Thursday, March 29, 2007

Passover with Pearl

Chicken Spaghetti has kindly written a Passover Books post, for which I am exceedingly grateful, because I was feeling like I should but the effort of preparing for Passover and writing about Passover at the same time was threatening to make my head spin. And the Passover Book List [PDF] that she links to has more books than I ever would have thought of.

However, there is one Passover book that demands to be written about in detail, both because it's so excellent and because there is one very, very strange thing about it. And that is Pearl's Passover, by Jane Breskin Zalben.

Jane Breskin Zalben has written and illustrated a whole slew of adorable picture books, many of them about Jewish holidays and rites of passage. Several feature a little bear named Beni and his family, who, in various books, celebrate Chanukah and Purim and Rosh Hashanah and go to a wedding and that kind of thing. The stories and illustrations are sweet without being cloying, understated without being boring, give enough information about the holidays to satisfy the curiosity of non-Jewish kids while giving Jewish kids enough plot to hang their interest on. And many of them are small, just the right size for small kids to browse through themselves. All in all, a totally charming series.

Pearl's Passover is a nice mix of plot, crafts, recipes, and Passover information. In short, read-aloud-able chapters, Pearl and her family celebrate Passover with their relatives, including cousins Harry and Sophie, the "two terrors from Teaneck." In between each chapter, Zalben gives instructions for making crafts like place cards, reclining pillows, Miriam's Timbrels, and a seder plate.

Last year at about this time, my daughter and I were cozily reading away on the couch when we got to the seder plate part and were brought up short. See, one of the objects on the seder plate is a lamb shank bone, to symbolize the lamb's blood that the Israelite slaves used to mark their doors right before escaping from Egypt, so the Angel of Death would pass them over. Kind of a gory little detail, but my child is a veteran of religious school and a big fan of the Kids' Cartoon Bible (a terrific Bible-story version that's not as well-known as it should be), and she wasn't shocked by that. No, what stunned us both was that, see, well, it suddenly dawned on us that Pearl and her family were all sheep. Literally. Some of Zalben's books are about a bear family, but there's a whole other series, including this one, that are about a sheep family.

So this sheep family in this book celebrating a holiday where the liberation of the Jews hangs in part on the slaughter of...sheep.

"That's a little weird," my child offered. I agreed.

We paged forward to the part where Pearl's grandpa (also a sheep!) is retelling the story of the ten plagues. It's the tenth plague, Death of the Firstborn, that prompts the sheep's blood thing, which supposedly alerted the Angel of Death not to kill the firstborn in the marked houses. But Grandpa, understandably, glosses over this part, explaining only that Moses told his people to "mark [their] doorposts."

After that, we had to put the book down and do something else for a while. We just couldn't look at any more pictures of sweet little Pearl and her family. It was like reading a retelling of Lord of the Flies starring pigs.

Aside from this one disturbing aspect, Pearl's Passover is pretty close to the perfect Passover book for kids. You can skip the crafts and read the story; you can skip the story and do the crafts. You can use it as a pre-Seder primer: it's got a map of the exodus from Egypt, and a list of the fifteen steps of the Seder, and important Passover songs like the Four Questions and Dayenu and Chad Gadya all transliterated with musical notation, and it has a glossary at the end. It's fun and cute and great to read aloud.

Just don't be surprised if after reading it your child does a double-take when she sees that shank bone on the Seder plate.


DawnOfTheRead said...

Ha. Poor sheepies.

It is funny what seems weird to us in children's books, but other folks don't seem to notice.

I had an awkward moment yesterday in storytime where I lost my sheet with the day's fingerplays on it, and had to improvise. It was a large group, so I decided to go with the crowd pleaser Three Little Monkeys. However, the topic of the day was food. This brought the disturbing factor of this song up quite a bit. But kids love the is like suitable horror for 2 year olds. Whats a librarian to do?

Three little monkeys
sitting in a tree,
teasing Mr. Crocodile,
"you can't catch me"!
Along comes Mr. Crocodile
with his mouth open wide,
one little monkey down inside...

Genevieve said...

Oh, my. I'll have to get out our copy of the Jane Breskin Zalben anthology and check the Passover story, because I don't remember this!!

bookbk said...

Genevieve-- it might not be in the anthology. It's a bigger format and longer book than most of Zalben's Jewish Holiday titles, and I think it just stands on its own. There are a few other books about Pearl's family, too.

NYC Teacher said...

Who knew there were so many Pesach books! Thanks for the listings... these are great finds.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

I'm reminded of the Richard Scarry books in which animals cheerfully contemplate the array of foods made from their own species.

Are you familiar with the 21 steps to the proper preparation of gefilte fish?