Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Yankee at the Seder: a book review

I was first attracted to Elka Weber's "The Yankee at the Seder " by its artwork by Adam Gustavson, and then the subject matter intreagued me. As described on Amazon:
"The war is over, and everyone is saying the South lost. Ten-year-old Jacob would give anything to show those Yankees that not all Confederates are ready to surrender.

He gets his chance when he sees a real, live Yankee soldier walking down his street, on leave for Passover. But before Jacob can think of a way to be brave, the Yankee asks him for a piece of his matzoh.

This true story about a Jewish Yankee soldier joining a Southern family’s Passover meal shows how common values can overcome even the most divisive differences. Gathered around the seder table, the group discusses what it means to be free--a subject as relevant today as it was during the War between the States and during the Exodus."
I decided to give it a read; the viewpoint of a Jewish Confederate child seemed wholly original. Here's how I reviewed it:
This book goes beyond its subject matter by its wise choice of point of view: a child who naturally resents an invader.
The result is, first of all, entertaining; a book that does not entertain has no value, for it will not be read. The deeper result is that the reader feels empathy for those who are in the wrong, for who cannot understand that the child-narrator would naturally identify with his parents? Even as we understand the wrongfulness of the boy's support of the Confederacy, we naturally understand how he would come to this feeling. This can lead to some confusion, for do we not naturally resist empathy for those in the wrong?
The author resolves this confusion in the course of the Seder discussion. The customs of hospitality requires the boy to hear the adult viewpoints, and the Passover lesson gives ample space for discussing the Civil War in polite language. The former slaveholder suggests that Passover shows the rightfulness of rebellion, but the reply is that Passover is about the wrongfulness of slavery - the Seder hosts must not have liked being reminded that they had played the part of Pharoah! The tension is resolved through the lesson of the plagues: even though the wicked must be punished, we cannot feel at ease knowing that they have suffered.
What a masterful set of lessons, and relevant in so many realms today!
I doubt that most children will completely understand all that this book says, and that's o.k.; since it concentrates first on having a story, they may pick up the ideas and images for use later as they grow wiser. I certainly hope to do so myself.
Not being Jewish, I have not the first idea as to whether this book is theologically correct, but I will recommend it to all my friends who want to think about morality and the right attitude toward those who were - or perhaps still are - considered "enemies"!
I enjoyed the story, and its wise treatment of moral complexity ... how to give hospitality to an enemy, and how to treat with respect a family who was part of a great wrong ... makes this a good book for all ages!

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