Fairy Tales in Different Cultures: Raisel's Riddle

This week we are traveling back to Poland for another Jewish Cinderella story. Earlier this month we reviewed The Way Meat Loves Salt. So for the history and information on Poland, please go to that post. 
Polish Flag (Source)

Today's book focuses on the Jewish holiday, Purim. Now Purim is a celebration of when Queen Esther saved the Jews from death in Persia. For those who are Christian the Book of Esther is in the Christian Bible as well in the Old Testament. I have had the pleasure of teaching this unit in Sunday School twice now. 

The story of Esther is she lives with her uncle (in some versions he is her cousin), Mordecai in Persia. They are Jewish. Mordecai is a guard/gate keeper at the palace of King Ahasuerus (King Xerxes in some versions). At some point the king becomes angry with his queen and throws her out of the land after the suggestion of his aid, Haman (the villain of our story). Now the king needs a new queen so he send out his army to bring back all the beautiful eligible maidens in Persia so he can choose one as his new queen. Esther is taken. Mordecai warns her not to let anyone know she is Jewish and in fact in some versions it is said this is when her name became Esther. Anyway, Esther is chosen as the new queen. While she is queen, Haman convinces the king to sign a decree to kill all the Jews in Persia. Mordecai gets word to Queen Esther that she must do something to stop this and even though it is against the law and punishable by death, she goes to the king without being invited after fasting for three days. She invites him and Haman to a feast. At the feast she invites them again the next night. Finally she tells the king that someone wants to kill her and all her people. When he asks who, she tells him it is Haman since she is Jewish. Haman is ordered to death by the king and all the Jewish people are saved. 
Hamentaschen (Source)

This holiday is celebrated usually in March. Since the Jewish calendar is different than the Gregorian calendar most commonly used today, the date actually changes each year. This year it was celebrated at the end of February. The holiday is celebrated with costumes (often like the people in the story of Esther) and noise makers called gragers used whenever Haman's name is mentioned. The story is retold during the celebration. It is also custom to send food and drinks as gifts as well as give to charity during Purim. Another custom is making triangular cookies filled with jam called hamentaschen. (Source

Now onto our book. This week we are looking at Raisel's Riddle by Erica Silverman. In this story Raisel lives with her grandfather in a small village in Poland. He is a scholar and many people in the village seek his advice and pay for it with food, fire wood, etc. She asks her grandfather to teach her to be a scholar. He tells her that learning is more valuable than rubies and gold since it can never be taken away from you. One cold winter her grandfather dies. She leaves the village since she does not want to be a burden on anyone and goes into the city to look for work. After knocking on many doors she comes to the house of a rabbi. The cook answers the door and tries to turn her away, but the rabbi comes to the door and says that the cook/housekeeper could of course use some help. The cook is not happy about it and is worried Raisel is after her job. She treats her badly and gives her some straw to sleep on behind the stove. Raisel grins and bears it.
One day Raisel is carrying firewood and the rabbi's son bumps into her and causes her to drop the wood. He stops to apologize and helps her carry the wood to the kitchen. The cook is very upset that she talked to the rabbi's son and threatens to lock her in the pantry if she cannot stay out of sight.
Haman, Mordecai, Esther and King Ahasuerus

On the day of Purim, the rabbi and his family have company over for a feast before going to the Purim Play. While serving the food Raisel hears the young women telling the rabbi's son riddles. She wants to stay and listen more but the cook pulls her into the kitchen threatening her again. When all the dinner guests leave for the play, Raisel comments how she would like to go. The cook laughs at her and tells her to get her dinner from what is left and then to start on the dishes. Raisel takes her dinner outside where she sees an elderly woman who looks extremely hungry. Raisel gives her dinner to this woman. The woman tells her she will grant Raisel three wishes for her kindness, but to remember magic only lasts until midnight. Raisel wishes for a Purim costume and then a horse drawn wagon to go to the play. 

Raisel turns heads as she walks into the play. She is told she has the best Queen Esther costume in the room. After the play a band starts up and the rabbi's son comes over to talk to Raisel. When he asks where she lives, she realizes he does not recognize her as the rag girl from his kitchen. She avoids answering by telling him a riddle which she makes up based on what her grandfather said about learning. Then she hears the clock to start striking midnight and she rushes away. When she gets back to the house and sees the huge pile of dishes and pots and pans she makes her third wish to have the kitchen clean.

The next day she notices people coming over again and asks the cook about the company. Since she used the term "we" in asking, the cook locks her in the pantry. In the pantry there is only one ray of light coming in and it is from a hole to the dining room. She is able to see and hear everything going on in there. The Rabbi says that his son met a woman who told him a riddle the previous night and that is the woman he wants to marry. All the young woman come forward telling him their riddles again, but none of them are the one. He finally says how it had rubies and gold and forever in it. Raisel realizes it is her riddle and knocks on the door as loudly as she can. The son comes in and asks the cook what is going on and the cook says the rag girl is cleaning the pantry, but Raisel tells him she told him a riddle the previous night. He lets her out and she begins the riddle and he finishes it and then asks her to marry him. Her response is only if he can answer her riddle. He of course knows it is learning. They get married and live and learn happily ever after.

For our crafts this week I made our clothespin doll with her dressed as Queen Esther. I also shared the cardboard tube characters Hazel made in Sunday School when we studied Esther. If we have time I may make some hamentaschen with Hazel, but since we were too busy celebrating Easter today, we did not get around to it.


  1. Thank you for sharing on "Say It Two Ways Thursdays". You find such unique books. I honestly didn't know anything about Jewish traditions with Esther. I have learned so much from this series.

  2. I had heard about Purim before but really didn't know the full story. And I love the Cinderella story you shared. That's great that he falls in love with her in least in part because of the riddle, but just her looks! Thanks for sharing at the Culture Swapper :)


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