For countless generations, Jewish families around the world have gathered around the Seder table with family and friends to celebrate the first two nights of Passover. Disappointingly, the ramifications of the COVID-19 virus this spring will prevent many families from following this tradition on the evenings of April 8 and 9. Far too many Jewish children will not have the opportunity to physically share the holiday with great grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.
While it is impossible to replace first-hand experiences with video streaming, families can enhance their understanding of this joyous holiday by reading together. In this post, I am sharing three recently released books as well as books that have been published in previous years. To locate more book reviews, please scroll down this page.
Earlier this year, Kar-Ben Publishing and Charlesbridge Publishing sent me three books, two for early primary readers and one for preschoolers. All three are great additions to a family library.
Miriam at the River, By Jane Yolen, Illustrated by Khoa Le (Kar-Ben Publishing) Grade Level K-3
Jewish children’s literature is enriched this year with Jane Yolen’s picture book, Miriam at the River. Unlike other Passover books that primarily focus on family celebrations and offer an overview of the holiday, Yolen introduces children to a different perspective. Using verses from the Book of Exodus and Midrash stories as a reference, Yolen and her illustrator Khoa Le capture the essence of Miriam’s belief in God as well as her trepidations when she places her infant brother into a woven basket that eventually floats down the Nile River.
Yolen, a master at word choice, helps readers identify with Miriam as she boldly places her brother into the river.
I say a quick blessing over him, for he is so small, so much at risk. I give him a sister’s kiss. Once again, I look around. Then I place the basket in the river near the bending reeds. The basket is heavy and I am small. I pretend I am simply a child playing by the waterside. But under my robe, my heart beats so loudly. I am certain everyone will hear.
As the basket floats down the river, readers remain engaged. They read about a few animals lining the shoreline adeptly illustrated in Le’s vibrant images. The text also describes Miriam’s concern over her brother’s wellbeing. Tensions rise when Yolen reminds young readers that crocodiles lurk in the water and that there is no certainty that the basket will be discovered by the Pharaoh’s daughter. When Pharaoh’s daughter removes the baby from the basket, she gives the boy the name Moses since he was drawn from the water. In the concluding lines of the story, most will find comfort in knowing that Moses is safe.
Since this story only highlights a small portion of the biblical narrative, it is recommended that this book be read along with a cross-section of other Passover books. If they wish, families can include Miriam’s Cup, a modern ritual object that is placed next to the Cup of Elijah, as a way of using the story as an introduction to Miriam’s role in Jewish history. Just as the newly formed customs associated with Miriam’s Cup vary from family to family, Jewish parents should select the books that best represent their traditional values.
Alligator Seder, By Jessica Hickman, Illustrated by Elissambura, Kar-Ben Publishers, PreK Board Book
Using her native Florida background as a setting, Jessica Hickman calls upon alligator characters to introduce young children to Passover. In just 12 pages, preschoolers learn about basic Seder rituals. Elissambura’s playful and whimsical blue and green alligators will keep non-readers engaged while parents mention holiday words such as Seder, chametz, gefilte fish, The Four Questions, matzah, and afikomen. Parents can draw attention to the chronological sequence of the story and also use the rhyming word formations to help older preschoolers second guess the last word of sentences. This sturdy square board book (6.5 X 6.5 inches) is a welcome addition to a family’s Seder table.
Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail, By Lesléa Newman, Illustrated by Susan Gal (Charlesbridge Publishing) Grade Level K-3
Throughout Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail, Lesléa Newman contrasts the inside life of a small boy joyously celebrating his family’s Passover Seder with the outside life of a stray white cat. From the moment the young boy welcomes his extended family into his home until he follows the Jewish tradition of opening the door for Elijah, readers go back and forth between the two settings. Newman skillfully creates a narrative where the cat’s existence is in continuous harmony with the boy’s life.
Children familiar and unfamiliar with the sequence of a festive Seder can follow the notable aspects of this family’s observance. They will periodically chuckle at what the cat is doing outside.
Inside, the boy dipped parsley into water. Outside, the kitten chewed a wet blade of grass. Outside, the kitten split a twig in two. Inside, the boy broke the middle matzah in half.
Interspersed in the text are important rituals. These include lighting candles, the ceremonial washing of hands, dipping parsley into saltwater, reading the Haggadah, eating a festive meal, singing holiday melodies, and opening the door for Elijah. When the boy performs this last ritual, the cat enters. Not surprising, the stray becomes part of the family and is named Elijah.
Susan Gal’s pictures with contrasting shades of blue and gold allow non-readers to take a picture walk. Early readers can use the images as picture clues to help remember ritual objects. Newman includes an Author’s Note which explains the history of the holiday along with traditional rituals followed during the Seder.
Have you read any recently published Passover books you’d like to share?
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Sandra Bornstein is the author of May This Be the Best Year of Your Life. Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She is a retired Colorado teacher who taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college-level courses. In addition to reviewing books and interviewing authors, Sandra is a freelance lifestyle and travel writer and content writer. Many of Sandra’s travel and lifestyle stories appear on the For Readers page. Additional stories are on TheTravelingBornsteins website.