Girls Just Want to Learn
Book reviewed: Raisel’s Riddle – Erica Silverman and Susan Gaber, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999
Raisel’s Riddle is often described as a “Jewish Cinderella” tale, and it is, in that the heroine is a poor and oppressed girl who becomes the unlikely choice of wife for a man of much more elevated status. In this case he is not a prince, but a rabbi’s son, and Raisel attracts his attention not through physical beauty or charm, but intelligence.
The story also takes place around the Jewish holiday of Purim, coming up this year on March 1, and the 14th of the Jewish month of Adar. Erica Silverman is a prolific author of picture books, several with Jewish themes, and also of the successful beginning reader series’, Cowgirl Kate and Lana’s World. Raisel’s Riddle is out-of-print, which seems inexplicable considering its incredibly timely message of female empowerment.
Raisel grows up in a village in Poland, or shtetl; Susan Gaber’s pictures are dream-like and reminiscent of folklore, but the characters’ clothing place the story in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. She observes her grandfather devoting his days to religious study, and one day she declares to him, “Zaydeh…I want to study, too.” After his death, she is forced to seek work as a maid, and enters the household of a distinguished rabbi. Unfortunately, the household cook becomes the proverbial wicked stepmother, forcing Raisel to spend the hours that she had previously devoted to learning sacred texts on exhausting chores. When Raisel catches the sympathetic eye of the rabbi’s son, the cook reprimands her harshly.
Then comes the Purim celebration, in which participants may dress in costumes, specifically as characters from the biblical Book of Esther. Esther is heartbroken at not being allowed to participate, but a kind old woman grants her three wishes. Eventually she is not only the biblical queen who saves her people from destruction, but the fortunate girl who proves her worth to the rabbi by answering a riddle about the profound and lasting value of learning. No glass slipper needed, she is now a rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife). It is made clear that their marriage will be based on true partnership: “The lived and learned happily ever after.”
The book is both timeless and unavoidably current. In traditional Jewish culture, the study of religious texts, including the legal texts and biblical commentary of the Talmud, was restricted to men. In some communities today, that is still the case, while in others Jewish women has successfully fought for their rights as the intellectual equals of men. The book’s setting in the holiday of Purim grants it a specific dimension of rewriting the past. While Queen Esther was a heroine of the Jewish people, only by assuming the role of a beautiful and subservient wife to clueless Persian king Ahasuerus was she able to reveal her incredible bravery. Raisel, on the other hand, finds a partner who is her equal and who values the same qualities of intelligence and intellectual curiosity that her beloved grandfather had rewarded. Silverman’s choices within this folktale are significant. By assigning the wicked role to the cook in the rabbi’s household, she minimizes the class differences within the village.
It is not the rabbi’s wife who denigrates her, but a fellow servant. Gaber’s pictures are varied in their approach to telling the story. Some depict the characters as more generic figures with minimally drawn features and colors which blend into the background, but others, particularly of Raisel herself crowned as Queen Esther at the Purim celebration, show richly drawn wavy black hair, striking blue eyes and full lips, evoking photographs of the lost world of Eastern European Jewish life.
If you can find this book, please share it with your children, especially as Purim approaches. If you are not Jewish, but you would like to present a story about the rewards of intelligence and the value of wisdom for young women, Raisel’s Riddle may redefine Cinderella for your children.