The Life of a Coat

Kadya Molodowsky, Batia Kolton (illus.), Ilana Kur­shan (trans.)

  • Review
By – March 2, 2020

Kadya Molodowsky (18941975) was one of the most emi­nent Yid­dish lan­guage poets of her gen­er­a­tion. Now Batia Kolton, an inno­v­a­tive Israeli artist, has illus­trat­ed Molodowsky’s lyric sto­ry about pover­ty and thrift, tinged with poignant humor. Draw­ing on the tra­di­tion of clas­sic com­ic strips from the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Kolton inter­prets Ilana Kurshan’s trans­la­tion of the poem into a dark, wit­ty pic­ture of Jew­ish life in pre-World War II East­ern Europe, focus­ing on the uses and mis­us­es of a hum­ble coat. A range of chil­dren inter­act with the gar­ment, some hap­less vic­tims as they are unfair­ly held to account for sim­ply out­grow­ing it. Even­tu­al­ly, one non-con­form­ing child refus­es to be pun­ished for his family’s pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion, trans­form­ing the tat­tered coat into an image of defiance.

Read­ers will be remind­ed of the Yid­dish folk song, I Had a Lit­tle Over­coat,” the sub­ject of two clas­sic pic­ture books: Joseph Had a Lit­tle Over­coat by Simms Taback and My Grandfather’s Coat by Jim Aylesworth. Both of those works cel­e­brate the reas­sur­ing mes­sage that noth­ing, no mat­ter how old or worn out, becomes use­less, since the reuse and remem­brance of the orig­i­nal object becomes part of a family’s tra­di­tions. The Life of a Coat is a more sub­ver­sive tale, in which the dam­aged and ill-fit­ting coat is forced onto each mem­ber of the fam­i­ly by par­ents who are com­plete­ly obtuse about its unsuit­abil­i­ty. In spite of the fact that the father is a tai­lor, the coat which he sews with nar­row slit/​For a child’s head to fit,” goes first to Shmu­lik, who, in Kolton’s pic­ture, is a heavy­set boy who seems entrapped when he wears it, although the text claims that he wore the coat with pride.” Only after he is lit­er­al­ly burst­ing out of the coat do his par­ents admit that it no longer fits him, and each sub­se­quent child is bur­dened by the unre­al­is­tic expec­ta­tion that the coat will last forever.

Young read­ers will enjoy the exag­ger­at­ed expres­sions on the par­ents’ faces as they observe the coat falling apart as each of its own­ers grows old­er and big­ger. The family’s white goat, a fre­quent image in Jew­ish folk­lore, appears in many blocks of pic­ture and text, seem­ing almost human in his con­fu­sion about the coat’s dis­in­te­gra­tion. Adults will note the fright­en­ing effect of par­ents who are unable to rec­og­nize their children’s needs. Their pover­ty and oppres­sion, or per­haps just sim­ple fool­ish­ness, seem to have blind­ed them to the point where reli­gious faith meets imprac­ti­cal­i­ty: And while await­ing the Messiah/​Let us pass it on to Haya.” They alter­nate between insist­ing that the coat is as good as new and becom­ing angry at the evi­dence that it can­not last for­ev­er. One rebel­lious child final­ly decides to chal­lenge his par­ents’ irra­tional behav­ior, con­vey­ing a mes­sage about the pow­er of the truth. More sen­si­tive read­ers may be fright­ened by some images of phys­i­cal pun­ish­ment and nasty pranks. Adults will appre­ci­ate the book’s clever com­bi­na­tion of com­ic book car­i­ca­ture and shtetl cul­ture as a vehi­cle to punc­ture sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty and applaud those who chal­lenge norms.

The Life of a Coat is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed both for chil­dren and for adults who are inter­est­ed in Yid­dish literature.

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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