Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Secret Seder by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully

When the Nazis invaded France, it was no longer safe for young Jacques, his father, mother and grandparents to remain in Paris. There were black-booted Nazi soldiers everywhere and even walking too fast could be dangerous for the Jews who still remained there.  Jacques and his parents left Paris to live in a small village and pretend they are Catholic like everyone else.  His grandparents also left Paris, but Jacques doesn't know to where.

Now, it is Passover, but having a traditional Seder at home is out of the question with so many soldiers patrolling the village.  There is a plan for Jacques to go with his dad through the village, and up a wooded mountain to a cabin at the summit for a secret Seder. To surprise his dad, Jacques has been secretly practicing the Four Questions that the youngest person at a Seder table asks.

When they arrive at the cabin, there is a group of strangers, all men, sitting around a table with their coat collars pulled up high to cover their heads.  Though most of the traditional symbols that are such an important part of Passover are missing, an old man reads reads the Haggadah, including the Passover story about the exodus of the Jews from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, likening it to the situation that Jews finds themselves in once again under the Nazis.  When it comes time to ask the Four Questions, his father and the other men are surprised and pleased to see that Jacques has kept with Jewish custom and learned them in Hebrew.

At the end of the service, the men leave, never having introduced themselves to each other, but having just shared a courageous act of resistance by daring to have a Seder.  Though the Seder reminded everyone that all over Europe Jews were being murdered, their only parting words to each other are "Next year in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), ending the story on a hopeful note.

The Secret Seder is narrated by Jacques, whose youthful perspective and determination to learn the Four Questions really points to the importance of family, tradition, and religion despite the circumstances the Jewish people found themselves in.

The watercolor illustrations by Emily Arnold McCully really reflects the mood of the story.  In the village, the tone is bright and almost cheerful, except for the frightened expressions on the images of Jacques and his father.  As they climb the mountain, the look of fearful apprehension remains, and the landscape around them becomes darker and darker, increasing the feeling of foreboding.

Doreen Rappaport based The Secret Seder on real events.  There are many true stories of Jews celebrating Passover and other holidays despite the danger of doing so between 1939 and 1945.  I think she has really captured the fear that Jews in hiding lived with during that time, seeking to try to blend in they way Jacques and his family do by trying to act normal in the village, but she has also makes clear what an important part of their lives their religion is to Jews, especially during those dark days.

Back matter includes an author's notes about the book, information about Passover and resources for learning more about it as well as the Holocaust.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

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