This Hebrew classic has been on my TBR since 2017 when I read this article in The Times of Israel about the book’s ‘discovery’ and subsequent translation into English.* It’s a wonderful backstory and I encourage you to read it . . . once you’ve read my review!
Room for Rent opens with a brief presentation of the four occupants of a fine old house. Cornish hen, Cuckoo bird, Cat and Squirrel live separately on floors 1-4. Sir Reginald Mouse has recently vacated the 5th floor apartment, so the other animals have put it up for rent. From their introductions, Cornish hen and company appear to be an unassuming, inoffensive bunch but prospective new tenants do not think so. They arrive to view the vacant apartment, only to find fault with one of the current occupants of the house. Miss Ant cannot abide Cornish hen’s laziness; Mrs Rabbit criticises Cuckoo for abandoning her chicks; Snortimus Pig takes offence at Cat’s black fur, while Nightingale cannot stand the Squirrel’s ‘squirrelsome racket’. It is not until Dove flutters in that a new tenant is found. She may not be overly impressed by the apartment, but she sees the positive side of her future housemates.
Jessica Setbon is bold in her choice of rhyming verse for her translation (as used by Leah Goldberg in the original Hebrew). And kudos to her. For the most part, the stanzas zip along, lending energy and rhythm to the tale. Setbon also includes old-fashioned words and phrases, which contribute to the classical feel of the book. Miss Hen is ‘fat and coddled’, for example, while the Ant replies ‘in a nasty gripe.’ I personally enjoy reading books that incorporate a small number of unknown or uncommon words with my children. An adult reader can always assist understanding by referring young readers to the illustrations, using a different tone of voice (e.g. for nasty gripe), or by providing a simple one-word explanation.
This tale is longer than many contemporary picture books, but the structure is easy to follow, with a double spread dedicated to each prospective tenant’s visit, and repeated stanzas throughout. And Shmuel Katz’s artwork, using a limited colour palette of blue, orange, flax and green outlined in thick black, holds huge appeal. Deceptively simple character studies are incorporated in a household setting. I particularly like Miss Ant in her voluminous skirt and red headscarf and Snortimus Pig with his porkpie hat, overtight waistcoat and very large cigar!
Although Room for Rent was originally published in 1948 it speaks to a contemporary, international audience. As individuals we can be quick to criticise and reject others without trying to understand them. Often the words we use or the response we make can cause hurt and upset. This story underlines the importance of seeing the good in our neighbours and of seeking to build a happy, healthy environment based on respect and friendship.
Room for Rent by Leah Goldberg, illustrated by Shmuel Katz, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Setbon (Gefen Publishing, 2017)
Leah Goldberg was a prolific poet, author, playwright, translator and researcher. She spent her early years in Lithuania and Russia and emigrated to Israel in 1935, where she later worked as a literature professor at Hebrew University. Many of her writings are considered classics of Israeli literature.
Shmuel Katz was a multi-award-winning Israeli artist, illustrator and cartoonist, who illustrated some of Israel’s best-known children’s books. Born in Austria, he was smuggled to Hungary with his younger sister in 1938 and spent time in forced labour in Slovakia and Yugoslavia. In 1948, with friends he founded Kibbutz Ga’aton in northern Israel where he spent the rest of his life.
Jessica Setbon is an established translator of Hebrew into English, who is better known for translating non-fiction, including the bestseller Out of the Depths by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. She studied at Harvard and Tel Aviv University.
*Thanks to a tweet by translator Yael Cahane-Shadmi.