Alte Zachen / Old Things

Zig­gy Hanaor; Ben­jamin Phillips, illus.

  • Review
By – September 12, 2022

In Zig­gy Hanaor’s and Ben­jamin Phillips’s new graph­ic nov­el for young adults and old­er, mid­dle-grade read­ers, a boy named Ben­jy spends the day with his grand­moth­er in New York City. Their trip through dif­fer­ent neigh­bor­hoods in Brook­lyn and Man­hat­tan is not with­out anguish; Bubbe Rosa isn’t the warm and kind­heart­ed fig­ure pre­sent­ed in many oth­er sto­ries about grand­par­ents. Then again, maybe she is, but her past expe­ri­ences have put her on guard, sti­fling the affec­tion that Ben­jy deserves. Text and pic­tures both reveal the com­plex­i­ties of Bubbe’s life, and she emerges as a unique woman who is emblem­at­ic of her era.

At the begin­ning of the nov­el, Bubbe sug­gests that she and Ben­jy go out on a shop­ping excur­sion, so that she can pre­pare kugel, brisket, and gefilte fish. With a nos­tal­gic choice of foods and Bubbe’s appear­ance in a bulky win­ter coat and old-fash­ioned scarf, Hanaor and Phillips lead read­ers to antic­i­pate a nice trip through the Low­er East Side. Instead, almost every inter­ac­tion Bubbe has with the com­mu­ni­ty brims with hos­til­i­ty. Young peo­ple are rude, a store clerk’s hip­ster cloth­ing and tat­toos are dis­gust­ing,” and, worst of all, her young grand­son does not even know what it means to be Jew­ish.” Benjy’s patience with her is almost frustrating.

Grad­u­al­ly, Benjy’s under­stand­ing response begins to make sense. In a reverse of many illus­trat­ed books with flash­backs to the past, black-and-white pic­tures change to col­or when Bubbe recalls her ear­li­er life. She is a Holo­caust sur­vivor, a fact ini­tial­ly pre­sent­ed with cru­el irony. After she lash­es out at a group of boys who, she claims, have learned noth­ing in school, the scene shifts to her own school days in Ger­many. As her class con­ju­gates Latin verbs togeth­er, the prin­ci­pal enters to taunt them in Ger­man: Get out you dirty Jews! We don’t want you here.” It becomes clear that the clas­si­cal edu­ca­tion she held up as supe­ri­or to con­tem­po­rary edu­ca­tion was use­less as the Nazis took power.

Bubbe rem­i­nisces sad­ly about her late hus­band, Benjy’s Zayde Joe, but she also remem­bers anoth­er admir­er, Ger­shon the bak­er. Much is left unsaid about their friend­ship; through­out the book, silences and gaps con­vey almost as much as words. Although Bubbe some­times seems dis­ori­ent­ed (“This isn’t the Upper West Side. Oy, they got the train wrong”), her con­fu­sion is often root­ed in real­i­ty. With sushi shops and tat­too par­lors replac­ing old­er estab­lish­ments, her anx­i­ety about a lost world seems log­i­cal, even if it appears ques­tion­able to young read­ers. Bubbe, in oth­er words, is look­ing for alte zachen, old things. But whether search­ing her refrig­er­a­tor or try­ing to find a butch­er with accept­able prices, her quest to recap­ture bet­ter times will always result in disappointment.

Phillips’s del­i­cate col­ors and fine details illus­trate the rich­ness of city life. Two sis­ters argu­ing on a train, a cou­ple danc­ing togeth­er, and immi­grants’ first view of the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty — these are all images that Bubbe con­jures while look­ing back over the years. In one full-col­or scene that inte­grates past and present, she comes to terms with the inevitabil­i­ty of change. As the book ends, with grand­moth­er and grand­son against a New York City sky­line, new­ness does not seem so threat­en­ing, after all.

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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