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New Kids' Cookbook Has a Story to Tell

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Miri Pomerantz-Dauber

"A fun book for family sharing" is the description on the back cover of Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts (Crocodile Books USA, 2013), and, looking through the book, it really is! The book, which features Jewish folktales paired with a corresponding recipe and beautiful illustrations, is intended for children ages 5-11, but it crosses generations in a way that is unusual—both the stories and the recipes will appeal to adults and kids equally. The project is a collaboration between the mother-daughter team of master storyteller Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple, the cook behind the book's recipes, with illustrations by Sima Elizabeth Shefrin. 

Here's a little taste from the Main Course section of the book, reprinted with permission: 


The Pomegranate Seed

“May it be Your will, O Lord our God, that our good deeds will increase like the seeds of the pomegranate.”


A hungry Jew, whose family was starving, stole a loaf of bread from the market. But as soon as he slipped the loaf into the waistband of his trousers, the stall owner began to shriek, “Thief! Thief!”

The man began to run, but he was no better at running than he was at stealing. Within three or four steps he felt the heavy hands of the sultan’s guards on his shoulder.

They marched him off to prison, where in the near dark of his cell he found a single pomegranate seed on the dirt floor.

“Why is the Lord plaguing me?” he thought. “Here I am about to be executed for stealing a loaf of bread so that my children would not starve, and He sends me a pomegranate seed.”

But, since the rabbis always said, “The Lord does not toy with us,” he gave that seed much thought.

When the guards brought him out to the open courtyard for his execution, the Jew was ready. He turned his face up to the executioner and spoke so loudly, everyone—including the sultan, himself—could hear, “Kill me as you must, but do not throw away my magic pomegranate seed.”

“What nonsense is this?” growled the executioner.

“Not nonsense at all. If you plant it, it will grow instantly into a great pomegranate tree, laden with ripe fruit. But …” the Jew shrugged.

“But what?” The executioner lowered his axe and leaned forward.

“The seed will only grow if you have never stolen anything. So you see, it is useless to me now.”

The executioner trembled. “I have taken things from the pockets of those I have executed, instead of giving it to their heirs. I cannot plant the seed.”

The Jew held up the seed to the guards. “Is there one among you who can plant the seed?”

The guards conferred amongst themselves. Finally, one came forward. “We have each taken golden spoons from the sultan’s table. We cannot plant the seed.”

The thief turned to the sultan’s vizier. “And you, mighty sir?”

The vizier trembled. “I have … um … occasionally pocketed coins from the sultan’s treasury. Ummmm … coins owed to me.” He looked quickly down at the ground.

“Then, magnificent sultan, it is up to you to plant the seed,” the Jew said.

The sultan smiled. “And haven’t I taken entire countries from other sultans? I doubt I could plant that seed.”

“Oh mighty and powerful people, you have taken trinkets, coins, golden spoons, entire countries, and still retain your high status and wealth. And here am I, a poor Jew, who only wanted to feed his starving children. Yet you will live and I will die.”

The sultan laughed. “What a clever man you are. I need someone like you around to remind me how a life can be saved by a simple pomegranate seed.” He made the Jew a royal gardener and moved his family into the palace, where they never went hungry again.

We found four versions of this story: in Peninnah Schram’s The Hungry Clothes and Other Jewish Folktales, as “The Pomegranate Seed”; in Sheldon Oberman’s Solomon and the Ant and Other Jewish Stories, as “The Magic Seed”; in Nathan Ausubel’s A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, as “The Wise Rogue”; and in Barbara Diamond Goldin’s A Child’s Book of Midrash, as “The Clever Thief.”

This story is originally from Morocco, but stories about Jews (and Arabs) who manage by cleverness to get themselves out of impossible situations are quite popular throughout the Middle East.

In some tellings, the thief is Jewish, in others he is not. But the story is a popular one amongst Middle Eastern Jews.

This is Tale Type 929—“Clever Defenses” and K 500—“Escape from Arrest by Trickery.”