Feitel van Zeidel was exasperated when his Chanukah dreidel top did not stop spinning. The rich man had paid Chatzkel Brown to create a dreidel that had the winning Hebrew letter gimmel written on all four sides, and Zeidel was planning to go home with all the spoils. But his top would not stop spinning. “Oh why doesn’t it stop?” he shouted and cried. “By now every dreidel would have been dropping!”
If this story sounds fictitious and fun, it is—and it has delighted tens of thousands of Jewish children since its release on audiocassette tape in 1970s, produced and narrated by the renowned Jewish storyteller Rabbi Shmuel Kunda. In honor of Kunda's passing late last year at the age of 66, The Incredible Dreidel and other classic recordings of his are now being made available online for the first time on Kids Zone, the joint website of Chabad.org and Tzivos Hashem, the organization for Jewish children.
Shmuel Kunda was the writer, creator, illustrator and producer of Jewish stories and recordings that entertained and enlightened generations of Jewish children. Always an optimist, he created stories that humorously intertwined moral lessons with encouraging tales for the young and the young at heart.
Rabbi Shmuel Kunda was born in Shanghai, China, where his parents met and wed after fleeing Europe during the Holocaust. The Kundas immigrated to the United States in 1947, and young Kunda attended the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School in New York. To the parents of many of his classmates—a generation that had lost extended families in the Holocaust—life was a depressing struggle. “It is hard to be a Jew,” was a common statement made by many survivors.
Kunda wouldn’t hear of it, and he learned early in life that his positive feelings were shared by many other children born to Holocaust survivors. “These kids were going to Dodger games,” said Kunda’s son, Aaron. “They were not interested in a depressing version of Judaism.”
The desire to experience and teach Judaism joyfully motivated Kunda and a few of his friends to begin a weekly Sabbath gathering in Brooklyn's Borough Park neighborhood. The group focused on the positive, and soon began to attract hundreds of children every week. It was there that Kunda discovered his unique gift for storytelling, and he would tell a different story each week, many of his own creation. The stories were entertaining, funny and always taught a Jewish lesson.
As in story of The Incredible Dreidel, Kunda’s lessons are taught through the medium of entertaining conversations. Even if you lose, “the game of dreidel is still so much fun!,” says one of the characters. To which Zeidel asks: “You mean you could still have fun even if you lose, where no one will care if they are losing or winning?” Van Zeidel concludes: “This young boy is genius, a scholar!”
“He went deep in to the heart of every boy and girl,” said Rabbi Yosef Karmel. Giving the example of a story by Kunda about a child who was not the best in his class, Karmel noted that for children who lacked self-confidence, Kunda showed them how “to feel good about themselves and excel at whatever they wished.”
The Joyful Educator
The talented educator, storyteller, composer and illustrator received many offers to join ad agencies and other creative enterprises, according to his daughter Sara Gestetner, yet he refused the substantial fees he could have earned from such work. Telling and illustrating stories, and creating professional recordings, were costly and not very profitable, yet Kunda chose to devote himself to teaching Jewish values in this way.
“He had to give up a lot to do what he did,” said Gestetner. “He thought about how people could benefit from his work, and he focused on that.”
Kunda’s desire to continue to create illustrations that would teach and inspire children caused him to suffer years of chronic shoulder pain that surgery might have alleviated. He believed that “art is a tremendous way to get through to kids,” said Aaron Kunda. “He did not want to have surgery, fearing that it might limit his drawing ability.”
The entertainer did not see children as a nuisance who just needed to be entertained; rather, he saw them as real people, just like adults.
“He greeted them, spoke with them and listened to them as one would with an adult,” recalled Karmel.
Kunda with his The Magical Yarmulka story cassette, a children's favorite.
Kunda’s family said that his kindness when dealing with children was not only in person. He took the time to respond to every letter he received from his young fans, making drawings on the letters and taking what they wrote very seriously. In a response to a letter from then 10-year-old Nissi Unger, Kunda replied poetically that he cherished letters like hers. “To show me each time that the work was all worth it; ‘Cause making a tape takes much work till it’s done; But a letter like yours makes it all seem like fun!”
“He took the time to make me, a young dreamer, feel like I was the only fan of his in the world,” said Unger, who still has the letter, complete with personalized drawings.
Kunda consistently empathized with those around him, sharing in their joy. “He loved people, he absolutely loved people,” recalled his son Zalmy Kunda. When he did see someone who was down, he would always try to cheer them up. He notes that one woman recently told him that when she was a girl of 5 or 6, she was crying, so he asked her name and drew a picture of her. “The girl was so touched and amazed that she keeps the drawing in her purse until this day.”
Above all, said his son Aaron, “he loved when people enjoyed themselves, he loved Judaism, and expressed it via his storytelling and art work.”
“Rabbi Shmuel Kunda's colorful personality adds fun and drama to our children's audio collection,” said Dini Druk, director of Kids Zone. “The familiar voice of Zaidy,”’ one of Kunda’s best-loved characters, “along with his suspenseful stories and addicting songs is a treasured addition to our ever-expanding site.”