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 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.