Reading Pesach: 5 Favorite Passover Books

Gentiles may be forgiven for thinking Chanukah is the biggest holiday of the Jewish calendar. Certainly it gets the biggest billing in mainstream culture, no doubt because it usually occurs around Christmas. But for practicing Jews, Passover is one of the holidays that looms largest. Beginning on the fifteenth day of the Jewish month of Nissan – typically sometime in April – it lasts seven days and is a festival to celebrate the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian enslavement. The name “Passover” is derived from the Hebrew word Pesach, which in turn is based on the root “pass over” – a reference to the belief that God “passed over” the Jews when punishing Egypt; essentially, it’s a festival that celebrates the Old Testament story of Moses and the Exodus. It often dovetails with the Christian holiday Easter, and Jesus’s final supper is widely accepted as a seder, a Passover meal eaten by Jews everywhere since Moses’s time. For Pesach this year, I’ve assembled a menu of our own – one comprised of books about the holiday. Chag Pesach Sameach!

All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
One of my favorite young adult series of all time, the All of a Kind Family was a fictional Jewish clan living in a small railroad apartment on New York’s Lower East Side around the beginning of the twentieth century. All the Jewish holidays figure prominently in the books, but Pesach plays an especially important role in the first one. In it, all five children are stricken with scarlet fever except second-oldest Henny. The family tomboy, Henny must ask the questions traditionally posed by the youngest child at a Seder while her quarantined sisters listen from their bedroom piteously. Like the rest of the book, this chapter is plaintive, sweet, and funny, and it breathes life into a timeless tradition like few YA (or adult) books ever have.

Matzo: 35 Recipes for Passover and All Year Long by Michele Streit Heilbrun
It is said that when the Pharaoh freed the Israelites, they left in such hurry that they could not wait for bread dough to leaven, or rise. Thus, for the duration of Passover no leavened bread is eaten. This can make for some dreary meals, though with the rise of gluten-free and no-carb diets, it has become less of a drag than in decades past. This handy cookbook should help even more. In addition to such traditional fare as matzo brie and matzo ball soup, it features recipes for matzo nachos, pear and cherry matzo kugel, and such sweet matzo “toasts” as Mexican chocolate ganache and salted caramel.

Pesach for the Rest of Us: Making the Passover Seder Your Own by Marge Piercy
Marge Piercy is one of our best living poets, but her writing skills are not limited to a single genre. In addition to being a terrific essayist and novelist (check out Gone to Soldiers and He, She, and It if you haven’t already), she’s the author of one of the best books about Passover for our age. Part verse, part how-to handbook, and part cookbook, it breaks down the holiday’s rituals in witty, detailed prose, and includes poems for the holiday as well as a treasure trove of well-constructed recipes. Somehow Piercy manages to highlight the enduring resonance of Pesach without bogging us down the way some Haggadah (the Jewish volume that sets the Seder order) readings do.

The Carp in the Bathtub by Barbara Cohen, Joan Halpern
No Passover reading list would be complete without this children’s classic. It’s the story of Leah and her younger brother Harry, New York kids who attempt to rescue an especially endearing carp from becoming the gefilte fish of their Passover Seder. The descriptions of Jewish home cooking, the sweetly plainspoken tone, the endearing black-and-white illustrations: This book is the best kind of kosher.

Shush! Growing Up Jewish Under Stalin by Emil Draitser
Although not explicitly about Pesach, this memoir about growing up in the anti-Semitic Soviet Union after the Holocaust highlights the importance of the holiday in a way few nonfiction narratives do. Overall a history of two centuries of Jewish life in Russia, there’s an arresting section in which the author details his mother’s arduous quest for Passover matzo. The irony of having to fight – covertly! – in order to commemorate the Jews’ liberation from slavery is not lost here, nor should it be. This year more than most, we have cause to celebrate freedom from oppressive regimes.

This was originally published on Signature.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy