The Passover Guest

Susan Kusel, Sean Rubin (illus.)

  • Review
By – March 22, 2021

Susan Kusel and Sean Rubin’s rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of I. L. Peretz’s clas­sic sto­ry Der Kun­zen-Mach­er” — about pover­ty, faith, and a sur­prise vis­it by the Prophet Eli­jah — retains the original’s mes­sage about faith and Jew­ish sur­vival. How­ev­er, it is clear from the front mat­ter and open­ing pages that this book explores a new set­ting and direc­tion. Images of the Unit­ed States Capi­tol, the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment, and flow­er­ing cher­ry blos­som trees indi­cate a dra­mat­ic move from the East­ern Euro­pean shtetl to the Unit­ed States cap­i­tal city dur­ing the years of the Great Depres­sion. The Passover Guest also fea­tures a new cast and cul­tur­al con­text. Eli­jah is still there to con­jure their seder from noth­ing, but the inspir­ing mon­u­ment to Amer­i­can patri­arch Abra­ham Lin­coln also plays an impor­tant role, empha­siz­ing that Jews expe­ri­ence the same tri­als and tri­umphs across time and place.

While oth­er adap­ta­tions of Peretz’s sory retain the main char­ac­ters as a poor child­less cou­ple, here the pro­tag­o­nist is Muriel, a lit­tle girl whose fam­i­ly has been dev­as­tat­ed by the world’s eco­nom­ic col­lapse: The year 1933 was dif­fer­ent. Her father, like so many oth­ers, had lost his job.” Rather than expe­ri­enc­ing pover­ty as an unvary­ing part of Jew­ish life, as it was in many parts of East­ern Europe, the pover­ty this Amer­i­can Jew­ish fam­i­ly has suf­fered is a rever­sal of for­tune. Their cel­e­bra­tion of Passover will be a casu­al­ty of this finan­cial chaos. Muriel runs home between a bread­line of the unem­ployed and a group of men read­ing fright­en­ing head­lines about the con­tin­u­ing upheaval.

Rubin, who cites the influ­ence of Cha­gall in his after­word, uses a broad range of col­or to high­light shifts in the char­ac­ters’ lives. The grays and browns of Muriel’s neigh­bor­hood dis­ap­pear when she stops to vis­it the Lin­coln Memo­r­i­al; this mas­sive mon­u­ment to democ­ra­cy is bathed in a blue glow, with Abra­ham Lin­coln watch­ing from his mag­nif­i­cent mar­ble chair.” Muriel notices an itin­er­ant magi­cian prac­tic­ing his art on the building’s steps, and watch­es as this almost macabre fig­ure — exag­ger­at­ed­ly thin with dis­tort­ed body and limbs — is trans­formed. His brown hair turns red, and the eggs he is jug­gling become blaz­ing can­dles.” This intro­duc­tion to the man who will turn out to be Eli­jah is delib­er­ate­ly jar­ring, allud­ing to his strange pow­er. The inte­ri­or of the mon­u­ment then takes on the red shade of sun­set, as Lin­coln seems to be look­ing down on the con­ver­sa­tion between Muriel and the stranger.

Arriv­ing home, Muriel sees her par­ents resigned to giv­ing up their annu­al Passover rit­u­al. The room is dark and sparse­ly fur­nished, the table set only with a pair of can­dles, a Hag­gadah placed in the cen­ter, and a cup labeled with Elijah’s name. The magi­cian enters and cre­ates a meal of such wild abun­dance that the items almost spill off the table. The visu­al image match­es the text exact­ly. How could three peo­ple even con­sume the moun­tains of ten­der brisket, oceans of fla­vor­ful soup, and fields of crunchy matzah”? But the pos­si­bil­i­ty of too many left­overs is not their worst prob­lem. Muriel’s par­ents are wor­ried that the magi­cian has only cast a spell, a dan­ger­ous illu­sion. Muriel encour­ages them to con­sult the rab­bi; in this ver­sion of Peretz’s sto­ry, he is not alone in his study, but about to pre­side over a crowd­ed seder.

A strik­ing illus­tra­tion shows the whole com­mu­ni­ty leav­ing the syn­a­gogue and walk­ing back with Muriel’s fam­i­ly to their home. The hum­ble neigh­bor­hood build­ings and the tra­di­tion­al­ly clothed peo­ple could eas­i­ly be placed in the shtetls­from which either they or their ances­tors immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States. There is even a group of klezmer­mu­si­cians improb­a­bly play­ing their instru­ments on the eve of Passover. Only the pres­ence of the Lin­coln Memo­r­i­al and the Capi­tol remind read­ers of the story’s flex­i­bil­i­ty, where an endur­ing past and an updat­ed set­ting call for the same mys­te­ri­ous guest to per­form a miracle.

The Passover Guest includes insight­ful notes by the author and artist and infor­ma­tion about the hol­i­day of Passover.

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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