Matzah Craze

Jamie Kif­fel-Alcheh, Lau­ren Gal­le­gos (illus.)

  • Review
By – March 15, 2021

Noa is an ele­men­tary school stu­dent who enjoys trad­ing lunch items as much as any of her class­mates. When Passover arrives, she has a prob­lem. Her friends can­not under­stand why she sud­den­ly rejects their well-inten­tioned offers of tasty foods, and Noa feels awk­ward. “‘Thanks,’ says Noa. Not today. My lunch was made a spe­cial way.’” That ital­i­cized My” does not indi­cate any sense of supe­ri­or­i­ty. Lau­ren Gallegos’s pic­ture shows Noa with eyes turned to one side and hands placed in front of her, palms for­ward, as if afraid of com­mit­ting a trans­gres­sion. Some­times being Jew­ish requires a lit­tle explain­ing. Gal­le­gos and author Jamie Kif­fel-Alcheh have cre­at­ed an affir­ma­tive sto­ry about con­cern and inter­est among friends who may have dif­fer­ent cul­tures but share the val­ues of kind­ness and respect.

From the foods that Noa’s friends offer to share with her — chick­en sal­ad and pot roast in addi­tion to gar­lic bread and cheese — it would seem that she nor­mal­ly inter­prets Jew­ish dietary laws loose­ly. Yet, dur­ing Passover, she refus­es any­thing not pre­pared in her own home. Giv­en that Jews have a wide and some­times idio­syn­crat­ic approach to kashrut, it is plau­si­ble that, in Noa’s fam­i­ly, Passover is when they draw the line. Once read­ers accept that premise, Noa’s dia­logue with her friends about the hol­i­day which her fam­i­ly cel­e­brates is entire­ly cred­i­ble, and a love­ly exam­ple of mul­ti­cul­tur­al exchange.

Noa her­self is from a bira­cial fam­i­ly and her friends form a diverse group. One girl wears a hijab. The envi­ron­ment of her school implies that her reli­gious prac­tice should not nec­es­sar­i­ly stand out as par­tic­u­lar­ly unusu­al. Nev­er­the­less, she is ten­ta­tive about explain­ing her spe­cial lunch. Gal­le­gos por­trays the cafe­te­ria as a dynam­ic set­ting, with stu­dents reach­ing across to one anoth­er in a kind of assem­bly line of pro­duc­tion, cre­at­ing their meals from one another’s dif­fer­ent offer­ings. When Noa opens her lunch­box as if it were a trea­sure chest, every­one leans for­ward eager­ly to see what it con­tains: “’Might be bread,’ says one girl, Pat. but with holes — and real­ly flat.’”

Noa then places her matzah in the con­text of his­to­ry. The nar­ra­tive flash­es back to ancient Egypt where the Hebrew slaves are pic­tured with dark skin, draw­ing a par­al­lel to the com­mu­ni­ty where she lives. The bright col­ors of the present switch to shades of brown and yel­low in the desert, until the Israelites escape and green sea waters rise and swirl dra­mat­i­cal­ly around them. When the Exo­dus sto­ry con­cludes, her appre­cia­tive audi­ence leaves. Noa won­ders how she might best com­mu­ni­cate with them about what Passover means today. The answer is matzah. After she serves it to her friends, the exot­ic unleav­ened bread becomes a deli­cious alter­na­tive to the ordi­nary. Soon they are enjoy­ing it in every form, from piz­za to choco­late, in a ver­i­ta­ble craze” of sharing.

Gallegos’s chil­dren are visu­al­ly endear­ing, their faces express­ing both kind­ness and excite­ment. Her del­i­cate draw­ings of spe­cif­ic foods and uten­sils give a tan­gi­ble feel­ing to a some­what ide­al­ized world. All the chil­dren are sim­i­lar­ly sup­port­ive to Noa, but a bunch of pur­ple grapes neat­ly placed on a white nap­kin, and a matzah sand­wich over­stuffed with sal­ad ingre­di­ents, add an indi­vid­u­al­ized dimen­sion to this para­ble of accep­tance. The com­po­si­tion of the pic­tures also con­veys a mes­sage, as in one word­less page where Noa serves dif­fer­ent foods to dif­fer­ent chil­dren in three sep­a­rate illus­trat­ed seg­ments. Chil­dren will under­stand that the flat crunchy bread with holes may be deli­cious, but the com­mit­ment of friends to accom­mo­date and embrace each other’s dif­fer­ences is most important.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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