This picture book for children ages 4 and older retells the famous I.L. Peretz story, “The Magician,” originally written in Yiddish and illustrated by Marc Chagall, the most famous Jewish painter of the 20th century.
Peretz’s story riffed on Jewish folklore tales about Elijah the Prophet, whose appearance is hoped for during the Passover Seder, the ritual meal commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. At the seder, a chair is always left empty for Elijah, a special cup of wine is poured at the place set for him, and when possible, the front door is left open to facilitate his arrival.
In Jewish tradition, Elijah has had a number of roles making him a most welcome Passover guest, including the herald of the Messiah, miracle worker, healer, and promoter of social justice and welfare.
This current book is set in Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1933 during the Great Depression. It recounts what happened to Muriel, a young girl who was not looking forward to the Passover Seder celebration because her family was too poor to have one.
In spite of having next to nothing, Muriel gave her last penny to a magician seeking donations who entertained her on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He advised her to hurry home so she didn’t miss her seder.
Miriam was somewhat disbelieving that her family would be having a seder, yet the man was – after all – a worker in magic, and he sounded so confident! She hurried home past the beautiful monuments and memorials, back to her apartment. When she opened the door, however, there was only an empty table.
Then she and her parents heard a knock at the door, and a mysterious stranger asked to join them for their seder. Muriel’s father said, “You are welcome to share anything we have, but this year, we have nothing.” The man responded, “I have everything we need.”
Suddenly the room was no longer shabby and the table was overflowing with food. Muriel ran to get the rabbi and ask if they could proceed with the astonishing meal. He and his curious guests followed Muriel back home. The stranger was gone but the cornucopia of food was still there, and they all celebrated together. By the empty cup set out for Elijah, there sat the penny Muriel had given the magician.
The author and illustrator both add notes after the end of the story, and there is also an explanation of the Passover holiday.
Illustrator Sean Rubin reports that he wanted his work to harken back to Chagall’s approach to art, reflecting aspects of Chagall’s typical palette, as well as his unique arrangements of color, lighting, and surrealist images. Rubin has chosen to idenity the time of year for readers by the beautiful profusion of cherry blossoms, and enhances the narrative’s suggestion of community cohesion by his street scenes in the Jewish neighborhood that evoke the close-knit shtetl, albeit updated. (Shtetls were small Jewish villages that existed in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.) In addition, Muriel’s red hat – always causing her to stand out in every scene – reminded me of the little girl in the red coat in “Schindler’s List.” The red coat is said to have represented hope, innocence, and the continuation of Jewish life and tradition, and I think the same could be said of Muriel in her red hat.
Evaluation: This book is not an ordinary picture book, in the sense that it is actually a “page turner” – readers will be champing at the bit to find out what happens after Muriel hurries home. I also loved the way that an old Yiddish folktale was retold rather faithfully in spite of the new world setting.
The book features an excellent message that is not explicitly articulated, but doesn’t need to be: small acts of kindness, generosity, and compassion are not only “mitzvahs” (or good deeds) in and of themselves. Occasionally, they can even yield repayment in ways you could never have imagined. It could take the form of tangible rewards, but regardless there will be the intangible but more lasting benefits of making you a better person and the world a better place.
Published by Neal Porter Books, an imprint of Holiday House, 2021