Yiddish author I. L. Peretz’s Passover story of generosity and faith, The Magician, has been adapted into several picture books over the years. Barbara Diamond Goldin, who has previously adapted the story, has a new version, The Magician’s Visit, illustrated this time by Eva Sánchez Gómez. The book more than justifies updating a classic, offering a different visual interpretation that combines the tangible realities of Jewish life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe with deeply imagined symbolism expressing timeless Jewish values. While those values are connected to Passover, they are by no means unique to that holiday, nor should this book be considered exclusively seasonal.
Goldin’s text introduces the daily routines of shtetl life as a background for the exceptional appearance of the magician. The villagers “would have walked by any other magician, violin player, or jokester. But they could not help noticing this one.” Sánchez Gómez’s delicate color pencil drawings use a predominately blue pastel background, with carefully chosen red tones adding drama. The magician wears a red coat and astounds the crowd by pulling “yards and yards of fancy ribbons,” also red, “from his mouth.” The scene foreshadows the way this apparent purveyor of illusion will turn out to be telling the most profound truths. He embodies contradictions; too poor to pay the innkeeper, he nonetheless produces “rivers of gold coins” from his shoe. Most strangely, in this small and insular town, the magician claims a cosmopolitan identity, if a vague one. Answering questions, he responds that he is from Paris, going to London, and that his means of transportation has been “wandering.”
The poor couple at the center of the story, in this version named Rebecca and Jonah, are both emblematic of their community and believably distinct individuals. They cannot afford the basic items to prepare a seder. Yet, even reduced to abject poverty, they still give charity to those even less fortunate — Jonah being depicted as vital and strong, and Rebecca with the dignity of a Renaissance portrait. When the wandering magician arrives at their home, he uses his skills to change everything. The word “seder” means “order,” and through his mysterious powers, the magician transforms the couple’s empty table into one set for the ritual of Passover. He conjures objects seemingly out of thin air, and each one lands unerringly in its proper place. Candlesticks emanate light even before they land on the table. The magician gives verbal instructions to ensure that chairs become luxurious enough to enable the mitzvah of reclining at the seder: “Grow wider… Grow softer.” Unsure if the magician’s magic is a misleading illusion or a divine gift, the devout couple visits their rabbi. With his luxuriant beard and thickly folded robe that dwarfs his frame, he is the picture of religious authority, but Goldin emphasizes the simple practicality of his advice: If the matzah crumbles and the wine flows, then Jonah and Rebecca are free to enjoy their seder. Logically, the visitor’s skills may only be greater than those of the less impressive magicians who have become familiar in the town, but the rabbi understands that this unlikely seder has been created by the Prophet Elijah himself. Goldin’s words and Sánchez Gómez’s pictures make this classic story’s central paradox of faith in a moment of despair tangible for children.
The Magician’s Visit is highly recommended and includes questions and answers for discussion, as well as a glossary.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.