Friday, March 26, 2004 | return to: passover


Passover companion book a treasure for the seder-bound

by dan pine, staff writer

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If you grew up with the Maxwell House Haggadah, listen up: Eric Kimmel's Passover companion "Wonders and Miracles" is a step forward and good to the last page.

Author of 60 children's books (including the classic "Hershel and the Hannukah Goblins"), Kimmel has a real feel for storytelling, and what better story to tell than that of the Exodus from Egypt.

Ostensibly written for young people, "Wonders and Miracles" is a treasure for the seder-bound of any age. While the lavish illustrations — composed largely of Haggadah art through the centuries — is the book's most striking feature, Kimmel adds plenty of delightful tangents to dazzle readers.

The author follows the order of the seder, but because he designed the book as a companion volume to the Haggadah, Kimmel indulges in frequent flights of fancy. Poems, songs, short stories, even recipes (including three kinds of charoset) punctuate the explication of the seder's traditional parts.

As the seder often sparks free-ranging discussions, "Wonders and Miracles" gives plenty of unleavened food for thought. What exactly do the three pieces of the broken matzah signify? Why, the Kohanim, the Levites and the Israelites, of course. Where did "Dayenu" come from? It first appeared in a ninth century Haggadah from Baghdad.

Now you know.

The book's Maggid section, i.e., the telling of the Passover story, is elaborate. Beginning with an illustrated family tree of the descendants of Abraham, Kimmel goes into detail, including Torah tales about Moses (normally not part of the Haggadah), midrashic asides and even an interpretation of the Exodus geared to the very young.

Yet the book's artwork, both ancient and recent, stirs the heart most of all. Particularly touching are the many reproductions taken from medieval Haggadot.

Illustrations reveal much about the lives of European Jews back in the day. Forced, like all Jews then, to wear garish conical hats (similar in purpose to the yellow star), medieval Jewish artists depicted the Israelites sporting the same humiliating headgear. Were they trying to say something?

The art spans thousands of years. Photos of ancient Egyptian statuary, including a likeness of Ramses II (thought to be the Pharaoh of the Torah) lend immediacy to the Exodus tale. Recent drawings and woodcuts show that Jewish artists never stopped pondering the meaning of Passover.

Above all, "Wonders and Miracles" conveys the connection Jews, in all times and all places, have had with Passover. Ornate seder plates, finely wrought wine cups for Elijah (and Miriam) and delicate calligraphy convey the love Jews have for this holiday.

Some might quibble with the reading llevel of the text — it's geared for ages 4 through 8 — especially given that "Wonders and Miracles" resembles a sophisticated coffee-table book. But the information presented is fresh, fascinating and never dumbed down. Besides, why wouldn't any Jewish parent want his or her child to read and learn from so enticing a volume?

This book is not meant to replace the Haggadah. But this year's seder might go better with "Wonders and Miracles" as an adjunct. Just park it between the matzah and the saltwater dish. But don't get any purple horseradish stains on it. The book is much too beautiful for that.

"Wonders and Miracles," written and compiled by Eric A. Kimmel (144 pages, Scholastic Press, $18.95).


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