Wel­com­ing Eli­jah: A Passover Tale with a Tail

By – April 9, 2020

Passover arrives in this charm­ing pic­ture book. Author Lesléa New­man writes about select­ed parts of the Seder, espe­cial­ly the excite­ment of open­ing the door for Eli­jah the Prophet, using rep­e­ti­tion and oppo­sites, strong tech­niques for young read­ers. The oppo­sites con­sist of an unnamed boy and a cat; the boy is inside and the cat is out­side. The boy belongs, par­tic­i­pates in the hol­i­day with extend­ed fam­i­ly, and is warm, cared for, and hap­py. The cat does not belong; it is lone­ly, hun­gry, cold, and sad. As the dif­fer­ences between boy and ani­mal build, the tale chrono­log­i­cal­ly recounts the Seder in a suc­cinct way, designed main­ly for read­ers famil­iar with Passover and its mean­ing. The boy and the cat have one thing in com­mon: they are both wait­ing. While they wait, they know tonight will be dif­fer­ent, a key line in Seder litur­gy. When it comes time to open the door for Eli­jah, the boy goes to the door alone. He opens it, finds the cat, and names it Eli­jah. The cat finds a home. Read­ers review cus­toms with the sto­ry: Elijah’s cup on the table, drink­ing wine (or grape juice), wash­ing hands, dip­ping pars­ley into salt water, break­ing the mid­dle matzah, hear­ing the sto­ry of the Exo­dus, the Passover meal, songs, and final­ly, the time to open the door.

The book is warm and full of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. The illus­tra­tions in rich jew­el tones are pleas­ant, calm­ing, and sup­port the text well. The skin tones in the pic­tures show a non­white fam­i­ly, an impor­tant inclu­sive fea­ture. An end­ing author’s note adds infor­ma­tion that does not appear in the sto­ry itself. This includes the Israelites’ his­to­ry in Egypt, God’s choice of Moses, the plagues, the hasty depar­ture, and the impor­tance of free­dom. Read­ers absorb the dif­fer­ence between in and out in more ways than one.

Ellen G. Cole, a retired librar­i­an of the Levine Library of Tem­ple Isa­iah in Los Ange­les, is a past judge of the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Awards and a past chair­per­son of that com­mit­tee. She is a co-author of the AJL guide, Excel­lence in Jew­ish Children’s Lit­er­a­ture. Ellen is the recip­i­ent of two major awards for con­tri­bu­tion to Juda­ic Librar­i­an­ship, the Fan­ny Gold­stein Mer­it Award from the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries and the Dorothy Schroed­er Award from the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. She is on the board of AJLSC.

Discussion Questions

It is a well-known fact that pro­lif­ic children’s author Lesléa New­man likes cats. Her Passover kit­ten tale is sim­ple, poet­ic, and just love­ly. The lush and large illus­tra­tions com­ple­ment the sim­plic­i­ty of the text and bring fam­i­ly Passover tra­di­tions to life. Each page depicts ele­ments of the Passover cel­e­bra­tion inside a busy house­hold, while out­side a lone­ly white kit­ten sits and waits in a tree. The kit­ten and the boy each have rit­u­als that mir­ror each oth­er: Inside, the boy broke the mid­dle mat­zo in half. Out­side, the kit­ten split a twig in two.” How­ev­er, the kit­ten goes hun­gry while the boy eats the fes­tive meal. When it’s time for the boy to open the door for Eli­jah, the hun­gry kit­ten peeks inside, and the boy and his lov­ing fam­i­ly wel­come a sweet fur­ry pet to a new home. The illus­tra­tor has depict­ed the large fam­i­ly as mul­tira­cial, and put kip­pot on the heads of all male guests. (The kit­ten is adorable.) The sto­ry of Passover and the rit­u­al of open­ing the door for Eli­jah the prophet are explained in the author’s note at the end of this sweet book for very young children.