|Pictures by Susan Gaber|
Once upon a time, "in a village in Poland, there lived an orphan girl named Raisel. She was raised by her grandfather, a poor soul who studied day and night." He was such a learned man that whenever there was a quarrel over a horse, or a family needed help to sort out problems, the people turned to him. They "paid him when they could with cheese or bread or wood for the fire." That is how Grandfather kept the wolf from the door, away from him and his grandchild. All throughout the years when she was very small, and then not quite so small, and then of a medium size and age, she watched her grandfather reading and writing. She observed him as he reflected and negotiated, explained and reasoned with the neighbors. And one day, she asked him why he spent so many of his hours in study. He answered, "Why indeed! It is written that learning is more precious than rubies, more lasting than gold. Rubies may be lost, and gold stolen, but that which you learn is yours forever." Soon after that day, Raisel began her studies. Many times she and her beloved grandfather studied together, deep into the darkness of night. And then, one awful winter, her Zaydeh "breathed his last breath." People did what they could, which was not much. And Raisel left the village in the morning. She went to town, and found the richest side of it. Then she went door to door, asking for work to keep a roof over her head. But no one would take her in. Raisel walked to the last house, the one just past the synagogue. A mean looking woman yanked the door open and said, "The poor house is down the street." As Raisel pleaded for shelter, the cook bragged that this was the home of "a most distinguished rabbi". She was this man's cook, and there was no need for dirty scullions. That is when the rabbi walked in, and seeing the shivering girl, said," Surely you could use some help?" So the cook had to take her in. In the morning, she ordered Raisel to fill a huge tub to do the wash. But when the girl could not do it fast enough, this cruel woman kicked it over. Water drenched Raisel, and she had to fill the tub again. She slept on the floor behind the fireplace. In the morning, the cook ordered her to "Scrub the hearth until it sparkles." So she did, else she knew that she would find herself back on the streets. The months passed, and soon, Purim came. This holiday might have been so much fun — families celebrated with feasting and costumes. But Raisel just had the hard work of it. It happened one day that she carried a heavy burden of firewood, which blocked her sight. Suddenly — CRASH! — she and her logs tumbled to the ground. Then she heard a nice-sounding voice. It said, "I'm so sorry. Silly of me to read and walk at the same time." It was the rabbi's own son, and he stooped to gather the wood. That's when the cook yelled for her to get inside, scolding her. "I saw you talking sweetly to the rabbi's son, trying to win favor in the household. From now on, keep to yourself, or things will go badly for you." And that is what Raisel tried to do. She labored over the cooking, "beet soup, roast duck, potato pancakes, and noodle pudding." As she carried it out to the guests she heard them riddling. "What has a face but no mouth?" asked one man. "A clock!' answered another. Just then, the rabbi's son saw Raisel and smiled. Now the cook yanked her back into the kitchen, threatening to lock her in the pantry. When Raisel sighed aloud as she was washing dishes, and said she wished that she could go to the Purim Play, the cook sneered, "In your costume of rags?" So Raisel ate scraps from the plates for her dinner, and bent to her task. After awhile, she found a whole roll and slice of meat. She quickly took these outside the back door, hungrily preparing to eat them. That's when "an old beggar woman hobbled toward her. 'I can see that you are hungry.' Raisel said. She gave the woman the roll, and the meat. The old woman smiled and said. "Because of your kind heart, I grant you three wishes." But the magic would not last past midnight, she warned. So Raisel wished once. "I wish...I wish for a Purim cosume!' Suddenly, she felt different. Opening her eyes, she gasped. 'I am dressed as Queen Esther!" She spun in a dance, and wished again. "I wish for a horse drawn wagon." One appeared, and she climbed in. When she entered the party, everyone cheered, and told her that she was the most beautiful queen ever. "It is a pity there are no prizes tonight." said the rabbi's son. "Raisel blushed. 'It is only a costume. As it is written,'Look not at the flask, but at what it contains." And the young man asked her how she could know this verse from the Talmud. When she told him that it was her grandfather who had taught her. he wanted to know more. But the girl would say no more of her village. To change the subject, she told him a riddle. "What's more precious than rubies, more lasting than gold? What can never be traded, stolen, or sold? What comes with great effort and takes time but then — once yours, will serve you again and again." That is when the clock began to toll the midnight hour. Raisel bolted away, and jumped into her wagon, which "clattered down the cobblestone streets". She dashed into the kitchen, and found herself in rags. That's when she saw the pile of dirty dishes! Cook would beat her if they were there in the morning...and then she remembered that she still had one more wish! "Bong! The kitchen was clean!" In the morning, cook ordered her to prepare for another feast, then locked her in the pantry for being impertinent with the guests the night before. Raisel said not a word, but did all of her tasks as best she could. But she could still peek out the keyhole. As the feasting began in the other room, she heard the rabbi say, "Last night, a girl told my son a riddle that showed rare intelligence. This is the girl my son wants to marry. She must be found." And all of the young ladies present called out their best riddles. "Come hear my rhyme: Now what is over my head but under my hat?" But the rabbi's son knew the answer was hair, and that it was not the riddle he remembered. He told his father that the one he remembered was "about something precious and lasting". And now Raisel "banged on the door with all her might. The rabbi's son hurried into the kitchen. 'What was that noise?' The cook shrugged. 'Just the rag girl. She's cleaning the pantry." But Raisel called out to the rabbi's son, and said, "I told you a riddle." The cook denied that it could be so, but "I would hear her riddle." said the rabbi's son. " Then he unlocked the pantry door. "Raisel stepped forward. 'What's more precious than rubies, more lasting than gold? What can never be traded, stolen, or sold? " And the rabbi's son finished saying the riddle with her. He knew he had found the smartest girl around, and he wanted to make her his wife. He asked if she would marry him, and she answered, "Only if you can answer my riddle.' He smiled. 'The answer is learning." So they were married, and "they lived happily and learned happily ever after."
From Raisel's Riddle, (1999) Silverman, E. and Gaber, S. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Raisel's Riddle (Sunburst Book) Notes: This is a wonderful story of a girl helping herself, and being respected in the end.
Montessori Connection: Fundamental Needs of People/Spiritual Needs/Religion/Megillat Esther/The Scroll of Esther
1. Read this story, and note that it is about Jewish people in Poland. For older children: Child of the Warsaw Ghetto or Did the Children Cry?: Hitler's War Against Jewish and Polish Children, 1939-1945 or
2. Find the story of Queen Esther in the Bible, or a children's bible.The Story of Queen Esther or Queen Esther Helps God's People: Formerly titled Esther and the King (I Can Read! / Beginner's Bible, The)
3. Learn more about the Jews of Poland. For older children: The Champion of Children: The Story of Janusz Korczak or The True Story of Hansel and Gretel: A Novel of War and Survival