Leah Goldberg’s tale of tolerance for kids gains new English translation

The Hebrew classic, now called ‘Room for Rent,’ brings message of acceptance to new readers

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The original, 1959 illustrations of 'A Flat for Rent," by Shoshana Heiman feature only two colors (Courtesy Kedem Auctions)
The original, 1959 illustrations of 'A Flat for Rent," by Shoshana Heiman feature only two colors (Courtesy Kedem Auctions)

In the annals of classic Hebrew children’s literature, some books continue to resonate, both for parents and kids.

There’s “A Tale of Five Balloons” and “Where is Pluto?” “Hot Corn” and “Yael’s House” and, of course, Leah Goldberg’s rhyming “A Flat to Let,” based on an Eastern European folktale, with an evergreen message of tolerance toward one’s neighbors.

Now that Goldberg classic has been re-translated into English as “Room for Rent,” published by Jerusalem’s Gefen Publishing.

The new English translation of “Room for Rent,” from the classic by Leah Goldberg (Courtesy Gefen Publishing)

After appearing in a 1948 edition of the periodical Mishmar LiYeladim, it was published as a book 11 years later as part of the Halon series of Sifriyat HaPoalim with illustrations by Shoshana Heiman — reportedly as a reaction to the Wadi Salib riots of 1959, when Israelis of Middle Eastern descent protested against the discrimination and racist practices of the government.

Another 11 years passed and the book was reissued in 1970 with illustrations by artist Shmuel Katz — and became an Israeli classic.

Its message of tolerance and understanding couldn’t be more relevant right now, said Gefen’s Ilan Greenfield, whose company publishes 30 titles each year.

“We’re old-school publishers,” said Greenfield. “When we see something good, we can’t help but publish it because we think it’s important.”

Gefen Publishing’s Ilan Greenfield, who finally published a new translation of Leah Goldberg’s classic children’s tale (Courtesy Ilan Greenfield)

What appealed to him about “Room for Rent” was its eternal messages about accepting the other, disregarding prejudice and not judging people by their appearances.

In the book, a crew of animal tenants inhabits a five-story building on the edge of town, including a hen, cuckoo, cat and squirrel. When the fifth-floor apartment becomes available for rent, potential new tenants object to the residents based solely on their appearance.

“The book teaches us that we can’t judge people by how they appear,” said Greenfield. “It tells us how to step out of prejudice and give everyone a chance.”

Twenty years ago, Sifriyat HaPoalim, the original publisher, offered him the opportunity to publish the book in English, but “I was young and new and apparently not so smart,” said Greenfield. “I didn’t realize what they had offered me.”

The cover of the second version of ‘A Flat for Rent,’ the Leah Goldberg children’s book that’s become an Israeli classic (Courtesy Sifriyat HaPoalim)

It was only about a year ago, when he was cleaning up in his office, that he came across the original book in Hebrew and was astounded at his own shortsightedness.

He contacted the publishers to ask if they’d ever had it translated into English. They had, in the 1990s, but couldn’t locate the original translator, Bracha Kaplan. Since they never had a signed contract with her, Greenfield couldn’t use the existing English translation.

He gave it to translator Jessica Setbon, a San Antonio, Texas native and Harvard graduate who usually translates nonfiction, including Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau’s bestseller, “Out of the Depths.”

Goldberg’s book, written in rhyme, is somewhat dated, but they decided not to modernize the wordplay given the book’s place in the Israeli library.

Jessica Setbon, the translator who gives new resonance to Leah Goldberg’s tale of tolerance in ‘Room for Rent’ (Courtesy Jessica Setbon)

“There are always discussions about how far to get away from the original,” said Setbon. “There was more freedom here, because Leah Goldberg is not around, unfortunately, to criticize, and because you can’t render Hebrew perfectly into English.”

Setbon expanded the verses in English, making them longer than the “very tight” Hebrew of the original.

“Hebrew is very easy to rhyme because the endings of the words are the same,” she said. “There was also internal rhyming and external rhyming in the Hebrew verses, and I tried to do that.”

First was Miss Ant. She marched up to floor five,
Opened the door and peeked inside.
The neighbors all gathered around to spy
As Miss Ant checked the place with a critical eye.
They asked her, politely, if the rooms were alright.
Perhaps she would like to stay for the night?

The book is longer than the 22 pages of most children’s picture books, and has words and terms that may challenge younger readers.

But Greenfield didn’t want to give up on “any line of it,” he said.

Its language and cadence were something of a translational challenge for Setbon, but she welcomed the task.

“I’ve been translating for a long time, and I have experience, and a musical ear,” said Setbon, who plays flute and speaks Japanese and French as well as her native English and now Hebrew. “The way it all sounds is so important, and I was thinking of the classic books in English that resonate for English-speaking kids, like ‘Goodnight Moon.'”

There was also the question of the original illustrations, said Greenfield, who considered modernizing the look of Shmuel Katz’s thick, charcoal-etched caricatures of the animal characters. But, again, he decided to stay with the original, and called Katz’s widow, whom he knows personally, to tell her the news. She was thrilled, he said.

“I’m getting such fantastic reactions, and now we’re developing markets for it,” said Greenfield, who wants to sell it to Israelis living abroad, as well as to Israeli children learning English in school.

Hebrew poets Rachel (left) and Leah Goldberg (right) on new NIS 20 and 100 banknotes. (Courtesy of the Bank of Israel)

There’s an unexpected tie-in for the book with the new 100 shekel bill being released this week, which bears the portrait of Leah Goldberg. The back of the bill will have an image of deer with an excerpt from her poem “White Days.”

For Greenfield, the experience of translating and publishing “Room for Rent” has awoken a desire to continue exporting Israeli kid culture. He’s also having “A Tale of Five Balloons” translated by Setbon, as well as “Hot Corn” and “Where is Pluto?”

“We’re exporting Israeli culture everywhere, even though there’s nothing, per se, Israeli or Jewish about these books,” he said. “But they’re books that every Israeli kid grew up on, selling 500,000 copies in Israel alone. That shows their value.”

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