The Carp in the Bathtub is the greatest work of children’s literature ever written about gefilte fish. Originally published in 1972, it tells the tale of a daring quest to rescue a fish before it is gefilted. Barbara Cohen’s story, set in 1930s Flatbush, is atmospheric and funny and deliciously illustrated by Joan Halpern in wavy-lined, stripe-y, pointillist, slightly psychedelic black-and-white style. The plot: Every year before Passover, Mama brings home a fresh carp to live in the tub for a week, so it will be extra-fresh and tasty when served at the Seder. One year, nine-year-old Leah and her brother Harry feel that this season’s carp is special: Friendlier and shinier and more bright-eyed than past carps. He even swims to the edge of the tub to visit the children whenever they enter the bathroom. Cohen writes: “Every time Harry or I had to go to the toilet, we would grab a crust of bread or a rusty lettuce leaf from the kitchen. While we sat on the toilet, we fed the bread or the lettuce leaf to the carp. This made going to the bathroom really fun, instead of just a waste of time.” So that’s great. The kids name the carp Joe and resolve to save it, hiding it temporarily in their recently widowed neighbor Mrs. Ginzburg’s tub. Alas, their father orders them to bring it back, despite their big “fish are friends, not food” pitch. “It’s your mother’s fish and it cost her a lot of money,” he tells them. They return the fish. Their mother kills it. This is a metaphor for the powerlessness of childhood. “We cried ourselves to sleep that night, and the next night too. Then we made ourselves stop crying. After that, we felt as if we were years older than Mama and Papa.” This is a good lesson! Sometimes life is unfair, and we have to suck it up, like a filter feeder! Thankfully, Papa understands the kids’ grief, and gets them a cat.
As it turns out, keeping a fish in a bathtub before eating it is a practice in any number of Eastern European cultures. The theory is that the fresh water helps flush mud out of the bottom-feeder’s digestive tract, making for tastier eating. Or maybe bathtub ichthyology is mere tradition, handed down from a time when refrigeration was rare and/or icebox space was limited. Who can say?
Animal rights groups in Europe today are fighting the carp in the bathtub tradition, calling it cruel. And parents today may fret about the only-semi-happy ending. (“Perhaps a different ending in support of vegetarianism or similar??” urged one Goodreads reviewer.) Maybe this is why the The Carp in the Bathtub went out of print a few years ago. Thankfully, it was republished by Kar-Ben in 2016; you should absolutely possess it, whether you have children or not. It is, however, worth noting that the greatest work of children’s literature ever written about gefilte fish does not actually involve eating gefilte fish.
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.