Norton Juster

Kasha varnishkes, matzoh brie – The Phantom Tollbooth’s Secret Jewishness


Published 60 years ago, in 1961, The Phantom Tollbooth was a favourite book for many children of my generation. It follows the adventures of a boy named Milo. Permanently bored, he ignores the world around him. One day, out of nowhere, a mysterious package arrives. In it is a toy car and the tollbooth of the title. As he drives through it, the car magically transports Milo to a fantasy land full of numbers, words, puns, characters and other lessons.

What I didn’t know then was that the book has an underlying Jewish history. This is because its author, who has died aged 91, was Jewish and the book drew upon his heritage and upbringing.

Juster was born and grew up in the Jewish milieu of Brooklyn during the Great Depression, the son of Samuel, an architect, and Minnie (née Silberman), immigrants from Romania and Poland. I probably did not think Juster was Jewish because his name is the Old English term for ‘north settlement’.

Such a name was typically given by immigrant Jews to their sons to reinforce the sense they were all-American and that it would give them a step up. They soon learned, however, that such names were uncommon among native whites, not least because once they became common among Jews, other groups avoided them as ‘Jewish.’

Juster described himself as “different – sort of a nebbish kid” – and was raised in a house surrounded by books, the shelves groaning under the weight of thousand-page Yiddish and Russian novels in translation. “Every day was an adventure in semantic mayhem,” he said. “I just loved the language and the way the words sounded.”

One of the defining books of his childhood was I.J. Singer’s (brother of Isaac Bashevis Singer) The Brothers Ashkenazi when he was 11 or 12. “I didn’t understand a word of what I read, but I read it all the way through. I had never heard language used like this.” No doubt some of this found its way into The Phantom Tollbooth.

He also savoured the taste of his mother’s kasha varnishkes, and this penchant for Jewish cuisine stayed with him. Later in life, he said, “I define myself as a culinary Jew. I am a great cook. One of my favourite breakfasts is matzoh brei. I take great pleasure in making chicken soup.”

After studying architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in 1952, he served in the Navy. While stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he met Jules Feiffer, the Jewish cartoonist for the Village Voice and brilliant social anatomist who would later illustrate The Phantom Tollbooth. He went on to study city planning at the University of Liverpool as a Fulbright Scholar and was working for a firm of architects when he wrote the book. In 1964 Juster married graphic designer Jeanne Ray.

The book is generously peppered with wit and wordplay inspired by his father Samuel’s love of puns and the Marx Brothers, whose films were a childhood staple. His father would quote lengthy passages from them.

As a child, I learned many new big words and idioms from Juster. Some real, some invented: Digitopolis, Dictionopolis, Mathemagician, the Doldrums, Dodecahedron. It was like reading Mad magazine or listening to one’s mother: one never knew until one got older if the Yiddish words were real or made up.

Several of the events in the book draw upon Juster’s life experiences, as well as those of Jule Feiffer. The Whether Man’s maxim: “Expect everything, I always say, and the unexpected never happens”, for example, was a favourite saying of the cartoonist’s mother.

The Phantom Tollbooth was clearly a product of its time, of that atmosphere of New York City in the early ‘60s that nurtured Lenny Bruce, the Beats, Mad Magazine, Maurice Sendak, and other staples of the counterculture.

The names in the book suggest the mordant humour of Mad: Short Shrift, Faintly Macabre, The Humbug. They also echo those of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (published in English in 1958) and a cause celébre by the early ‘60s, as well as Jewish author Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel, Catch-22. Certainly, the seemingly bland name of Milo matches that of Heller’s First Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder.

Its imagining of an alternative parallel universe might well have been inspired by an acid trip. On that note, did it influence Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey? The titular tollbooth suddenly appears in Milo’s life much as monolith did in that other masterpiece. Their job is the same: to educate and to enlighten.

In inventing a fantastical world to escape from boredom, Juster may well have absorbed some Yiddishkeit into his book. Milo has a name that sounds suspiciously like the Hebrew term for word: Milah. The character of King Azaz sounds like he has come straight out of the Bible, as does the “Sea of Knowledge”, which echoes Isaiah’s description: “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” After all, what is the Talmud but a “sea of knowledge”?

A Jewish editor at Random House, Jason Epstein, discovered the book and published it. The movie adaptation in 1970, was full of Jewish creative voices, including director Abe Levitow, writer Sam Rosen, and the voice of Mel Blanc.

Juster continued to work as an architect despite his book’s massive success. He went on to write others, including, The Dot and the Line: A Romance In Lower Mathematics, Otter Nonsense (1982), Alberic the Wise (1965), As Silly As Knees, As Busy As Bees (1989), its sequel, Sourpuss and Sweetiepie (2008) and The Odious Ogre, ( with Jules Feiffer). None achieved the Tollbooth fame.

Its 50th anniversary edition 2011), included an appreciation by Maurice Sendak and a celebration from Michael Chabon. No doubt it has influenced another generation of Jewish writers and let’s hope it continues to do so. Norton Juster is survived by his daughter Emily and a granddaughter. Jeanne predeceased him in 2018.


Norton Juster: born June 2, 1929. Died March 8, 2021

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive