yankee seder
Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.
The Yankee at the Seder

by Elka Weber; illustrated by Adam Gustavson

“Mother!” hollers Jacob Josephson, a ten-year-old Virginian. “There’s a . . . there’s a . . . Yankee Jew outside!” This startling apparition is significant for two reasons: first, the Civil War has just ended with the South’s surrender (frustrating Jacob’s Confederate dreams of soldierly glory), and Yankee soldiers are an alarming presence; second, Jacob’s family is Jewish, preparing for the Passover seder that night, so the Yankee corporal’s faith (revealed when he wishes the matzoh-nibbling Jacob a good holiday and asks for a bite) means that he’s invited to the Josephsons’ dinner. Though dinner conversation involves some prickly moments, Corporal Levy
proves to be a polite and gracious guest, and when Jacob steals the Northerner’s afikoman (final piece of matzoh), he receives as traditional ransom an untraditional bounty: a Union soldier’s cap (“Now you can tell all your friends that you got a Yankee’s head”).

Yes, we know this year’s Passover has passed over, but this is a story of nuance and originality, worth celebrating all year round. The fact that it’s based on a real incident adds interest, since this isn’t some mythical tale of faith crossing boundaries but an account of real people facing a real, and really uncomfortable, situation. There’s no dry historical hagiography in the style, either: Weber writes Jacob’s voice with a personable authenticity and quiet polish (“Yankee soldiers patrolled the streets, walking around as thought they owned Virginia. To be fair, I
guess they did own Virginia now”), keeping him an accessible and believable kid with a kid’s-eye view of the war as a thing that dominates grownup conversation and youthful ambition.

The book’s real masterstroke, though, is the very discomfort of the situation. Readers accustomed to storybook plot progression may be expecting a heartwarming tale of enemies finding rapprochement; instead, the book faces squarely the difficulty of the situation, as multiple generations of Josephsons (not only Jacob and his parents but also his grandfather) simultaneously host and face off with their guest (“It was something to see as they all tried to make polite conversation without talking about the one subject that was most on their minds”). The result is a plainspoken and impressive depiction of enemies negotiating an awkward but workable truce (probably a more educationally useful model, as well as a more credible one, than a rosier ending); there’s respect and dignity in the book’s treatment of both sides as Northerner and Southerner make their case for the relevance of Passover,
a celebration of freedom from slavery, to their respective stands.

The book is formatted like a picture book, with a white-bordered full-page image facing each neatly framed page of text. Though Gustavson’s oil paintings are somber in hue, as befits the period, the portraiture is expressive and compositions creative (when Corporal Levy first appears, he’s looming diagonally across the spread and over the narrator/viewer, bursting past the frame on top), and the faces are drafted with unusual fluidity for the medium and the period, with a touch of playfulness that ensures liveliness even in a tense situation. The solid text
will be equally at home with intermediate readers and thoughtful readers-aloud, and it’s definitely got promise for evoking post-reading discussion about faith and individual conscience.

In fact, the book offers any number of promising uses: it’s a fascinating Civil War story with a difference, it’s an American counterpart to the World War I Christmas in the trenches story, and it’s a rich tale of people finding connections through faith in a difficult time. Weber provides a glossary before the story and concludes with a compact, personal explanation of the festival of Passover, so even those unfamiliar with the holiday will have no difficulty understanding its import in the story. Of probably more interest to young readers is the thorough note, enhanced with photographs and source note, about the Civil War, its Jewish soldiers on both sides, and the real Myer Levy, who did indeed spend his first post-war Passover as a guest at his former enemies’ table.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

yankee seder

Cover image by Adam Gustavson from The Yankee at the Seder ©2009. Used by permission of Tricycle Press.

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This page was last updated on May 1, 2009.