A short chapter book with quirky characters and humorous illustrations, Once Upon an Apple Cake: a Rosh Hashanah Story shows readers a light side of the holiday through a competition, a mystery, and a surprising tool of detection. Fifth grader Saralee Siegel is the heroine because of her nose, yes nose! Turning the nasty stereotype of Jewish noses around, this lively, smart youngster has a secret weapon in her “super nose” which can smell individual ingredients in a recipe. Saralee is the third generation in a family that owns the Siegel House restaurant, a yummy deli famous for its Rosh Hashanah apple cake. She relies on her Zadie’s secret recipe to bake the annual cakes, especially important this year as classmate Harold Horowitz’s family just opened a new restaurant, Perfection on a Platter; the Horowitz’s intend to bake a superior cake, outshining the traditionally popular Siegel recipe.
But that isn’t the way it happens! Zadie falls, hits his head, and develops temporary amnesia. Aunts, uncles, and cousins rush around, trying to run the restaurant without him. They delegate Saralee to figure out the apple cake recipe which Zadie can’t remember. Saralee does not know the secret ingredient but she can sniff out all the rest and through a series of clues she deduces what the cake needs. While her family prepares to bake the cakes, the celebrity TV food critic declares a competition between Siegel House and Perfection on a Platter. The book maintains tension by counting down the days to Rosh Hashanah’s start at sundown. The restaurant decorates with honey jars and candy bags to emphasize their hopes for a sweet year. At the book’s end, the best cake receives the award and a friendship develops between Saralee and Harold, and the recipe is included.
The plot does not rely on Rosh Hashanah to succeed. The text nicely introduces facts about this holiday emphasizing its joy but glossing over its importance in heading the calendar of the Jewish year. Children will absorb the idea of the traditional honey and apples. The tale mentions the synagogue once as the place where the shofar is blown as per ritual, which is well explained. The story’s feature of New Year’s good wishes leans more toward a secular interpretation of the holiday than toward a recounting of Jewish customs.
The busy Siegels each have a consistent and well-drawn personality, as well as having some silly traits, and showing a grandmother with dementia. They share joy, laughter, and love, along with an appreciation of Jewish foods and holiday celebrations all around the dining table. This is a delicious story about a delicious cake, which is heavy on taste and smells although light on Judaism. It is appealing and great fun.
Ellen G. Cole, a retired librarian of the Levine Library of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, is a past judge of the Sydney Taylor Book Awards and a past chairperson of that committee. She is a co-author of the AJL guide, Excellence in Jewish Children’s Literature. Ellen is the recipient of two major awards for contribution to Judaic Librarianship, the Fanny Goldstein Merit Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries and the Dorothy Schroeder Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries of Southern California. She is on the board of AJLSC.