Interview with Marilyn Wolpin, author of BRING BACK THE BABKA!

Marilyn Wolpin’s picture book BRING BACK THE BABKA! (Barefoot Books, 2023) illustrated by Madison Safer, is a sweet story of Mama’s missing babka and her children who set out to find it. Along the way, the kids visit with neighbors who share their own delicious treats. Folk-style art sets the tone for a cozy village where everyone is a friend with something unique to contribute.  I look forward to learning more about the story.

Welcome, Marilyn.

In your new picture book, BRING BACK THE BABKA!, Sammy and Sol set out to look for their Mama’s missing babka. Along the way, they visit with many neighbors who share their own delicious treats reflecting a variety of Jewish cultures. Can you tell me a bit about your inspiration for your story?

This story had its germination in a challenge – to write a 280-character pitch for a kid’s book that couldn’t possibly be a kid’s book. But as I pondered what I could write, if I could write something funny, this story simply jumped into my mind. There is no explanation for creativity, and ideas do come from anywhere, but I believe that anything I write is rooted in my history, my education, my life experiences. In my experience, Jewish households are food oriented. No matter the occasion there is always food and lots of it. Jewish mothers are also fond of giving advice – even if you haven’t asked. Add to that my love of a good mystery and the sense of humor passed on to me by my father (z’’l) – that twinkle in his eye as he told a story, that little upturn to his lip when he’s realized he had you believing the story, until the punchline – all of these are the ingredients for this and probably other stories I’ve written. I have two younger brothers. I had a grandmother who loved to bake and cook, and aunts who always put out a spread and tried to teach us rules of life. I’m also a big fan of mysteries – I cut my reading teeth on Nancy Drew’s cases. I didn’t really need much inspiration – just the “what if”. What if two brothers came home from school one Friday afternoon and things weren’t quite the same as usual. What’s the mystery and how will they solve it? One word led to another and the story nearly wrote itself. It is fitting that my first published children’s story is both rooted in Judaism and is a mystery.

Marilyn Wolpin

What were your thoughts when you first saw the illustrations by Madison Safer?

Madison brought Sammy and Sol to life. She brought my fictional neighborhood to life. She made Rachel, Gabby, and Faye individuals with specific likes and hobbies. Each home is decorated differently. One of my favorite spreads is the one with the huge sunflowers in the background. I don’t know what it is about sunflowers… Another favorite image is the one where both Mazel and Sol aren’t quite sure about the gefilte fish. So funny. Madison gave the story the feel of a modern fairy tale.

You include a recipe for babka and descriptions of the other foods at the end of the book. Have you made any of these shared dishes before or did you need to do some delish research?

I am not much of a baker – I much prefer to eat! My grandmother was the baker in my family and I spent many Friday afternoons watching her make gefilte fish (we never had a carp in the bathtub, though) and sometimes even helping her make rugelach – which sadly, didn’t make it into the final version of the book. She would give me a little piece of dough that I could fill and roll and then place on the lid of a jar to bake. Also, when I was a child, I had several girl friends who were daughters of Holocaust survivors. One of their mothers did make cholent. The only time I ever ate that stew was at her home since it was never made in mine. Lately I’ve been trying my hand at baking challah which is the precursor of babka. I’m getting better. For the backmatter, I did a lot of research to determine where the dishes originated from, what, in the case of bourekas, it could be stuffed with, how stuffed grape leaves were made.

Mazel the dog

There is a fun twist at the end with Mazel, the dog. Is Mazel based on a dog in your life? 

Oh, yes! Mazel was a treasured dog in our family. Mazel, as you know, means luck in Hebrew and Yiddish. And our Mazel was very lucky. She was lucky to have found my brother to follow home from school one day. She was lucky to have become a member of our family. We already had two dogs and she fit right in. So of course, we named her Mazel. (I have attached a picture.) Most of the names of characters in BRING BACK THE BABKA! come from my family. Rachel is the English version of my grandmother’s name – Ruchel – with the guttural ch sound unpronounceable by most English speakers. Faye is in honor of an aunt. Sol was my mother’s father’s name. My husband had an uncle Sam.

What about the rabbi? Is there any significance to her name?

Why yes there is! Initially, the rabbi didn’t have a name. I was going to leave it up to the illustrator to decide whether the rabbi was old or young, male or female. But as we progressed with the editing, my editor suggested I give the rabbi a name. The more I thought about it the more I realized Lisa was right. As the author, I should decide those facts about one of the main characters. I knew I wanted a woman rabbi because we were deliberately setting the story in modern times and because this is a heavily woman-centered book. So, I wondered – are there any famous women rabbis? I asked Google, of course, and Google told me about the first woman rabbi ordained in America. The first woman rabbi in Europe was Regina Jonas ordained in Germany in 1935 and then sadly murdered in the Holocaust. It wasn’t until 1972, that the first woman rabbi was ordained in America and her name is Sally Priesand. Three facts converged to make this the perfect name for my rabbi. 1) Sally, like Sol and Sammy, begins with the letter S – I love alliteration. 2) Sally was the rabbi for 25 years of the Monmouth Reform Temple in New Jersey. I am from New Jersey – though Ocean County which is just south of Monmouth. 3) When I started telling my sister the story of how I named the rabbi and I said she was the first woman rabbi in America, my sister broke in and exclaimed: “Yes, Sally Priesand, and I was in her temple!” That pretty much sealed the deal. If you look her up, you will see that Madison (the illustrator) styled our Rabbi Sally after the factual Rabbi Sally. (In 2022, Apples & Honey Press published Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso’s children’s picture book about her called Sally Opened Doors. Rabbi Sasso and Apples & Honey Press also published Regina Persisted, Regina Jonas’s story, in 2018.)

Thanks, Marilyn!

Marilyn Wolpin isn’t much of a baker, but she’s been known to enjoy a thick slice of chocolate babka. Born and raised in Lakewood, New Jersey, Marilyn was surrounded by attentive Jewish mothers, grandmothers, and aunts who ladled out love and advice in heaping bowlfuls. After a long career in publishing and market research, Marilyn retired to write books for children.

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12 thoughts on “Interview with Marilyn Wolpin, author of BRING BACK THE BABKA!

  1. Just like the babka you buy as a treat, BRING BACK THE BABKA is a delicious read and a special treat. Thank you, Marilyn, for sharing some of the background on your writing process. I especially enjoyed hearing about how you chose the names for your characters.

  2. Marilyn I love you and your story! My grandmother was also the baker in the family and taught me how to make rugelach . After learning so much more about you and the background of the book I’m about to reread it.

  3. Wow, despite being your critique partner and being alongside you for your journey with BRING BACK THE BABKA, I feel like I learned so much more with this interview. I love how all the names are connected to you through family. I love how you picked the Rabbis’ name, and I love that Mazel followed your brother home and because a treasure in your family. So many ties to your life and everything important to you. What a fabulous first book, Marilyn.

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