Once Upon an Apple Cake: a Rosh Hashanah Story

Elana Rubin­stein (auth.), Jen­nifer Naalchi­gar (illus.)

By – September 16, 2019

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.

Discussion Questions

Ten-year-old Sar­alee Siegel has a super-nose. She says she can smell things like nobody’s busi­ness.” She can dis­cern any recipe’s ingre­di­ents with a sniff or two, as well as know­ing what sham­poo some­one used last night. She is part of a hilar­i­ous, quirky fam­i­ly who own a pop­u­lar local restau­rant. Saralee’s Aunt Bean is a germa­phobe who cleans the glass dessert case with a tooth­brush, a five-year-old cousin thinks he’s a doc­tor, her Bub­bie can’t remem­ber names so she calls every­one Pook­ie-Wook­ie,” and youth­ful Aunt Lotte is gen­er­al­ly on the phone and just can’t be both­ered. Siegel House restau­rant is par­tic­u­lar­ly known for their awe­some Rosh Hashanah apple cakes baked by Saralee’s Zaide, using a spe­cial secret ingre­di­ent that even her super-nose can’t detect. But three days before the hol­i­day, Zaide falls down the base­ment stairs and gets a bump on the head that caus­es tem­po­rary amne­sia. It is left to Sar­alee to ful­fill all the town’s apple cake orders, but that super-nose of hers just can’t sniff out the secret ingre­di­ent. When some sin­is­ter new­com­ers try to sneak into Zaide’s files in order to bake apple cakes for their own rival bak­ery called Per­fec­tion on a Plat­ter,” it is left to Sar­alee to use her wits (along with her snif­fer), to save Rosh Hashanah. Along the way she learns much about friend­ship, patience, per­sis­tence and love. This fun­ny and well-plot­ted sto­ry with delight­ful char­ac­ters and amus­ing line-drawn illus­tra­tions is a per­fect choice for ear­ly chap­ter book readers.