Lau­rent de Brun­hoff passed away on March 22nd of 2024, at the age of nine­ty-eight. As an author and illus­tra­tor of children’s books, de Brun­hoff has left behind a time­less and unique body of work. How­ev­er, it is his series fol­low­ing the adven­tures of Babar the ele­phant that remain the most indeli­ble of his art­works. Babar’s sto­ry was begun by Lau­rent de Brunhoff’s father, Jean, in 1931, and car­ried on by the younger de Brun­hoff after his father’s death in 1937 at the age of thir­ty-sev­en. This ful­ly real­ized world of care­ful­ly devel­oped char­ac­ters – pachy­derms with a range of human qual­i­ties – has assured both his father’s lega­cy and his own. 

By the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the de Brun­hoff fam­i­ly was not Jew­ish, and nei­ther were their ele­phant cre­ations. Yet, not sur­pris­ing­ly, giv­en the pat­tern of Jew­ish assim­i­la­tion in Europe, Jean de Brunhoff’s pater­nal grand­fa­ther was a Jew from the Ger­man ter­ri­to­ry of Baden who con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty. We can guess that Moritz von Haber, son of Solomon von Haber, was per­haps moti­vat­ed to con­vert by a desire for social accep­tance and pro­fes­sion­al suc­cess. This lit­tle-known fact about de Brunhoff’s geneal­o­gy might have been noth­ing more than a curios­i­ty, except for the glimpse it offers into one of his lat­er works of art. Mean­while, the sto­ry of Babar begins with the tit­u­lar char­ac­ter sur­viv­ing the loss of his moth­er at the hands of a hunter, and ulti­mate­ly mar­ry­ing his cousin, Celeste, and becom­ing the patri­arch of a close ele­phant fam­i­ly. He trav­els the world and estab­lish­es the equi­table com­mu­ni­ty of Celesteville (he even vis­its anoth­er plan­et in one sto­ry!). None of these adven­tures allude to a Jew­ish her­itage or connection. 

How­ev­er, in the New York Pub­lic Library’s Dorot Jew­ish Divi­sion there is a unique com­pi­la­tion of Passover-themed art in the Rose Fam­i­ly Seder Books which offers new insight. Each year, the Rose fam­i­ly select­ed artists to con­tribute orig­i­nal works con­nect­ed to Passover, cre­at­ing an eclec­tic series of artists’ respons­es to the holiday’s mean­ing. In 2013, Lau­rent de Brun­hoff inter­pret­ed the seder as a fam­i­ly gath­er­ing and reli­gious rit­u­al for Babar, Celeste, their chil­dren, and guests. They drink the four cups of wine, eat matzah, and recite the Four Ques­tions with dra­mat­ic flair. In addi­tion to the seder table and the children’s per­for­mance, there is the Rose’s annu­al list of guests’ sig­na­tures, enhanced with depic­tions of Babar and Celeste. What makes this seder night cap­tured by de Brun­hoff dif­fer­ent from all others?

Lau­rent de Brun­hoff, (Seder) from The Rose Fam­i­ly Seder Books, 2013. Col­lec­tion of the New York Pub­lic Library. © Lau­rent de Brun­hoff; Cour­tesy of the estate of the artist and Mary Ryan Gallery, New York. 

De Brun­hoff cap­tures the seder in motion. As at any seder, there are cer­tain tra­di­tion­al ele­ments includ­ed in the image. At the same time, de Brunhoff’s style unmis­tak­ably stamps the scene. Matzah, the seder plate, and glass­es of wine indi­cate that the ele­phants are links in a long chain of tra­di­tion. Babar is iden­ti­fied by the suit described in the series as a becom­ing shade of green.” Celeste and their chil­dren are present, as well as oth­er adult ele­phant guests lend­ing warmth and a sense of fes­tiv­i­ty to the occa­sion. These include anchor­ing fig­ures of an ele­phant seat­ed alone at one end of the table, with the visu­al con­trast of a cou­ple seat­ed togeth­er at the oth­er end. No one is wear­ing a kip­pah, per­haps an indi­ca­tion that this is a less tra­di­tion­al­ly obser­vant fam­i­ly, or sim­ply reflect­ing de Brunhoff’s choice of how to illus­trate his famil­iar char­ac­ters. The wine glass­es which the ele­phants raise with their trunks are the larg­er bowled type specif­i­cal­ly suit­ed to red wine, and an ele­gant three-branched can­de­labra holds the hol­i­day lights, details con­sis­tent with Babar’s Gal­lic style. The seder plate includes four of its five items and the matzah is uncovered. 

The next scene departs from the seder table, focus­ing on the Four Ques­tions as deliv­ered by Babar’s chil­dren. Shown sep­a­rate­ly from the rest of the guests, the paint­ing accen­tu­ates the focus on chil­dren for this part of the night’s rit­u­als. The chil­dren are not dressed iden­ti­cal­ly as to how they appear in the seder scene, almost imply­ing that what we see here is a rehearsal for the actu­al seder. Each ques­tion is accom­pa­nied by a cap­tion in cur­sive, as were the orig­i­nal edi­tions of the ear­ly Babar books. The chil­dren dip the herbs in salt water and charoset; the young ele­phant in a striped sailor shirt appears anx­ious, as he iden­ti­fies with the implied tragedy. The chil­dren reen­act the past, mov­ing a heavy block of stone as enslaved Hebrews build­ing for the Egyp­tians. Unlike the pre­vi­ous seder image, here the reclin­ing Babar and Celeste are wear­ing their crowns. They are pri­mar­i­ly par­ents, with the crowns sig­nal­ing their benev­o­lent author­i­ty as they pre­pare to answer their children’s questions. 

Lau­rent de Brun­hoff, (Hag­gadah) from The Rose Fam­i­ly Seder Books, 2013. Col­lec­tion of the New York Pub­lic Library. © Lau­rent de Brun­hoff; Cour­tesy of the estate of the artist and Mary Ryan Gallery, New York. 

The last com­po­nent of de Brunhoff’s work is the list of guests who attend­ed the Rose fam­i­ly seder. Babar and Celeste are fac­ing the list, hold­ing flow­ers and branch­es up towards words embell­ished with flow­ers, birds, and the fig­ures of more ele­phants. These words are com­mands — Extol, Rev­er­ence, Thank, Glo­ri­fy” — selec­tions from Hal­lel with­in the Hag­gadah

As I sat before this glo­ri­ous pic­ture in the NYPL, I could not help but think of a relat­ed image in Babar the King, the third book in the series by de Brun­hoffs father, Jean. After a dif­fi­cult day filled with near-tragedies, Babar has a bad dream. All his anx­i­eties are per­son­i­fied as myth­i­cal crea­tures, but they are defeat­ed by a flock of angel­ic ele­phants who trump the bad qual­i­ties with good ones, includ­ing: Per­se­ver­ance, Courage, Joy, Work, Patience.”

Whether or not Lau­rent de Brunhoff’s back­ground played any role in the cre­ation of Babar’s seder, he chose to embed the ele­phant king and fam­i­ly in a pro­found­ly Jew­ish set­ting. Infused with all the bril­liance of de Brunhoff’s sev­en-decade career, this seder night is indeed dif­fer­ent and unique from all of Babar’s oth­er nights. 

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.