For years, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg has been regaling the children of New North London Synagogue with his tales of Shmendrick the mouse and his friend, Croc.
Now, others can enjoy the antics of the chocolate-loving rodent, with the arrival of Shmendrick and the Croc (Masorti Publications, £5.99), in which our hero takes us though the Jewish year and Jewish life, searching for meaning.
Shmendrick (the original puppet) arrived in a parcel from a good friend of Wittenberg’s, while he was living in Jerusalem and, since then, Shmendrick “has always been around”.
The stories came into their own when his children became interested. “It became a Friday-night feature at our table that we’d do a very short Shmendrick incident, either related to a festival or not related to anything in particular.”
From there, the adventures of Shmendrick travelled to children attending Gan Alon, NNLS’s nursery. Years later, when the synagogue began sending out weekly emails to the community, its rabbi began to write down the stories.
The writing of Shmendrick coincided with that of his adult work, The Silence of Dark Water, which examines the human life cycle, trying to make sense of belief and truth.
Wittenberg acknowledges that the children’s stories raise similar issues, albeit “from a Shmendrick point of view”. They carry “a kind of cheyn, a fun and grace to them… Shmendrick is naughty without being bad”, and this mood is complemented by Barbara Jackson’s illustrations.
Rabbi Wittenberg’s hope is that children will find Shmendrick “full of charm and that they can relate to some of his foibles”.
Shmendrick sometimes experiences inner tussles, such as when he wants to go on holiday and Tisha B’Av happens to fall at the same time.
Certain values are evident “in the sense that the characters are busy thinking of presents for others, about the lighting of candles and even have dreams about them”.
He says that these values are not necessarily overt or deliberate nor, he hopes, dogmatic. In fact, he feels there is a little bit of Shmendrick in many of us… Copies of the book can be bought from firstname.lastname@example.org