A lesson from Mrs. Katz and Larnel

From time to time I read a book and just say “wow” when I am done. When my four year old requested that I read Mrs Katz & Tush for bedtime one night, I really wasn’t sure that she would enjoy it. The story is pretty long and Ms. Polacco tends to write about some deep topics. I’m sure that she didn’t get the full meaning of the story, but she did enjoy it and I hope that we read it together more.

katz cover

Mrs. Katz and Tush really tells the story of Mrs. Katz and Larnel. Mrs. Katz is a recent widow who lives on her own. Larnel lives in her building and his mom stops by her apartment on a regular basis to check in on her. One day she cries about being alone for the holidays. The next day, Larnel returns on his own and brings her a kitten that had been born in the basement of the building. She agrees to take care of the cat, but only if Larnel comes to help her with it.

As expected, Mrs. Katz warms up to the cat, who she names Tush because it is missing a tail. Larnel and Mrs. Katz also forma  bond as he visits her every day after school. Mrs. Katz tells her story of coming to America from Poland. She also tells him of their vacation in the Catskills – “a borscht resort, you know, a place for Jews to stay.”

What starts then is a deepening of the story to focus on how the history of the Jews isn’t so different from African Americans. Larnel is surprised by Mrs. Katz telling him that Jews couldn’t stay anywhere they wanted, but he tells her that his grandmother told him of places that she couldn’t stay either. Mrs. Katz explains to Larnel that “your people and mine are alike, you know. Trouble, we’ve seen. Happiness, too. Great strength we’ve had. You and I are alike, so much alike!”

katz dancingTheir friendship continues to grow in beautiful ways. They dance to Polish music. Larnel learns the Jewish tradition of placing a stone on a headstone. He learns the laws of kosher and eats a lot of kugel. As Passover approaches, Mrs. Katz recalls all of her times with family and is sad that she will be alone. Larnel asks to have Passover dinner with her and she teaches him the holiday traditions.

Like your people, my people were slaves too. They lived in a country where they didn’t want to be. They wanted freedom so much that they prayed to God to help them. So he sent an angel – an angel that brought death and sadness to the houses of our captors. But the angel did not visit our houses.

So, Larnel, we have a big feast to celebrate, but we also remember those who had to suffer so we could be free.

Mrs. Katz and Larnel become each other’s family. When she dies, he says Kaddish for her and leaves a stone on her headstone which reads “Mrs. Katz, our bubbe…such a person.” (Bubbe is Yiddish for grandma).

As a Jew, this story touched me as a beautiful way to share our traditions and to show that we all have common experiences. We have been oppressed as have many other cultures. It is our collective strength that has brought us to where we are today. People of different backgrounds might think that they are so very different, but at the heart of it, the differences often slip away.

This story is even more profound in light of all that is currently happening in France and even with the upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. We are not so very different. Thank you Ms. Polacco.


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