Photography © Alon Sigavi
1. The Peddler and the Baker is a lovely story with a moral and surprise at the end – do you remember when you first heard the story?
The Peddler and the Baker is a folktale with many versions, from Herodotus to Nasreddin Hodja, and is found in different cultures and times. I don’t really remember the first time I encountered it, but I have told and retold it many times before writing it down.
2. Have you seen other versions of the story? How do they differ from yours?
Folktales come from an oral tradition and change from one storyteller to the next, depending on his or her background, time and imagination. Sometimes the means can change – it could be a shadow instead of a sound, a young girl instead of a poor man – but these means are employed to the same end: the moral of the tale, served by the clever twist in the plot, and the good character having the upper hand at the end of the story.
3. Are any of the main characters based on anyone you know? Are they representations of people you have met? Or amalgamations? Or pure invention?
In folktales the protagonists usually come from a typical cast of characters – the rich, the poor, the wise. They are simple and functional and won’t usually be realistic or represent real people the author may know.
4. The book was originally published in Hebrew and the story focuses on a rabbi, a baker and someone who needs challah for Friday night and Shabbat – is this necessarily a Jewish story, or would it work equally well for other religions and rituals?
As I have already mentioned, it is an old tale, but I adapted and adopted it into the Jewish tradition. I read it as a tale about the precious but free things in our world. One of these precious gifts, and I am very proud it originated in the Jewish tradition, is Shabbat – the day of rest, that according to the well-known verse from Exodus is given to all, slaves and masters, people and animals. The theme of this folktale gave me an opportunity to present this humanistic idea to young readers. I therefore broadened the scope of the story a bit, not only smells and sounds but also what we call in Hebrew Oneg Shabbat – the pleasure of Shabbat – and when I retell the story I sometimes add other free gifts like friendship and nature.
5. The last pages of the book celebrate the magic of Shabbat – is that something you feel every week yourself?
Yes! I am not an observant Jew, but we have our traditional family meal every Friday night, a happy gathering that I hope we will always keep.
6. Do you think of this as a universal tale? Could it happen at any time, in any place?
Folktales usually happen in an unspecified period and place – once upon a time in a faraway land. I have kept this tradition in the text, but the illustrations are based on nineteenth-century Jerusalem and the rabbi-judge clearly indicates that it takes place in the Jewish community.
7. How many stories have you written? Can you say how long each takes?
I have three books published, but quite a few stories in my files and in my imagination as ideas and drafts. As I am also an editor, some of my story ideas make their way to the authors I work with. I think that story ideas come from the realm of birds; some of them grow wings, leave your nest and fly away, and some of them are eggs – you sit and sit on them for years, not always consciously, and then one day you start writing and they hatch.
8. What would be your dream project as an author?
My dream project is to have time and peace to write …
9. As a publisher and author, what advice would you give to aspiring children’s book illustrators or writers?
I can summarize it in two words repeated endlessly – read, read, read, write, write, write. Do both as much as you can. Keep a little notebook for your story ideas, always write them down when they occur. Reading is so important. Every reader and every author develops their taste, they learn what is their favourite genre – do they love fairy tales and legends, fantasy and science fiction, realistic or perhaps non-fiction books? Reading is like sharpening your creative tools: your language, your knowledge and your understanding of how stories develop.
10. For a Jewish folktale, do you think it’s important to have a Jewish author? (Similarly, for a Buddhist tale do you need a Buddhist author or illustrator?) Do you need an intrinsic understanding of the topic or can you research everything?
There is a lively discussion in the contemporary literary world about ‘own voices’: the question of whether only people from a certain group or culture can create characters and write stories that come from the same culture, or can outsiders do it as well? I think that the question itself undermines the very notion of literary talent and craft – the imagination of the author and his ability to create and recreate realities. Taken to an extreme, one could say that male authors cannot create women characters as they can’t experience being a woman, and adults cannot create young characters as they are now grown up and do not share the experience any longer. But recently I saw a Peppa Pig book about Hanukkah that made me think “Own Voices” may have a case!