is indeed a suc­cess­ful mer­chant, man­ag­ing a store over­flow­ing with the raisins, almonds, and oth­er deli­cious items which in ear­li­er Jew­ish his­to­ry might have remained unful­filled aspi­ra­tions. Although Bella’s moth­er only appears briefly in the book, she is mem­o­rable, and is as nur­tur­ing as the moth­er in the lul­la­by even as she looks real­is­ti­cal­ly exhaust­ed. There is no father in the bed with her, an inter­est­ing choice that adds anoth­er dimen­sion to her patience.

Raisins and Almonds: A Yid­dish Lul­la­by is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed for chil­dren ages 3 to 8, as well as for any­one who loves the orig­i­nal song, and for fans of dis­tin­guished pic­ture book art. An author’s note describes the song’s ori­gin and a scannable QR code is includ­ed so that read­ers can hear it performed.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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