- Mrs. Moskowitzand Yossel Zissel: The Making of Two Picture Books
I was recently asked to give a talk on how I presented Jewish concepts through the illustrations in two of my picture books, Mrs. Moskowitz and the Sabbath Candlesticks, and Yossel Zissel and the Wisdom of Chelm. I realized that I felt most comfortable discussing that question in terms of what Ilearned about Jewish culture through working on these books. When I both write and illustrate a picture book, the two processes are quite entwined and interdependent; I couldn't explain my illustrations without also telling about the writing of these books.
Mrs. Moskowitz and the Sabbath Candlesticksconcerns an older woman who moves into a new apartment. She desperately misses her old home and feels so unhappy in her new apartment that she cannot even bring herself to unpack. Then her son comes by with a box that was overlooked in the move. The box contains a pair of tarnished Sabbath candlesticks. These candlesticks bring up strong feelings and memories for Mrs. Moskowitz. They serve as catalysts that lead her into unpacking, cleaning, and most important, feeling, again. She sets up her apartment and prepares for Shabbat. She makes her apartment into a home.
The book began with a conference with David Adler, children's book editor at the Jewish Publication Society. David asked me if I'd write a story for JPS about the Sabbath. I enthusiastically said yes and went home feeling quite nervous because I had absolutely no ideas and I knew next to nothing about the holiday itself. So I sat down at my typewriter and I tried to think of what associations I didhave with the holiday. What came to mind were two friends I'd made when I first came to New York, Janet and Beth. They were neighbors of mine, roommates, and observant Jews. They had looked after me when I was new here. They had invited me over, cooked for me, and provided me with a feeling of security and at-homeness that I wasn't finding elsewhere.
I remembered the first time I'd visited them on Shabbat and Beth explained to me what observing Shabbat meant to her. I remembered feeling very moved by the idea that these two women, in the middle of their busy lives and a chaotic city, took a day out every week to rest, [End Page 88]and reflect on what was important to them. I made a connection between this emphasis on humanistic values and the feeling of "home" I felt in their apartment.
These memories led me to think about what else had made me feel "at home," my first homesick year in New York, and I remembered the comfort I got from favorite belongings which I'd brought with me from California. I also remembered one sleepless night when I'd been in New York less than a week. I remembered getting out of bed and taking out my journal. I found myself making a list similar to the list Mrs. Moskowitz makes when she is first left alone in her new apartment. "I miss my blue chair," I wrote, "I miss my sofa," and so on. When I was done, I felt comforted, and could fall asleep. I thought about the emotional power held in seemingly inanimate objects. There are many Jewish ritual objects which hold this life beyond themselves, such as a pair of Sabbath candlesticks. Through this reminiscing, and talking with Beth, and reading what I could find, I learned something about Shabbat and came up with the story of Mrs. Moskowitz, concentrating on the connection between a feeling of "home," and the observance of the Sabbath.
The illustrations came about fairly easily. When I begin the drawings for a book I don't consciously decide on concepts beforehand, but, of course, certain ideas do form in my mind which then seem to "just come" as I begin drawing. It seemed obvious to me that Mrs. Moskowitz would live in a modest home with worn but friendly furniture