Off the Shelf: Passover picture books and a new children’s haggadah

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Picture books for Passover

Even though I am approaching my Medicare birthday (you should be able to figure out my age from that), I still love reading children’s books, including picture books. It’s always interesting to see the clever ways authors and illustrators combine words and pictures to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Two new examples are “The Passover Mouse” by Joy Nelkin Wieder and illustrated by Shahar Kober (Doubleday Books for Young Readers) and “Welcoming Elijah: a Passover tale with a tail” by Lesléa Newman and illustrated by Susan Gal (Charlesbridge). 
The illustrations showing a Jewish village in Europe quickly set the time and place in “The Passover Mouse.” Rivka, a lonely widow, is doing her final Passover cleaning the day before the seder. However, when she enters her kitchen the next morning, she see a mouse eating the bread she’d prepared to ceremonially burn. She chases the mouse, but he runs from her house, taking the bread with him and leaving crumbs behind. The mouse then runs into neighboring homes and soon the whole village is in an uproar. Will everyone have to do another Passover cleaning before the holiday begins?

The villagers ask their rabbi what they should do. Unfortunately, he notes that, since the sages came to no firm conclusion about this type of problem, everyone needs to clean and search their houses again to make certain that no chametz (leaven) remains. But what is poor Rivka to do since she still needs to prepare food for the seder? The answer to that question is a beautiful example of community support. There is also a lovely touch on the last page showing the importance of sharing.

The illustrations in “The Passover Mouse” are well done, particularly the facial expressions of the people, which clearly show their worry, frustration, anger and happiness. An author’s note shares the question from the Talmud that inspired the story, something adults will appreciate. This is a perfect book to read both when preparing for Passover and during the holiday itself.

While “The Passover Mouse” takes place in the past, “Welcoming Elijah” occurs in contemporary times. The book shows two aspects of the world at the same time: one inside a warm house filled with light and, in the other, the dark, cold outdoors. Inside, an unnamed boy welcomes family and friends as they gather for the seder. Outside, a kitten lives on his own struggling to survive. The book introduces readers to the different parts of the seder the boy experiences, while at the same time the kitten continues wandering alone in the cold. The two sections of the story come together when the boy opens the door for the prophet Elijah and finds the kitten outside. Welcomed into the house, the kitten, now called Elijah, finally finds a home.

“Welcoming Elijah” is an excellent way to introduce younger children to the basic outline of the seder and can also be used to generate greater discussion. The drawings create a mood that works to highlight both parts of the story: the inside is brightly lit and friendly, while the outdoor scenes are gloomy and clearly suggest the cold weather. The guests at the seder are multi-cultural, which adds a nice touch. Best of all, the sweet ending will warm the hearts of readers, young and old.

A new haggadah

Still want to hold a traditional seder and appeal to grade-school aged children? “The Koren Youth Haggada: The Magerman Edition” developed by Dr. Daniel Rose, with illustrations by Rinat Gilboa and designed by Tani Bayer (Koren Publishers Jerusalem) may be the answer to your prayers. In addition to the traditional Hebrew text and simple English translation (there is no transliteration), it includes information about the seder and questions/activities to stimulate discussion. The quotations offered from both traditional Jewish writing and contemporary figures are excellent and thought provoking. The introduction also mentions that a parent’s guide is available to help adults better utilize the material. 

This haggadah encourages readers to think about the way the story relates to their own lives. It also offers a very short version of the history of the Jewish people from Abraham to the Exodus. An English language version of “Dayenu” (“It Would have Been Enough”) focuses on the state of Israel from the early Zionists to Israel’s contemporary role in cutting edge technology. The traditional Hebrew version is also included.

What will stand out for adults who collect haggadot (the plural of haggadah) are the beautiful and colorful illustrations. Gilboa offers her vision of everything from the plagues to a family sitting down to the meal. Especially clever was her use of stacking dolls when picturing the four sons. So, even those who aren’t looking for a haggadah to use with children may want their own copy, if only for the illustrations.