Three and a half years ago I signed up my children with something called PJ Library, a non-profit that sends a free Jewish content book every month. Since then we received two books based on the same traditional song, Simms Taback’s Joseph Had a Little Overcoat (1999) and Phoebe Gilman’s Something from Nothing (2008). It’s a charming story in which the protagonist starts of with a large item, like an overcoat or a blanket, and when the item gets tarnished, he remakes it into a smaller one, like a vest, then a tie, then a handkerchief, etc until all that’s left is a button. And then the button gets lost. To deal with the loss of his beloved possession, the protagonist decides to make something out of nothing and writes a story about it.
Both illustrators set the story in late 19th century Eastern Europe and the art is terrific. Taback’s pictures are bright and fantastical, and Gilman’s are realist, with much detail to talk about. Both books have a distinct Yiddish sensibility, and it’s tempting to claim that Something from Nothing is a Jewish folktale. I don’t know for a fact that the narrative is exclusively Jewish, that other peoples, like Ukrainians or, say, Berbers don’t tell it as well, as is usually the case with folklore. Because I can’t assume that the story is Jewish and only Jewish, this post is going to be about the way Jewish people in America today think of the Jewish tradition based on what they make out of the story.
Both books arrived with PJ Library’s suggestions of how to discuss it with kids. Per publisher, the books carry an environmentalist message, and teach kids to conserve and recycle:
Go through your children’s wardrobe together. Select clothing that no longer fits or is too “old and
worn” to be serviceable. How can those items still be of use? Perhaps the fabric can be cut and
sewn into clothing for a favorite stuffed animal or made into a patch for a pair of jeans. If the
clothing is outgrown but still in good condition, consider donating it – you’ll be practicing bal
A core Jewish value is that of bal tashchit, an injunction against needless destruction or wastefulness
and a commandment to preserve our Earth. Judaism is an ancient religion, but laws guiding us to
live in an environmentally responsible way are perhaps more significant today than ever before. The
Talmud (a collection of rabbinic thought and laws) teaches: “Whoever destroys anything that could
be useful to others breaks the law of bal tashchit” (Kadoshim 32a). When Taback wrote: “(and there’s a
moral, too!)” on the title page, he referred to this teaching.
I’m for reducing waste and preserving the Earth. I was raised in a household where everything was reused, and it really pains me to throw away an old item. I’m not a rabbi, but I know a thing or two about scarcity. There is plenty of conservation going on in Something from Nothing, but the society that told the tale had no concept of recycling. Shtetl thriftiness was not driven by concerns for allegedly overflowing landfills. Most importantly, an environmentalist explanation fails to account for the pivotal moment of the narrative when Joseph runs out of matter to reuse and writes a story. By the way, in doing so he uses new resources: paper, ink and a writing pen. If abstaining from consumption is so supremely important, why bother inventing writing? Tisk-tisk-tisk! The people of the Book should have stuck to oral tradition!
Something from Nothing is a story about impoverished people who used resources wisely (and with the notable exception of aluminum, recycling is not a wise use of resources). It’s a story about people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and about overcoming adversity. But most importantly, Something from Nothing is a story about moving from mere physical sustenance to the spiritual world. It’s about overcoming adversity, but it’s also about the creative impulse. It’s a story of the creation of modern Israel, too: Jews coming out of Pale of Settlement building a thriving country in a desert. That’s something from nothing. And, I think, all Americans, not just Jewish Americans can relate to the resourcefulness, innovation and individualism displayed by the characters.
Unfortunately, Western Civilization in general and Jewish Americans in particular became too engrossed in waste. In our quest to “reduce, reuse, recycle” we became obsessed with making something from something — if we can’t help not making anything at all. Something from Nothing teaches us that there are limits to the 3Rs, like there are limitations to the material world in general. The greatness of our civilization originates in inspired individuals who create new things and ideas.
So happy 63rd Israel! Israel Independence day is celebrated today this year.
I was going to make a post commemorating the Allied victory in World War Two 66 years ago. V.E. day is May 8 in the former Western Block, and May 9 in Russia. I was going to share some family history, but we had computer issues, plus it was Mother’s Day. So that post will have to wait a year. Anyhow, happy V.E. day!