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K’tonton Time

The vintage children’s book about a Jewish Tom Thumb still speaks to today’s kids

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Maxie, my 5-year-old, is obsessed with K’tonton. You remember K’tonton, the “Jewish thumbling” who takes a ride on a chopping knife and wishes he hadn’t, who goes to synagogue and swings on a lulav, who takes a ride on a runaway dreidl? Even though the first K’tonton story was published in 1930, Maxie finds Sadie Rose Weilerstein’s tales about the Hebraic Tom Thumb to be as resonant and hilarious as this afternoon’s episode of Phineas and Ferb.

Maxie’s favorite bedtime reading is The Best of K’tonton, a compilation of 16 (not-so-) tall tales from three early K’tonton books: The Adventures of K’tonton, K’tonton in Israel, and K’tonton on an Island in the Sea. All are out of print, but there are lots of affordable used copies of the compilation (published in 1988) floating around the Internet.

For Maxie, K’tonton has just the right amount of scary. Our hero decides to ride the knife like a bucking bronco while his mother is chopping fish for Shabbat, then winds up falling off and having to dodge the flashing silver knife while throwing himself desperately around the bowl of raw fish bits. (Of course, his mother finally sees him, picks him up with two fingers and rinses him under the kitchen faucet. She doesn’t even get mad!) He gets accidentally folded inside a hamantashen, but he winds up cheering up a sad little boy on Purim. On Rosh Hashanah, he knocks over a cup of honey and lets a stray kitten take the blame, then he tells the truth on Yom Kippur. (The kitten forgives him.) He gets shipwrecked on a deserted island, but he befriends all the animals and eventually returns to civilization on a seaweed raft.

K’tonton is small and seemingly powerless—a stand-in for 5-year-olds everywhere—but the little guy has agency. He gets out of every scrape; he does mitzvot; he sees the world. He takes huge risks, like shinnying up a giant lulav and stowing away in a carry-on on a trip to Israel, but everything always comes out OK. What could be more enticing to a young reader?

Furthermore, K’tonton is the story of a desperately wanted child, an ancient and beautiful theme—think of the number of fairy tales that address this primal need, from Abraham and Sarah onward. The Best of K’tonton opens with a magical old woman granting K’tonton’s mother’s fondest wish: “Ah, that I might have a child! I shouldn’t mind if he were no bigger than a thumb.” What child wouldn’t like to imagine her own parents wanting her so much? Only the most cynical adult would point out that the magical old woman didn’t have to be so literal in her wish-granting. An etrog box becomes K’tonton’s cradle; his parents never for a moment wish he were bigger. All the descriptions of K’tonton’s wee shirts and suits and snacks are like crack to Maxie, given children’s love of tiny things. K’tonton is Polly Pocket in itsy-bitsy tzitzis. And I think the stories address children’s own, perhaps unexamined, ambivalence about getting big.

Of course, American-Jewish stories are often rife with another kind of ambivalence: the tension of being both Jewish and American. The K’tonton stories resolve that tension in a wholly happy way. “On the one hand, K’tonton is ritually observant, a good little Jewish boy,” pointed out Jonathan Krasner, assistant professor of the American Jewish Experience at Hebrew Union College. “But he’s also completely acculturated. In the 1930s American Jews were eager to present themselves as Americans and to minimize the differences between them and their compatriots. And in the illustrations, K’tonton looks American. He’s a fun-loving, spunky, energetic, curious kid who gets in trouble. He’s not a stereotype of a kid in cheder bent over his books. He reflects a more American ideal of what a kid is. Weilerstein managed to create a perfect synthesis.”

Krasner told Weilerstein’s fascinating personal history in “Sadie Rose Weilerstein through the Looking Glass: K’tonton and the American Jewish Zeitgeist,” an essay in The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education, 1910-1965 (which was edited by one Carol K. Ingall, my mother, who introduced me to K’tonton in the 1970s). Weilerstein was born in 1894 in Rochester, New York, the daughter of intellectual Jewish émigrés from Lithuania. As a child, she and her sisters would act out scenes from Little Women while washing the dishes. The girls were encouraged to go to college, which wasn’t common in that era. Weilerstein became an early feminist, working for women’s suffrage alongside Susan B. Anthony. She graduated from the University of Rochester in 1917, taught English for a few years at the Rochester School for the Deaf, then married a young Conservative rabbi and moved to Brooklyn.

At first she wrote stories only for her children. But her mother, behaving like the stereotype of a Jewish mother, marched a handful of her daughter’s stories over to the New York Public Library, demanding to know if they were any good. A Jewish librarian there directed her to Bloch, an educational Jewish publishing house that wound up putting out Weilerstein’s first book, What Danny Did, in 1928. Outlook, the National Women’s League of United Synagogue’s magazine, published the first K’tonton story in 1930.

Weilerstein’s work was immediately a hit. As a writer, she was conscious of how to make a story fun. She used lots of onomatopoeia and repetition and didn’t offer dry-as-dust moral lectures. Until she came along, there were very few Jewish children’s books, and those that existed were hectoring and syrupy.

“They were all about obedience and knowing your place and being patient and having self-control,” Krasner said. (The Jews were hardly alone in seeing children’s literature as an opportunity for paginated finger-wagging. Early British and American children’s books were also drearily didactic, as the childen’s book expert Leonard S. Marcus points out in his seminal history of children’s literature, Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature.)

Henrietta Szold, the pioneering Zionist and founder of Hadassah, praised Weilerstein’s work in a 1936 letter: “There is no writing down to what is erroneously in my opinion considered a child’s comprehension of language. The simplicity of the style is attractive to the grown-up as I am sure it must be to the child reader.”

K’tonton’s lightness and brightness was inspired by earlier, darker tales. Weilerstein didn’t draw just from Tom Thumb and Thumbelina, but also from S. Y. Agnon’s The Story of Rabbi Gadiel the Baby, about a miniature medieval rabbi who saves Jews from a blood libel. Weilerstein’s 5-year-old son overheard her and her husband discussing the story and asked what they were talking about. Weilerstein, preferring not to share the details of vampiric murder accusations and pogroms with her small child, wound up spinning the tale into K’tonton. (Weilerstein’s husband named the character—the name literally means “very little.”)

When Maxie and I cuddle and read The Best of K’tonton, Josie rolls her eyes. At 8, she finds the stories preachy and unsophisticated. But the stand-alone micro-chapters, the black-and-white morals, and the just-suspenseful-enough qualities of the tales keep Maxie on the edge of her seat. Eventually she’ll outgrow these tales too. Jonathan, my husband, tells me his grandmother used to read K’tonton to him. Isn’t it clear that values and culture aren’t transmitted only through ritual and religious practice, but also through stories? Could there be a more joyful means of transmission?

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Thanks for sharing some of K’tonton’s history. My 5th grade students still enjoy Ktonton, and when the abbreviated calendar this year left me with only a couple of days to discuss teshuvah before Rosh Hashanah, I couldn’t think of a better example of repentance and the need to fix one’s mistakes with the person who has been wronged before asking God for forgiveness than the story of K’tonton and the kitten. And how K’tonton prayed for rain may be the only Shemini Atzeret story in Jewish literature, and certainly a more powerful way of explaining Shemini Atzeret to my students than saying “On Shemini Atzeret we pray for rain.” While I occasionally modernize some of the language, I think K’tonton still speaks beautifully to today’s kids.

Linda Silver says:

I’m so happy to hear that children still like K’tonton and that parents and teachers are still reading it to them. The Adventures of K’tonton is a major milestone in the writing of books for Jewish kids in America. It is the first modern children’s book of Jewish content, replacing the more somber and didactic earlier stories with fun and high spirits. I’ve written about Weilerstein and K’tonton for a while now and I’m glad to see that he’s simply not a relic of the past. THE BEST OF K’tonton is the best way to introduce kids to the stories and a few of the tales that were made into individual books, like K’TONTON’S YOM KIPPUR KITTEN, are also good.

I remember checking K’tonton books out of my synagogue library (aw, synagogue libraries. sigh.). I will definitely go on the hunt for him again. Thanks, Marjorie.

Jay A Friedman says:

Only Ktonton??? — What about “What the Moon Brought” and “Little Blue Angel”?

On Yom Kippur, I still remember Ruth and Debbie saying to each other “I’m Sorry” after they fought over a “one-two-three -O’Leary”

Thank you for bringing back such fond memories of K’tonton. Now I have to rummage through my old books and see if I can find my copy for my grandchildren.

Sadie Rose Weilerstein was a beautiful woman inside and out. She lived in Atlantic City with her husband Rabbi Weilerstein. She wrote several books and my children, nieces and newphew all loved her books.
My daughter found this article and put it on her Facebook. She was a great fan and remembers meeting her.

I was delighted to read this article about K’tonton and its wonderful creator, Sadie Rose Weilerstein. I LOVED What the Moon Brought and Little New Angel, and I’ve given my copies to our grandchildren. As for the K’tonton books, What Danny Did, and the marvelous collection of Mother Goose Rhymes for Jewish Children, I’ve no idea what became of them. Are any of her books still in print? I hope so. They were and are the best Jewish children’s books ever written. I love Mrs. Weilerstein’s writing style, her knowledge of child psychology, and her creativity in incorporating Jewish themes and holidays into her tales –along with some Americana. I will never forget learning about George Washington Carver from her book or reading about the Pitcher family of Passover dishes leaving their cabinet after the holiday to play out their lives in Israel (Palestine in her books), going back to the village of Hagaddah and meeting its residents before returning to Ruth and Debby’s cabinet in time for the following Pesach. Nor can I forget Ruth’s and Debby’s resolution of their Yom Kippur struggles over watching their baby brother, Michael. When Michael wraps his chubby fingers around his sister’s hand, all is forgiven. What memories! What a wonderful storyteller!

A 5 year-old obsessed with “The Adventures of K’tonton”? I am now in the second half of my 8th decade, and the obsession goes on. Was I 5 or 6 or maybe 7 when I took it out of the school library? That I don’t remember. I do remember absolutely loving the story…but I don’t remember returning the book. For years, uncertainty of the fate of my copy of that special book plagued the back of my mind, sometimes wondering whether I would be caught and punished, later wondering how great the accumulated fine would be. After 25 or 30 years I had a personal analysis, became a psychoanalyst myself, and learned a great deal about childhood guilt. Oedipal-schmoedipal causes- the real reason I felt guilt over that book was because I knew how much the story delighted me, how much I really had wanted to keep the book.
The book was age appropriate…and WONDERFUL!

So many of the best children’s books are out of print. Thanks, Marjorie, for letting us know about this one. I gotta get it for my little twins. I see that some of the later editions available on the ‘net are different than the beautiful one pictured with the article — has the vintage artwork from the original been replaced? With anything good? Thanks again — I follow you avidly.

HEDVAH LANG SHUCHMAN says:

My mother, Rebecca Lang, was instrumental in getting the Womens League to publish the first K’tonton book. My mother and Mrs. Weilerstein were both Conservative Rabbis’ wives hence they turned to the Women’s League which was the Conservative movement’s women’s organization, when the commercial publishers weren’t interested in the book. I grew up with K’tonton and I loved the original illustrations. I have shared them with my children and their children. It was wonderful to read about the books and I too hope that they will remain in print.

Thank you for explaining exactly why I loved K’tonton 50 years ago and why I smiled so broadly to see this article. I have many warm memories of curling up with my dad, who recently passed away, who read me these and many other wonderful books. Thanks, Marjorie.

Liba Kornfeld says:

Sadie Rose Weilerstein was my grandfather’s first cousin. I have copies of many of her books signed to me from my “cousin K’tonton”. So happy to see this article here on Tablet.

I loved this book — as well as “What the Moon Brought…” The illustrations were charming, and the stories gently conveyed important lessons. Thanks for giving us the history.

My five year old daughter cried when we returned “What the Moon Brought” to the library. With empathetic characters, fun plots and lots of information, what’s not to love? Thanks for reminding me I need to get a used copy from Amazon…

Very nice post. I’ve add it to my favourite.

I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great. I don’t know who you are but certainly you are going to a famous blogger if you are not already ;) Cheers!

I’ve said that least 4152729 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

Thank you for another wonderful article. Where else could anyone get that kind of information in like a perfect way of presentation.

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K’tonton Time

The vintage children’s book about a Jewish Tom Thumb still speaks to today’s kids

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