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?
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.