It’s 1933 and America is in the grip of the fourth year of the Great Depression. Little Muriel is enjoying the springtime cherry blossoms in the Tidal Basin, a free activity that keeps her mind off of how little food her family has even on ordinary days, much less as Passover draws near. Spying an entertainer on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, she gives him her last penny in appreciation of his dazzling efforts.
When the street magician reminds her that the sun is setting and she ought to hurry home for seder, she admits that her family doesn’t have any food for her to hurry home to. With a kind twinkle, he asks whether she’s sure, prompting her to rush home past the Washington Monument and the White House. But back at home, the dining table is still empty, her parents merely waiting for her so that they might visit the homes of friends who may but probably don’t have any food either. Just as they’re heading out tho, a miracle occurs that will save Passover for their entire Jewish community.
This was a heartwarming retelling of I. L. Peretz’s classic Yiddish tale The Magician, originally set in Poland but transplanted here for young American audiences. As with any good fable, it survives transplantation well, thriving especially in its use of that very specific Washington DC milieu. Tho, as someone who’s literally run around DC a lot, I do find myself more boggled at the idea that little Muriel would run from the Lincoln Monument all the way up to, as I’m deducing from the book since she goes by the White House, 7th St near I than at any of the other fantastic elements of the story. That’s a 40+ minute walk even for an adult! Having Elijah show up to Passover is more realistic to me than that! I guess kids were allowed to roam further by themselves back in the day (she says, dubiously.)
But, y’know, I’m applying too much logic to an otherwise charming fable that imparts Jewish lore and religion in a highly accessible way. Sean Rubin’s illustrations are beautiful and vividly colored, paying homage to Marc Chagall in a kid-friendly way that still feels very much Sean Rubin. It’s always a treat to see Washington DC lovingly and correctly depicted in popular media; putting a spotlight on the city’s Jewish heritage is wonderful, as well. Little wonder that The Passover Guest won the 2022 Sydney Taylor Award for Picture Book, presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.
The Passover Guest by Susan Kusel & Sean Rubin was published January 19th 2021 by Neal Porter Books and is available from all good booksellers, including