Reviews /

Alte Zachen: Old Things

Authored by Ziggy Hanaor
Illustrated by Benjamin Phillips
Published by Cicada Books

Tagged , , , ,

Alte Zachen: This is a difficult picture book to forget. Not that you would want to, but books can occasionally slip into a different part of the brain whether we like it or not. Plot-wise, you may think this would be one of those. Grandmother (Bubbe) and grandson (Benji) go shopping for groceries around the Jewish corners of Brooklyn, New York.

However, woven within the everyday errands are Bubbe’s memories, which are triggered by the people they meet and places they go. From living in the shadow of Jewish persecution, emigrating to America, forming relationships, to lost loves. It’s a touching story of an intergenerational relationship where both learn from each other.

There are many layers to unpick. There’s the theme of Jewish identity, which Benji, and the reader, learn from Bubbe’s stories. But also, in the food they buy and the language used. 

The Holocaust became part of that identity for a countless number of people. For Bubbe, everyday things can cause her to think about that awful time. Perhaps the most powerful being her frustration of a stranger’s tattoos, which leads her to conjuring a striking image showing what tattoos mean to many Jewish people. But nestled in with the darker memories are moments of love and dancing. The illustrations of Bubbe’s memories are in more colourful tones. Initially, I assumed this represented happier times. But, I actually think it’s because they are of times when Bubbe felt she was part of the world. One she could understand.

Because she doesn’t understand the modern world as much as Benji, it’s down to him to apologise to those left in his grandmother’s wake. He also does a great job at explaining how society is changing, with eloquence and a lot of patience. I wonder if this is an inevitable part of getting older for everyone.

The title, Alte Zachen, means ‘old things’ and is sure to spark discussion. Yiddish is a melting pot of Hebrew and German, plus words from elsewhere, too. The glossary is great, but I just wish there was a pronunciation guide. This is a picture book for Y6 and above. Understanding the themes and layers of meaning will be too much to ask of some younger readers. But for those who are ready to learn about such themes, there’s an incredible amount to explore and talk about. 

I couldn’t finish without mentioning my favourite part. The Yiddish proverb prefaces the story. Although I really don’t want to spoil how a person’s heart is like a sausage for you.