A Basket Full of Figs-Retold by Ori Elon, illustrated by Menahem Halberstadt, translated from the Hebrew by Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann, Green Bean Books, 2020
Everyone knows that we don’t always act strictly according to our own personal interests, right? As many of our political leaders are now adrift in a sea of their own narrowly defined needs, Green Bean Books’ new take on an ancient source of wisdom is definitely welcome. In an often-told Jewish folktale, eventually recorded in the Talmud, a very old man plants a fig tree, only to be taunted by a mighty Roman emperor for the pointlessness of his efforts. The great leader is too egocentric to understand the motivation for the old man’s selfless act, but the tree planter patiently explains it to him. Even though he is too old to see the results of his efforts, his descendants will enjoy the fruits of his labor: “Well, if I don’t, then my children will.” In Ori Elon’s poetic and accessible version of this story for children, with beautifully appealing pictures by Menahem Halberstadt, the tale’s lesson takes on a new and vivid form.
The book opens with an image of the emperor as overweening power, sitting on his horse with huge limbs and outsized chest puffed up with pride. To emphasize the disproportionate nature of his authority, he is riding through a poor village, where a goat tethered to a rooftop is munching a plant right below the emperor on tour. Throughout the book, the disparity in stature between the old man and the emperor seems almost comic; by the story’s end, children will understand who is the greater man. When his tree does produce a huge basket of figs, the man and his basket fill most of a page, defying the emperor’s belittling presence.
Elon’s carefully chosen words convey the message as persuasively as the Halberstadt’s pictures. The old man plants his fig tree “gently,” while the emperor’s response is as overwhelming as his body. He is “astonished,” because “the tree is so small.” He rides into town “astride his great horse,” and he addresses the old man with utter insensitivity: “Surely you won’t live long enough to eat its fruit!” The old man, in contrast, is attuned to the world’s beauty in all its many forms. He remembers clearly that the world of his birth had been full of trees: “There were fig, pomegranate, mulberry and date trees, all offering cool shade and delicious fruit.” His ode to the natural world appears on a two-page spread featuring children, themselves as different in appearance as the trees he remembers, perching on the different trees and enjoying their fruit just as the old man remembers and hopes for the future.
The delicate lines and subtle earth tones of Halberstadt’s pictures invite caregivers and children to read this book together. When Elon summarizes the enduring strength of the old man’s philosophy, we can only hope it is still true today:
The emperor rides on.
And the old. man, who was once a small boy
resting in this very spot,
lies in the shade of the fig tree.
He looks at the trees all around him and
sees so many gifts, one after another, after another.