FAITH+ REASON Seder key part of Passover meal
Origins series of books for kids starts with focus on Jewish faith and culture
Sarah Harvey, the editor of Orca Book Publishers’ new Origins series, notes that “no book can be all things to all people, and no two people experience a culture in the same way.” The series is designed merely to lead readers to a place “where differences are acknowledged and knowledge facilitates understanding.”
It is a noble — and timely — goal, and Orca has chosen to begin with a book that focuses on the Jewish faith and culture: Passover, by Montreal author Monique Polak.
In her introductory chapter, Polak explains that, although part of a Jewish family herself, “we are not observant.” She attributes this in part to her mother, a native of the Netherlands, having spent nearly three years in a Nazi concentration camp and once saying to her daughter: “If there is a God, how could He have let the Holocaust happen?”
But Polak, as anyone familiar with her young adult novels knows, has an insatiable curiosity, so when Orca asked her to write a book about Passover, she jumped at the chance to “broaden my own understanding of Jewish history and religion.” The end result, as a photo in this book attests, was her decision last year to host her first Passover seder — something she would be doing again Friday night, since Passover this year began the evening of April 22.
The holiday lasts eight days — seven in Israel (the book explains why) — and has its origins some 3,000 years ago when the Jews emerged from slavery in Egypt. Moses, their leader, had asked the ruling pharaoh for permission to leave Egypt “so they could make their way to the promised land, now called Israel,” but the pharaoh refused. God punished him by sending a series of plagues, and by deciding to kill the first-born son of every Egyptian family. But God spared the Israelites, warning them to “mark their doorposts with the blood of a lamb so that the Angel of Death would know to pass over their homes.” Hence the term Passover. In their haste to leave, the Israelites could not wait for their bread to rise so they “packed the dough in their sacks and it baked in the hot sun, becoming matzo.” This unleavened bread continues to be an integral part of the seder, Passover’s celebratory meal.
The author does a thorough job of describing the origins of Pass- over, the intricacies of the seder, and the importance of this event to Jews around the world. She makes it all accessible to middlegrade readers, regardless of their ethnicity, by including the stories of specific individuals (including a couple of elderly Montrealers who survived the Holocaust), focusing on the participation of children in the seder, and including some simple recipes. The result is a lively read, illustrated with many photos. And while I suspect it will find its way into more school libraries than home libraries, as a non-Jewish person I especially appreciated Polak’s comment that the Passover story “reminds us that the freedom to be who we are and to practise our religion, whatever that may be, is a great gift.”
There is strength and inclusivity in the phrase “whatever that may be.”
Orca’s next instalment in the series — Diwali, by Rina Singh — is scheduled for publication in September.