The latke, the matzah, the hamantaschen—to author-illustrator Alan Silberberg, these and other traditional Jewish holiday foods aren’t just delicious: they’re inspirations for goofy, ebullient picture book characters that celebrate Jewish heritage, culture, and family with a lot of spoofing, a smattering wordplay, and a dash of Yiddish. With his latest, P Is for Pastrami: The ABCs of Jewish Food (Viking), Silberberg casts a wider culinary net: in fact, it’s practically encyclopedic—for a board book, anyway. While tamping down serious cravings for a nosh, PW talked to the Montreal-based Silberberg about food, faith, and doing funny for kids.

What’s your favorite food in P Is for Pastrami?

Are you asking in terms of flavor or funny page design?


I really like how “W is for Whitefish” turned out as far as design. The food I really have to go with is rugelach, which is the letter R in the book. But it has to be chocolate.

Did you deliberately set out to show a more global perspective on Jewish food? Did you do any research?

I was raised Ashkenazi and my whole “foodology” is based around brisket and bubbe [grandmother] food. In 2018, I went on an “Author Israel Adventure” with the PJ Library [the organization that distributes free children’s books on Jewish themes], which introduced me to some new Jewish foods—I hadn’t even heard of shakshuka.

Years later when I was creating P Is for Pastrami, Maggie Rosenthal, my editor at Viking, and I wanted to go beyond foods that were “deli Jewish.” We swapped lists of Jewish food words, and “B” was okay, but once you get to “U” or “I” we were having a hard time.

And that’s when I recalled some of the Sephardic foods from my trip. I did internet searching and reached out to people I knew, and that’s how I got words like zhug [Yemeni hot sauce], injera [Ethiopian pan-baked bread], and quajado [a Sephardic vegetarian dish].

How did you get started writing Jewish-themed picture books?

I had a background in kids’ TV, and then I transitioned to writing middle grade novels. I published three of them, one of which [Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze] won the Sid Fleischman Award for humor, and then I kind of floundered. I went back to doing TV, hated it, and then my agent Jill Grinberg reached out. Since 2012 I’d been sending out a crudely animated holiday video of a latke family saying, “From our family to yours, Happy Hanukkah!” And Jill said, “Isn’t there a book in this?”

Even though I was a lifelong cartoonist, my brain never made the connection that I should be doing words and pictures. So Meet the Latkes came out of that. It was roundly rejected by most publishers: originally there was a scene in which the latke family is serving latkes for Hanukkah, and somebody brought up cannibalism. But Leila Sales, then a senior editor at Viking, said, “There’s something funny here—if Alan will work with me on a draft, we’ll try to get it through the hoops.” I owe her so much.

I was not setting out to become the Jewish book guy. I thought that was going to be a one-off, and it could become an animated special. My son had grown up with the wonderful Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, and I wanted to do something less dark.

But I had so much fun promoting it and going to schools—kids would ask me, “What’s your next book?” Well, at the end of Meet the Latkes, Grandpa Latke says, “Who wants to hear about Passover?” I didn’t want to do another family story, and then the name Alfie Koman [a play on afikomen, one of the matzahs used in the seder] popped into my head and I realized it could be a school story, with Pharaoh as a bully. That’s Meet the Matzah.

How did you decide to do an alphabet book?

After three holiday books [the third is Meet the Hamantaschen], I was definitely going to be done. I did a lot of online cartoon drawing workshops during the pandemic and I had created the idea of “foodles”—doodles about Jewish food. I pitched the idea of “foodle fables”—like “The Gefilte Fish That Couldn’t Swim”—as a series of smaller books. And Maggie said, “Let’s do an alphabet board book.”

As soon as we started brainstorming I saw how much fun it could be. Doing the alphabet book gave me free rein because there’s no story. I give Maggie and Viking total credit—this book was suggested by them, and they came up with the title, P Is for Pastrami.

How do you create your illustrations?

I do a lot of pen and ink doodling, but the iPad has been my best friend. I love being able to make a face and then erase it. I don’t have an illustration background, and I’m very anxious about doing final art, knowing it’s going to be in a book.

What or who are your comedy inspirations?

Essentially, I’m eight years old. My humor comes from a joy of being silly. Going back to being a child, there were Marx Brothers movies and the Three Stooges, Bullwinkle, Looney Tunes cartoons, Bob and Ray sketches. My dad introduced me to Jean Shepherd stories. I subscribed to MAD Magazine. I remember in eighth grade we were supposed to do reports and I did one on Bill Gaines [MAD’s legendary publisher], and the teacher was like “Who?”

My whole career has been doing funny for kids. That’s how I approached writing for kids’ TV: you try not to write down, you try to write funny. And when I was going to jump into picture books, I knew it was going to be funny.

You’ve been a solo act in terms of book creation. Do you have any desire to collaborate?

Erica Perl and I met on the Israel trip and on day two we said, “Let’s doing something together.” We’ve created a middle grade novel with cartoons about the town of Chelm [the town of fools in Jewish folklore]. But it’s a modern story, with two preteen twins who are The Wisemans of Chelmsford. It was fun—I had never collaborated before. It hasn’t sold yet, but we live in hope.

What’s next for you?

Maggie said she’d liked the foodle idea as a full story rather than a board book, so it’s The Bagel Who Wanted Everything. I’m just finishing it now and I love it. It will be out in summer 2025. It’s about a bagel who is plain and wants more out of life.

P Is for Pastrami: The ABCs of Jewish Food by Alan Silberberg. Viking, $7.99 Feb. 27 ISBN 978-0-593-62319-0