It finally happened. I finally found a Jewish children’s picture book that depicts dark-haired and dark-skinned Middle Eastern-looking townspeople, rather than bakers, merchants and passerby who all look like Tevye the Milkman.
Do not believe me? The baker wears a bright red fez and has a big handlebar mustache.
The book is titled, “A Persian Passover” (Kalaniot Books, 2022) and is written by Etan Basseri, a Seattle-based Senior Product Manager at Microsoft, and illustrated by internationally-acclaimed artist Rashin Kheiriyeh.
“I felt there was a gap in Jewish children’s literature, especially with stories that portrayed the old country as the Pale of Settlement,” Basseri told the Journal. “But we know that Jews come from many places, and each ‘old country’ has a rich history and culture that can help young people build their own unique sense of Jewish identity.”
Basseri’s father, who left Iran in 1969 to pursue higher education in the United States, raised him and his American-born siblings with a love and appreciation for Persian culture. His father met his mother, who is Ashkenazi, as college students in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Growing up, I had many cousins and a few Persian friends. But the biggest Persian influence was my dad, “Basseri said.” His passion is the arts: food, music, poetry. He would set you up with a Khoresht-e Loobia Sabz (Persian green bean stew), a hot cup of tea, blast some music from [pop singer] Morteza on his tape player and read you some Hafez. ” Basseri’s father also showed the children the charming 1995 Iranian film, “The White Balloon.”
“That film gave me a small sense of contemporary life in Iran, which was important because I have never visited. The film was also the inspiration for my book, ”Basseri said.
“A Persian Passover” tells the story of a little boy named Ezra and his sister, Roza, who help their family prepare for Passover in 1950s Iran by doing what thousands of Persian Jews have done for centuries: bringing flour to the local synagogue to be baked into matzah in a communal wood-burning oven. But when a crisis occurs with the matzah, the siblings learn the sacred importance of community, kind neighbors and even kinder hospitality. Ezra and Roza were inspired by Basseri’s own young son and daughter.
“A Persian Passover” is Basseri’s first venture as an author. A coherent, beautiful and easy-to-read children’s book, it is sorely needed in the Jewish “kid lit” space. “I learned by doing,” admits Basseri. I tried to emulate one of my favorite children’s authors, William Steig (“Shrek,” “CDB”), and I started with a basic plot outline, then wrote a draft and shared it with my wife, Sonya, who teaches kindergarten. ” Basseri also received guidance about the historical accuracy of the story from his cousin, Dr. Jaleh Pirnazar, a well-known scholar who has been teaching at the Department of Near Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley since 1980.
One of the most striking aspects of “A Persian Passover” are the deliciously vibrant and colorful illustrations by award-winning artist Rashin Kheiriyeh, who was born and raised in Iran. Based in Washington, DC, Kheiriyeh received a Ph.D in illustration and an MFA in graphic design from Alzahra University in Tehran, and has published over eighty books. She has also created illustrations for The New York Times and was named a 2017 Maurice Sendak Fellow. Kheiriyeh has lived in the US since 2011.
“It has been a long time that I wanted to create a picture book about an Iranian-Jewish family and I am so glad that I got this chance to introduce some parts of Persian culture in this book,” said Kheiriyeh. “I have noticed that so many people in the US do not know that we have Jewish populations in Iran who lived happily there for many years.”
Basseri believes Kheiriyeh’s talent and unique background elevate the book. “Rashin is an incredible artist, period. She used mixed media to create a collage effect, and this gives the book a rich, tactile sense that brings it to life in a very unique way, ”said Basseri. “As someone who grew up in Iran, she was able to bring a level of authenticity and richness that others would not have been able to do. Many of the details, including the Jewish content, are based on archival photography from midcentury Iran. ”
Basseri and Kheiriyeh met through Lili Rosenstreich, publisher at Kalaniot Books. The Pennsylvania-based publishing company emphasizes a “rich mosaic of Jewish culture,” according to Rosenstreich. In Fall 2022, Kalaniot will release a children’s Sukkot book titled, “The Very Best Sukkah: A Story from Uganda”, by Shoshana Nambil. The book focuses on the Abayudaya Jewish community in eastern Uganda.
“Although I grew up with predominantly Ashkenazi Jewish traditions, I have an uncle who was born in Iran,” Rosenstreich said. “I was struck by the beautiful and varied Mizrahi customs that he brought to our celebrations – especially at Passover.”
“A Persian Passover” marked one of the first times I’ve read a children’s Jewish book in which I actually saw myself.
“A Persian Passover” marked one of the first times I’ve read a Jewish children’s book in which I actually saw myself. In addition to the Persian-looking characters and the distinctly Persian architecture of various spaces, Kheiriyeh also drew signs written in Persian on the walls and alleyways of the fictional town; Ezra and Roya’s family even sits on a large Persian rug and enjoys the Passover seder on the floor, just as I recall from my childhood in Iran. The book also includes a glossary, a short description about the history of Persian Jewry, and a recipe for halleq (Persian spiced charoset).
The book marked one of the few instances that I read a Passover children’s book to my young kids and they gleefully cried, “We do that, too!” For our family, that’s an invaluable experience.
“I hope that the loving relationship between Ezra and Roza is a model for siblings, and that the hospitality they show to their neighbor is a positive example for how we can all welcome others into our homes. That’s what community is all about, ”said Basseri.
Basseri grew up in a traditional home and attended Jewish day school, Jewish day camp and overnight camp. He has served on the boards of Jewish Family Service of Greater Seattle and Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation.
“Persian Jews celebrate Passover in many of the same ways as the rest of the Jewish community, with a few interesting differences. You do not have to be Persian to enjoy some of those traditions, either. ”
Basseri is currently working on another children’s picture book that will be “set in the Sephardic old country.” In addition to his work demands, family commitments and writing pursuits, this year, as with every year, Basseri is responsible for a particularly vital aspect of the Persian Passover seder: He’s the one in charge of the charoset.
For more information on “A Persian Passover,” visit kalaniotbooks.com/books/