Gingerbread man gets Passover makeover

Just in time for Passover, here comes “The Matzo Ball Boy,” author Lisa Shulman’s Old Country Jewish riff on the traditional runaway cookie tale.

In thematically related elementary school reading units of the near future, Shulman’s latest contribution to kiddy lit is sure to take its place with Jon Scieszcka’s “The Stinky Cheese Man” and Eric Kimmel’s “The Runaway Tortilla.”

Shulman’s new book, with funny, folksy illustrations by Rosanne Litzinger, radiates the wry Jewish humor of a Catskills comedy show for kids and the grown-ups who love them. When the matzah ball boy pops out of a steaming vat of chicken soup and rudely vamooses from his foster grandma’s home, he leaves “smears of schmaltz … on her freshly mopped kitchen floor. Not that she minded a little work, but would it hurt him to wipe his feet?”

The scrappy little matzah ball boy is shaped like a miniature snowman made of salty, eggy matzah meal dough. He’s got snappy little peppercorn eyes and buttons, a wisecracking celery mouth and a cute little carrot slice nose. The creation of a lonely bubbe whose ungrateful grown children can’t be bothered to spend Passover with her, the boy is not so much born as poached in the old lady’s holiday pot of chicken broth. His pugnacious personality reveals itself immediately: “The matzo ball boy puffed out his soft little chest. ‘Boy-shmoy. I’m the matzo ball man, bubbe, and I’m off to see the world.'” (He asserts his manhood just in time for his new moniker to rhyme with “run, run, as fast as you can.”)

Dedicated to Shulman’s own two grandmas, Rose and Ruth, his tale even takes place in an Anatevka-esque Eastern European shtetl. The story is peopled with a yenta, a tailor and a rabbi in fringed tallit and streimel (Orthodox-style fur hat). A la “The Gingerbread Man,” these villagers join the matzah ball boy’s bubbe in a growing parade of pursuers.

Like his cookie counterpart, the matzah ball boy meets a wily, hungry fox who offers to ferry the escapee across a river. “‘Ha! You must think I’m a real schlemiel!'” the boy retorts. He wasn’t born yesterday — well, he was born today, but anyway, he’s no gingerbread boy. In fact, his experience in bubbe’s hot soup pot makes the river seem like “‘a refreshing change.'”

Shulman’s tale has a deliciously dark — and not at all sappy — ending. For ultimately, our globular little hero goes the way of all tasty matzah balls. Even tenderhearted readers won’t mourn his passing much, though. The boy’s cute, sure, but he’s ungrateful, smart-alecky and conceited. He can’t even open his celery mouth without bragging.

Shulman’s last line (nope, you’ll have to read the book) is a fabulously funny, joyously Jewish twist on “The Gingerbread Man” and traditional tales in general.

Above all, “The Matzo Ball Boy” is a joy to read aloud — or to listen to when snuggling drowsily under the covers with a tummy full of seder meal. If possible, enlist as a reader a relative with a Brooklyn Jewish accent or, better still, an ironic, Tevye-style Yiddish lilt.

Lisa Shulman will read and sign her book Wednesday, April 30, at Congregation Shomrei Torah’s religious school, 1717 Yulupa Ave., Santa Rosa. The event is free. Information: (707) 576-3452.

“The Matzo Ball Boy”by Lisa Shulman (32 pages, Dutton Children’s Books, $15.99).