Oct 29, 2010

Based on a True Story

We were recently contacted by Gary Bart, the great-nephew of Zishe the Strongman. (Zishe’s real name was Ziegmund Breitbart; Gary’s father shortened the last name to Bart.) Gary lives in Los Angeles and collects stories and memorabilia about his great-uncle. He was kind enough to share this true story about the legendary Strongman. Thank you for sharing your story with us, Gary! For more about Zishe, check out our new book Zishe the Strongman!

My great-uncle Zishe actually lifted an elephant! This sensational story was published in many newspapers in NY in 1923. Zishe had a lot of imitators who tried to copy his great acts of strength. The most famous of these imitators was Eric Hanussen who had quite a unique idea. On a great stage, he would hypnotize a young woman and tell the audience that his hypnotism was so powerful that he could give this girl magical powers of strength to be even stronger than Zishe!

Here's what happened. There was a large cage with a baby elephant inside. Hanussen would hypnotize the girl and then she would climb a ladder to get on top of the cage and would strap herself to heavy ropes that went thru a large set of pulleys. With the starps on her shoulders she kneeled down and then slowly lifted herself up. As she did this the elephant would be lifted slighty off the ground. The crowd applauded with amazement.

Zishe was very suspicious, how can such a young girl lift an elephant? At her performance the following night, Zishe was in the front row with an engineer friend. Just as she was about to climb the elephant cage, the engineer ran up on stage and climbed the ladder and took the rope off of all the pulleys and shouted, “Let’s see if you can lift this elephant without the help of all these pulleys!” The girl became very nervous and tried and tried but of course she couldn’t even budge the elephant. The crowd became very angry and shouted “Fake, fake, fake.”

When Zishe walked onto the stage the audience grew silent to see the real strongman. Zishe spoke to the crowd, “If I honestly lift the elephant, will you be satisfied?” “YES” roared the crowd. Zishe opened the cage, and brought the elephant onto the stage. He took the heavy rope and asked for a ladder from backstage. Zishe tied the rope several times around the elephant and slowly climbed the ladder. Could Zishe really lift such a heavy animal all by himself? Standing on the ladder he pulled and pulled until his face turned blue and with every ounce of strength in him the elephant was lifted off the floor. The crowd went wild with enthusiasm, and many people ran onto the stage and carried Zishe off on their shoulders.

Oct 14, 2010

The Purpose of Picture Books

Despite last week’s prediction by the New York Times, the demise of the picture book is not yet upon us. At least not children’s picture books with Jewish themes! So many Jewish families continue to turn to picture books to learn about our religion, heritage and place in the world. A story like Engineer Ari and the Sukkah Express will likely have pictures of a lulav and etrog; Rosh Hashanah stories like The Secret Shofar of Barcelona may feature a shofar. A Hanukkah story may feature a menorah or dreidel and show how families and groups use them in their celebrations. Without pictures, these stories would be accessible only to children and families who know what these items are and are already familiar with them. Picture books continue to open new worlds to both children and parents, especially those dealing with the rich diversity of the Jewish experience.

Illustrations can add subtlety to the story experience and can teach important lessons beyond the words of the tale. An illustration of a seder that just happens to includes two men with a child in a highchair between them, a main character who is portrayed wearing glasses and is still the most popular in the class (no mention of the glasses in the narrative), a synagogue scene with multi-cultural faces, or an illustration of a classroom that happens to include a child in a wheelchair are subtleties that might make an important statement or create a teachable moment. Without art, these subtleties would all be lost.

While chapter books are wonderful and have a purpose in a child's reading progress, sometimes it’s only through a picture book that a child can come to truly understand a story. Certainly some parents will continue to push their preschoolers to read chapter books in the race to succeed, but those parents are doing their children a disservice, depriving them of some rich cultural learning experiences.

Artwork from Abraham's Search for God, illustrated by Natascia Ugliano.