Passover is a tradition rich in food, festivities and commemoration — so rich, in fact, that it has spawned its own brand of literature. Since the holiday honors the events of the Book of Exodus, which tells the story of the Israelites’ winning their freedom from enslavement by the Egyptians, it only makes sense that a number of books would also subsequently honor Passover. With so many Jewish authors affected and influenced by the festival, it’s no wonder there’s such a wealth of great books to choose from as dusk approaches this April 15.
1. The Chosen by Chaim Potok
An instant classic that often finds its way into A.P. lit courses, The Chosen follows the unlikely friendship of Daniel (Danny) Saunders and Reuven Malter as they grapple with the conflict of coming from two different sects of Judaism. Danny, a Hasid, and Reuven, a Modern Orthodox Jew, initially meet while playing on opposite teams (oh, the symbolism) during a baseball game. After Danny hits a ball that lands right in Reuven’s face, the two naturally strike up a friendship. Set in the Williamsburg, Brooklyn of the 1940s, Potok’s story unfolds with all the beauty and precision of a Seder, and ultimately, one of the most climactic, bittersweet moments of the book takes place on Passover.
2. The Rise of David Levinsky by Abraham Cahan
An underrated classic, The Rise of David Levinsky is told from an autobiographical perspective that lends it a specific kind of authority. Born in Antomir, Russia in 1865, Levinsky lives a life filled with struggle. Even early on in his childhood, he must deal with being the poorest student at his school, subjected to cruel treatment from both his teachers and fellow students. Nonetheless, Levinsky excels in academics, as well as Talmudic studies. Although his interest in the Talmud is strong, he is also at war with his own budding sexual identity by the age of 13. In keeping with his history of constant ridicule, Levinsky’s life is forever changed during Passover after gentiles celebrating Easter accost him on his way to the market. When his mother sees the damage that’s been caused to her son’s face, she tries to chastise his tormentors, resulting in her being beaten to death.
3. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
As the most contemporary novel on this list, Wonder Boys has a more comical slant. The sardonic levity of Chabon’s writing shines through protagonist Grady Tripp. In between working on a manuscript that’s over 2,000 pages long and teaching at Coxley College in Pittsburgh, Tripp must also juggle the emotional fallout of getting his married mistress, school chancellor Sara Gaskell, pregnant and being abandoned by his wife. His friendship with a student named James Leer leads him on a series of hijinks, including the shooting of Sara’s dog and the theft of a valuable piece of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia from her husband Walter. At one point, during the duo’s (at times hallucinogenic) journey, they attend a Passover Seder at the home of Tripp’s parents-in-law, who try to remain oblivious to their daughter’s imminent divorce. Covering just over 30 pages of the book, the Seder scene in Wonder Boys verges on the epic, culminating in Leer being picked up by his parents after drinking too much kosher wine, smoking too much weed and playing beer pong.
4. All Other Nights by Dara Horn
The historical novel can be a difficult genre to tackle, but Horn does it with such ease and confidence that you’d think a story about an assassination plot during the Civil War at Passover time is the most natural backdrop in the world. Centered on Jacob Rappaport, a Union soldier who has been enlisted to poison his own uncle, who’s purported to be making an attempt on Abraham Lincoln’s life, we are led into a world of intrigue as Passover of 1862 commences. Appealing to his strong ties to Judaism, Jacob’s superiors insist that he would be honoring “[his] race” by getting rid of his Confederate uncle. The parable of the Passover story with the events of the Civil War come together seamlessly throughout the novel, highlighting the irony of Southern Jews in favor of slavery.
5. Passage from Home by Isaac Rosenfeld
Rosenfeld’s only novel wastes no time, opening the narrative with a Passover Seder. Among other events that showcase the divergent ideologies of Old and New World Judaism, the patriarch of the Miller family grows irritated when a gentile in-law sings throughout the dinner. Moreover, the protagonist, Bernard Miller, is so averse to his culture that he is prompted to note, “It was to wine, rather than the history of my people, that I owed my sense of reverence.” And so, Passage from Home sets the tone for a tale rife with psychological drama and rebellion against one’s own culture, religion and people.
6. A Passover Haggadah: As Commented upon by Elie Wiesel and Illustrated by Mark Podwal
Commenting on the dichotomy of happiness as only Wiesel can, this illustrated collection finds a way to simply and eloquently retell the story of Passover with the addition of Wiesel’s notes and reminiscences alongside the Haggadah. Although intended as something of a children’s book for adults, there’s still an air of sorrow as Wiesel laments, “The joyousness of this holiday is so tinged with melancholy that it seems more like a time of sadness.” Wiesel’s passionate sentiment over this unique Jewish holiday comes through not just in his words, but with Podwal’s vital illustrations as well.
Whether this is your first year celebrating Passover or you’re a seasoned veteran, these books are sure to build on your literary appreciation of this glorious, matzo-filled celebration. But do you have anything to add? Is there a book you’d recommended to Jew and gentile alike during this holiday? Tell us all about it in the comments below.
Genna Rivieccio graduated with a degree in screenwriting and closely identifies with Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. She has written for pop culture blogs, including Culled Culture, The Toast and Behind the Hype, as well as satire for Missing a Dick and The Burning Bush.
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