Recalling Maurice Sendak's "Jewish year" with Glen Dickson

Yet musician Glen Dickson remembers the author for a different reason — he created an album of Jewish music and storytelling with him.

The Shirim Klezmer Orchestra, which Dickson serves as bandleader and clarinetist for, recorded a Jewish retelling of Peter and the Wolf called Pincus the Pig in 2004, with the narration written and voiced by Sendak.

Dickson said the group had come up with the idea of doing a klezmer rearrangement of Peter and the Wolf and were looking for possible collaborators when bandmate Eric Rosenthal suggested Sendak.

“It just happened to be probably the perfect time to call him because he had been working on the Holocaust opera Brundibar and getting him down and depressed,” he said. “So he liked the idea of this particular tale and making it Jewish. He liked the fact the little Jewish boy would come out victorious.”

Despite Sendak’s work on the picture book and opera of Brundibar with Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, Dickson said he thought of him as a children’s book author rather than a Jewish artist.

“I didn’t even know he was Jewish, to tell the truth,” he said.

Yet Sendak had a deep Jewish heritage, including family on his father’s side that had been killed during the Holocaust. He also illustrated the 1966 Yiddish story Zlateh the Goat, but Dickson said this period working on Brundibar and Pincus the Pig represented him most confronting Jewish themes.

“I remember when we were talking to him on the phone, he said, ‘Ah, this is going to be my Jewish year’ — this Jewish side coming out and doing these works that were Jewish-related, which he had never done anything like that before, really,” Dickson said.

Pincus and the Pig reimagines Peter as the little Jewish boy Pincus and the wolf as the pig Chozzer, as the two square off. Like Peter and the Wolf, each character is represented by an instrument — such as the bird by the piano, and the grandfather by the tuba.

The group later visited Sendak’s house in order to record the author’s narration, which was done in a traditional Yiddish accent.

“He showed us around his house — all of his Mickey Mouse memorabilia, the artworks I think were the first things he did when he was a kid… it was just an amazing experience,” he said.

Dickson said Sendak himself was a mixture between charming and concerned, simultaneously cracking jokes and expressing worry about both political and personal matters.

“He was very gracious and friendly to us and very funny,” he said. “But at the same time, he kept talking about how he was depressed about the political situation at that point and a lot of things that were going on around the world and the difficulties he was having with people around him in bad health.”

Even though the group only spent one day recording Sendak’s narration, Dickson said the various facets of Sendak’s “complicated” personality were visible.

“In that one day, all his complexities came out — his worry about the world, he had all these concerns,” he said. “At the same time, he was able to express humor and have love and fun at the same time.”

Ultimately, Dickson said Pincus’ triumph within the story represents how Sendak was also able to overcome the odds and make a name for himself within history.

“He sort of represented the Pincus of his family — he came out triumphant,” he said. “A lot of his extended family perished in the Holocaust, and it came down to his family and maybe the one-half that were carrying the family. He did it. He made something of himself.”

For an interactive slideshow with photos, video, music, info about Sendak, as well as some audio samples, visit

<i>Pincus the Pig</i> is the retelling of <i>Peter and the Wolf</i> by Maurice Sendak and Glen Dickson.
  • Pincus the Pig is the retelling of Peter and the Wolf by Maurice Sendak and Glen Dickson.

When children’s book author Maurice Sendak died on May 8, he was remembered by many for the imaginative worlds he created in Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen.

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