The first chapter in Sydney Taylor’s first book is called “The Library Lady,” but the Library Man is reading it aloud when we walk in, a few minutes late. It is All-of-a-Kind Family Day at the Jewish Community Library. The Library Man’s calm, kind voice pulls us right into the circle, my daughter immediately at home hearing the familiar words from the book we’ve read together: “My goodness! Are you all one family?” the Library Lady asks the five identically dressed Jewish sisters.
We’ve come with cousins — after all, it’s Family Day — to celebrate the 101st anniversary of the birth of Taylor, author of the All-of-a-Kind Family series. We learn it’s also the 350th anniversary of the settlement of Jews in America.
Since the book begins in a library (the cover even shows the girls on the library steps), why not celebrate at one? The library we’re in is modern and spacious; large windows make it open and bright. One side of the room has been transformed into the Jewish New York of the early 1900s; a clothesline suspended above us holds period clothing.
We’ve come to step back in time, to experience what it might have been like as a Jewish immigrant a century ago.
We learn things, like the definition of a “whatnot.” In the story, the girls keep their library books on one. “Is it related to a whatchamacallit?” one father guesses. “It’s a thing to put chachkas on,” someone jokes, the Yiddish term quite appropriate in the atmosphere of the room.
The books bring a Jewish family’s experiences into the mainstream. In a chapter called “The Sabbath,” the family shops in an open-air market where peddlers chant in Yiddish. The daughters race home from school to saw and hammer and help Papa build the sukkah. (They invite the Library Lady when it’s done). They eat kreplach (meat-filled dumplings) and teiglach (fried balls of dough soaked in honey).
Taylor’s books give us a taste of life at the turn of the century in New York’s Lower East Side, a time when girls wore three petticoats and long woolen stockings, and pennies could buy any number of things. I like being transported to a different place and time, to witness life through the eyes of someone who can write about it so well.
My daughter shares my interest in exploring the past, yet I was wary the books might not captivate her. Chapter titles don’t exactly exude excitement: The one following the Library Lady is called “Dusting Is Fun.” (Turns out it is. Mama hides buttons and a penny, a trick I’ve incorporated into my own attempts to get my child to clean up.) But my daughter did continue reading on her own, enjoying chapters about Purim parties and Passover, about an uncle named Hyman.
I somehow missed these books when I was growing up. I wish I hadn’t. How comforting it would have been to see my Jewish background and culture reflected in the books I read.
Unlike me, my cousin has fond memories of All-of-a-Kind-Family. As a Jewish girl in a Catholic school, she says the books made her feel less alone, and she’s excited to share them with her young daughter. She checks out the copy that the Library Man — who we find out is Jewish Community Library Director Jonathan Schwartz — has read aloud to us.
We play with low-tech toys, jacks and jump ropes and explore other games of a generation past. With a break for pretzels and pickles (the All-of-a-Kind Family sisters buy dill pickles with their pennies from pushcart peddlers), we’re ready for art.
Most popular, at least with my child, is the chalk-mural table, where artists’ work is bought for pennies that can be redeemed for jellybeans and chocolate kisses. We’re at this table for a long time.
We leave, stomachs full of pretzels and pickles, our handful of penny candy from the chalk-mural contribution, and join the Yiddish sing-along downstairs. For a few hours, in 21st century San Francisco, I feel a kinship, munching penny candy with cousins, Yiddish songs around us. I’m in my own All-of-A-Kind-Family.
Joanne Catz Hartman lives and writes in Oakland. She can be reached at jc_Hartman@comcast.net.