I love seasonal and holiday books. They are a weakness I have, whether or not my kids enjoy them as much as I do. Thanksgiving books? We must have ten. Halloween books? Probably twenty. Books about falling leaves, snowman building, flowers blooming? A shelf's worth, at least. But, when it comes to Jewish holidays, we run into a problem. Namely, that books for those holidays are hard to find, in general. And, finding good books--books that have actual stories and are engaging--is nearly impossible.
Whenever I find a Hanukkah book at a yard sale or used bookstore, I buy it. I hope for the best. I am often disappointed. We do have some gems, though. I also pick up any book that so much as mentions Passover. They are even harder to find. And almost every one of them is a recitation of "this is what we do on Passover, and why."
I understand why the books are like this. Simply put, Jews are a minority, and our holidays and customs are not familiar to most Americans. So, where an author can weave a fanciful story about Christmas--without ever having to explain how or why it is celebrated--writing a story about Passover the same way would not fly. Most readers would be lost. What is matzah? Why are they sitting around a table with that funny plate? And, so, almost every Passover book I have found is a list of customs and facts. "We ask four questions. These are the symbols on the Seder plate, and what they mean." I understand the need for these. But, for Jewish children who already live the customs (and have them explained every year, two nights in a row, at the Seder table), I wanted something more. I wanted something fun.
Last year, only a few days after Passover, I went to the Used Book Superstore, and I hit gold. There, among the "spring holiday" display, was The Matzah Man by Naomi Howland. This book is exactly what I had been looking for. It is a fun take on that Christmas-y story The Gingerbread Man. Instead of a gingerbread man, we have a matzah man. Instead of the well-known taunt, "Run, run as fast as you can. You can't catch me. I'm the Gingerbread Man," we have, "Hot from the oven I jumped and ran, So clever and quick, I'm the Matzah Man." This book is pure perfection. Finally, a fun, rollicking story for Passover.
One of the things I love so much about this book is that it touches upon the cultural aspects of Passover without getting very religious and preachy. Through the course of the book we see the matzah baker, Cousin Tillie making brisket, Auntie Bertha shopping in brand new shoes, Grandpapa Solly chopping onions for gefilte fish, Miss Axelrod making matzah ball soup, and finally Mendel Fox, who tricks the Matzah Man into hiding under the matzah cover at his Seder table. (We also see a red hen and goat along the way, who, as far as I know, have nothing at all to do with Passover.) I like that we see the foods of Passover. We see people preparing for a joyous meal--cooking, getting dressed into new holiday clothes, making their way to a common Passover table. We get to see all of this without a discussion of plagues, or slavery, or fleeing before the bread could rise. Which is nice. Because sometimes, you just want a nice holiday story for the kids without all the heavy religious explanations. (And, yes, I know that those heavy religious explanations have their place--they just don't need to be the only literature out there.)
This week, my son's preschool teacher asked me if I have a Passover book that she can share with this class. My son is the only Jewish child in the class, and I wanted to steer clear of anything too religion-heavy. I was so happy to have this story to offer. It is fun. It mirrors a familiar tale. And it shows a table full of happy family, sharing a Passover meal on the last page. It is exactly the representation of our holiday that I would like to present to people who have never seen it before. I am so thankful to Naomi Howland for making it available to us.