Last year at Limmud in Atlanta, I came across a children’s picture book called “The Yankee at the Seder” at one of the book stalls. Written (presumably) for southern Jewish children, the book stresses southern history and Jewish solidarity. The Yankee at the Seder tells of a family in Virginia that is getting ready to sit down for Seder when the mother invites a Union Army soldier–General Lee has just surrendered–to join them for Passover. Their son Jacob is horrified to have an enemy in the house but his mother reminds him that Jews are obligated to take care of each other. So far, so good. The book then goes on to show us the Seder, some sort of rapprochement between Jacob and the soldier, and in the end the child receives the man’s sword as a token of friendship. “Well, that was something”, the mother sums up the night’s events.
So what didn’t I like about it? “The Yankee at the Seder” misses a great opportunity. Instead of alerting young readers to the complexities of southern Jewish history, to slavery, to uncomfortable choices, it glosses over much of the historical background. For sure, African Americans are present from the second sentence onwards, and the Cook appears as a benevolent force. But the obscenity of celebrating the freedom of Passover as slave holders or at least implicit beneficiaries of slavery is, if at all, only subtly alluded to. I am sure (and hope) this was a deliberate pedagogical choice, but I wish the author and the illustrator had chosen a different direction.
The book’s description from Publisher’s Weekly notes or, more precisely, praises the book’s peculiarities: ” The fiercely held loyalties and enthusiasms of her [the author’s] 10-year-old narrator feel authentic, and her gift for dialogue—especially the Southern-Jewish inflections of Jacob’s family—makes the pages fly. Above all, she deserves great credit for not forcing her characters to hug and learn in the final pages. Well, that was something, wasn’t it? the mother says as the Yankee departs. Sensitively written and beautifully illustrated.” Aha.
Many seem to disagree with my reading, however, and the book, published in 2009, recently was awarded a prize from from the Association of Jewish Libraries.