A Favorite Children's Book for Simchat Torah
I love children’s books as a rule, but I especially love those that explore the relationship between a child and a grandparent, because there really is nothing as beautiful as that.
Set on the Lower East side of Manhattan in the 1930s, When Zaydeh Danced on Eldridge Street is just such a book. Written by Elsa Okon Rael and illustrated lovingly by Marjorie Priceman, this story traces a little girl’s first taste of Torah, mirrored by the unlikely blossoming of a relationship with her grandfather. Zeesie (“sweet” in Yiddish) is about to become a big sister, so she is carted off to Bubby and Zaydeh’s apartment while Mama and Papa rush to the hospital. Zeesie doesn’t mind, because Bubby and Zaydeh’s home is full of fascinating curiosities—Yiddish letters from cousins in Europe, Tangee lipstick, Mama’s old library card from when she was Zeesie’s age. Still, Zeesie is worried about Zaydeh, a stern old man who seems distant with Zeesie and who always expects her to know more and behave more maturely than she does.
When Zaydeh asks Zeesie what day it is, she desperately guesses that it’s a holiday—Simchat Torah, she reasons, since last week was Sukkot—but she stands tongue-tied, heart thumping when he asks her what the holiday commemorates:
“With you?” she asks.
“Of course with me. Who else?” replies Zaydeh matter-of-factly.
So Zeesie follows Zaydeh across the street to the Eldridge Street Synagogue, now a national landmark, and Zeesie is enthralled by the dancing lights of the stained glass windows, the shiny red apples, and the way children run freely about. “For once, children were not being told to behave.”
But the finest moment is yet to come.
As she accompanies Zaydeh to the Bimah and gets a closer look at the sacred scrolls, Zeesie asks, “Can you tell me, Zaydeh, what is Torah?”
Silence reigns for a moment and Zeesie worries that she has said the wrong thing. But Zaydeh is overwhelmed with pride, crowing to his friend Beryl about his aynikle’s (grandchild's) brilliance.
“Would you like to know what I think?” he asks Zeesie, pulling her close.
And therein lies the magic of this book, because for Zeesie, Simchat Torah marks the discovery of her grandfather’s love.
When I was a little girl, my Zaydeh used to push me around the block in a stroller and sing to me the lyrics of a Yiddish lullaby, Rozhinkes mit Mandlen. To this day, I find it difficult to hear this song without bursting into tears, because it so embodies my grandfather. It’s odd that this earliest memory of my grandparents is of my Zaydeh, because it was my grandmother who was more approachable. She was younger, more “with it,” and could speak English with my friends when I brought them home. She could also cook to kill. (By the way, the book also features Bubbeh Shayndel's apple cake recipe that I've successfully made with my niece.)
But it’s my Zaydeh I think of as we celebrate this parade of fall holidays, because it’s his lips I see moving when I open up a Machzor (High Holiday prayer book), his hands I see holding the Etrog (special lemon-like citrus fruit for Sukkot) to breathe in its scent, his silhouette I see draped in the Tallit (prayer shawl) as he prays.
My Zaydeh wasn’t stern and unapproachable like Zeesie's. Still, when these holidays come around, they make me pause and remember how wonderful he was—and how lucky I was to have him. Just like Zeesie.