NoVa librarian reimagines a Passover classic

Susan Kusel’s “The Passover Guest” reimagines a Yiddish classic and sets it in Washington. (Photo courtesy of Holiday House Publishing)

In the book “The Magician,” an elderly couple struggles to afford food and candles for their Passover seder. One day a magician comes to town and supplies them with everything they need. Who was this stranger? You can bet your fifth cup of wine that it was Elijah.

When Susan Kusel was little, her mother read this story to her over and over. Kusel, now 44, rediscovered the book as an adult while browsing through a Jewish library.

“And I read it just again and again and again,” said Kusel, a librarian at Temple Rodef Shalom who specializes in children’s literature. “As an adult, I still loved it, but I wanted to change it. [I thought] what if this happened? Or, what if that happened? And what if we could do this? And so I started changing it.”

It took nine years and 50 drafts for Kusel to complete “The Passover Guest,” a book for children ages 4 to 8 that was published in January.

Kusel’s reimagines the Yiddish original, written by the Jewish literary giant Y.L. Peretz in 1904, with illustrations by Mark Chagall. There have been at least two other English-language adaptations: a 1973 version by Uri Shulevitz, and a 1993 rendition by Barbara Diamond Goldin.

Kusel set her story in Washington in 1933, during the Great Depression.

“I grew up in the D.C. area, and I love Washington,” she said. “And as someone who’s very familiar with children’s books, I see so many set everywhere else, in New York or in the shtetl. But almost nothing in Washington, [which] has this amazing, rich, wonderful, vibrant Jewish community and I wanted to show it.”

“The Passover Guest” tells the story of Muriel, whose family has fallen on hard times after her father lost his job. With food scarce at home, Muriel wanders around Washington on the eve of Passover, believing the holiday to have been cancelled for her family.

At the Lincoln Memorial, the girl encounters a man performing magic tricks and invites him home. When they arrive Muriel discovers a holiday miracle: a feast of brisket, soup and matzah.

Susan Kusel
Susan Kusel (Photo courtesy of Holiday House Publishing)

The 40-page picture book is illustrated by Charlottesville artist Sean Rubin. The capital’s landmarks are here, including the former home of Adas Israel Congregation, now Sixth & I Synagogue. To help with historical accuracy, Kusel consulted the archive at the Lillian & Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum.

Kusel set her book during the Great Depression as a means to explain why the characters were living in poverty. The pandemic has made her struggling characters more real to readers, she said.

Kusel, an Arlington resident, has managed Temple Rodef Shalom’s collection of 5,000 books since 2014. But before transitioning into “the best career ever,” she worked in theater management. She made the career change after stopping by the Politics and Prose bookstore in Chevy Chase.

“And I looked around and I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I love it here. Do you have a job application?’”

“Books are amazing. You can go anywhere, in any time period, in any location. Learn any fact,” she said. “And you can do so much with a children’s book, just as an art form. And then as a parent, as a librarian, watching the effect a book has on a kid is amazing.”

With “The Passover Guest,” Kusel said she can pass on a story that means so much to her.

“It’s important to keep telling Jewish stories and to keep setting them in different places and times,” Kusel said. “I think they need to be told, I think they should be told from all different perspectives and angles.”

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