The Best Things in Life are Free

The Peddler and the Baker – by Yael Molchadsky, illustrated by Liora Grossman, Green Bean Books, 2020

When you open the cover of The Peddler and the Baker, you will find there, and on the next two pages, softly colored two-tone images of baking utensils.  This lovely picture book is not actually about baking, but the carefully placed cutting boards, sieves, measuring spoons and rolling pins whet your appetite for the story. (The back matter does include a wonderful recipe for challah.)

Children enter a timeless walled city in the Middle East where camels and wagons serve as transportation and familiar Jewish character types ply their trades: peddler, baker, rabbi.  Yael Molchadsky‘s convincing and accessible text, along with Liora Grossman’s evocative pictures, set the book apart as an appealing new version for young readers of a core lesson from Pirke Avot/Ethics of the Fathers: the rich person is one who is contented with what he has.

Everyone, including children, knows how good baked goods smell, so readers will instantly identify with the humble peddler who is thrilled upon waking just to catch the scents from the nearby bakery. While they might be more confused as to why a man who is so poor that he can barely support himself, Molchadsky’s words are compelling: “Hurray for a new day and for the delicious smell that floats my way.”  If the peddler is a man so enchanted by the ability to find happiness through the use of his senses, his neighbor the baker is the opposite.  Obsessed with material gain and certain that his labor entitles him to charge a fee for the very air the peddler breathes, kids will recognize him for what he is: a selfish bully.  The false dichotomy which he constructs will be familiar to any child who has ever been on the wrong end of such a person’s power: “Get your nose away from that window! I work hard to knead the dough…You just stand there and enjoy my work for free!”

Then there’s the rabbi. At first, when he sentences the poor peddler to work extra hard in order to resolve the issue with the baker, readers may wonder about this man’s qualifications as clergy. Looking around his office, there are some good signs.  His shelves are almost collapsing with books, and he requires a cane in order to walk.  Two small children lean from a staircase to listen to the rabbi’s plan; although the rabbi might not notice them, his benign expression implies tolerance of the vulnerable.  Grossman’s depiction of the baker and peddler deferring to the rabbi’s authority is a study in contrast and kids will not miss her point.  While the baker is a large man, the peddler is thin and delicate.  The baker wears a scowl on his face and his hands are place on his hips is anger.  The peddler bends his head in humility and clasps his hands together behind his back.  Justice will clearly prevail and, when it does, readers will feel relief and assurance that the world works as it should.

To depict the wonders of Shabbat, Grossman switches to a color palette of violet, blue and pink, a world of unlimited happiness and social justice, affirmed in the rabbi’s words: “Many wonderful things are given in this world for free…Soon it will be Shabbat – a day of rest. This special day was also given to us…young and old, rich and poor, man and animal alike.”  That should be enough to put the baker in his place, and the dénouement, showing a peaceful city bathed in the light of Shabbat candles, is a vision of social equality for readers young and old. 

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