Books: Creating a Passover story

Author who immigrated from Canada, illustrator who arrived from Russia connect through work, shared experiences.

Jodie's Passover Adventure (photo credit: Courtesy )
Jodie's Passover Adventure
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Ten-year-old Jodie gets her passion for archeology not from her archeologist father, but from Anna Levine, the writer who created her. Jodie inherited her auburn hair and brown eyes not from her parents, but from Ksenia Topaz, the artist who illustrated Levine’s two picture books for children, Jodie’s Passover Adventure and Jodie’s Hanukkah Dig, published by Kar- Ben Publishing of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Writing a picture book is a collaborative process, in which the author and the illustrator, working through the publisher, bring fiction to life.
Levine, 51, who made aliya from Canada in 1981, writes about life in Israel, in English, for English-speaking children. The blending of history and modernity we find in Israel is the inspiration behind her “Jodie” books.
“Children in Canada or the US don’t know what it’s like to live in a country where history is part of our everyday experience.”
she says. “We don’t have to travel miles out of town to see archeological sites. We walk right by them on our way to work or school. A friend took me on a tour through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, located under the City of David in Jerusalem.
We sloshed through this dark, underground passage that centuries later still has water, and when we came out to daylight I noticed satellite dishes on the houses of Silwan.”
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Through research, Levine found a connection with the holiday of Passover. “King Hezekiah is also credited with holding the first Passover gathering for all of the rulers of Judah,” says Levine.
In Jodie’s Passover Adventure, Jodie and her cousin Zach, who is visiting over the holiday, explore the tunnel.
“I wanted to write a different book about the holiday. I want children living outside of Israel to understand that Passover is more than just the Seder. It’s also about being on vacation from school, doing fun things with your parents, having relatives visit from abroad.”
And Levine has given Jodie the job of explaining.
Although Levine created Jodie, she didn’t recognize her the first time she saw her.
“I remember how odd it was to see someone else’s visual interpretation of a character I’d created in words. I felt like I was meeting her for the first time... kind of like when you email someone or talk to them on the phone and then, when you finally meet, you think, ‘Oh, so that’s what she looks like.’”
Topaz, 43, a Russian-born artist who immigrated in 1991, has illustrated more than 20 children’s books.
Typically, the publisher sends her the text and it’s up to her to imagine the character.
“As I read the story something will jump into my mind. I try to capture the character’s personality, the behavior – if they’re shy or if they’re outgoing.
I showed the publisher a few drawings of Jodie. From there they had me make some changes. Anna also had some input.”
It seems Topaz’s artistic bent was genetically determined. Her father was a sculptor and her mother was a painter – and art was a part of everyday life. Their home was filled art objects.
Her parents had artist friends, who would visit and discuss art. When she was a child, her parents would choose books for her because of their illustrations, and Topaz remembers spending hours poring over the drawings.
After finishing a five-year academic program at Stroganov Moscow State University of Arts and Industry, Topaz, married with two young daughters, moved to Israel, where her interests turned to illustration. She first illustrated textbooks for an educational company.
In 2006 she opened her own studio, and since then she’s worked independently.
Topaz’s final drawings are done in watercolor and colored pencils, but she does most of her sketching on the computer.
This makes the approval process between author, publisher and artist easy and efficient. The publisher usually selects the artist and discourages direct contact between the artist and the author, Topaz explains.
“I think they are afraid that the author will try to influence the artist’s vision,” she says.
But in this case, after the first images of Jody began to gel, Levine and Topaz were encouraged to get together, possibly because they both live in or near Jerusalem. And it was a good thing, too. The first time they met, over Topaz’s illustrations for Jodie’s Hanukkah Dig, Levine puzzled over a drawing that showed Jodie kneeling on the floor, looking for something behind a toilet.
“Speaking in Hebrew, I asked Ksenia why she drew this picture. She told me it was in the text she was given.”
Levine laughs. “We went back and forth: ‘No it wasn’t,’ ‘Yes it was.’ Finally it became clear that where I had Jodie searching for something in a closet, Ksenia thought I meant ‘water closet.’” Topaz tells the same story, laughing hard.
“Anna couldn’t figure out why I had drawn a scene in a bathroom. After that we went over the text scene by scene. Anna is very easy to work with, very gentle. My English is just OK; I learned in school, but in Russia it wasn’t very useful.”
Today, Topaz rarely speaks Russian.
“I feel very Israeli. I love the country, the sun. Life is very good for me here. I didn’t even know I was Jewish until I was 19. In 1989 or ’90 there was an Israeli film festival in Moscow. My mother surprised me when she bought me a ticket and told me to go see a movie. From there I was pulled in to Russian-Jewish life; I got to know Jews and Israelis, and I met my former husband.
The Iron Curtain opened around that time.
“People were talking about making aliya and we decided to come to Israel.
We moved to Bayit Vagan in Jerusalem.
We didn’t speak any Hebrew. Our neighbors were so welcoming. They brought us food, invited us into their homes, invited us for Shabbat. I have no Russian community here. There were years I was disconnected from my background but lately I feel I’m rediscovering the Russian part of myself. I ate something the other day that brought back such strong feelings and memories.”
LEVINE HAS vivid memories of Passovers in Canada.
“My father ground his own horseradish.
I would come into the house and my eyes would tear up from the smell.
And my mother made the gefilte fish from scratch. My father was a professor at McGill University and the Seder table always included colleagues and students of his, from all over the world.
It was really international. I loved it.
“And I love that it’s part of the culture here. Sure, everyone celebrates in their own circle of family or friends, but it’s a shared experience. We all assume that everyone is going nuts cleaning [even those of us who don’t]. I enjoy the Seder.
Our table isn’t big enough so we take a door off the hinges, prop it up on some make-do legs. Everyone brings different dishes and our guests sleep over. Our floor becomes wall-to-wall mattresses.”
“In my married life we celebrated everything,” says Topaz. “But, I don’t know, maybe because I grew up without any Jewish tradition – none whatsoever – I never internalized the holidays.
If I’m invited somewhere I go, and I enjoy it. But it’s not something I actively look for. Maybe it’s also because I am an artist. I think artists tend to live a bit ‘outside the rules.’ Still, Passover is something that we experience together here, whether or not you have a Seder. It’s a common thread between all types of Jews – a thread that connects us.”
We connect through stories too.
Straddling the border between two identities, Canadian and Israeli, sometimes feels like a big disadvantage to Levine.
She doesn’t completely belong anywhere. But this same “separateness,” and the fact that she has raised two Israeli sons, inject great insight into her writing.
In her books for young adults, Levine’s characters deal with quintessentially Israeli situations. In Running on Eggs, a young girl from a kibbutz joins a competitive running group composed of Arabs and Jews. In Freefall, a young woman is determined to join a combat unit in the Israeli army, no matter how tough the try-out. These experiences would be completely unfamiliar to someone who isn’t Israeli. But Levine’s writing opens a window into the Israeli experience by creating characters everyone can relate to on a personal level.
Jodie, for instance, is easy to identify with – and admire.
“Her two older brothers really give her a hard time. But Jodie insists on being taken seriously,” says Levine.
“She has tenacity and determination.
As a younger sister, I see some of myself in Jodie. Except now I visualize her the way Ksenia drew her. She still has the same personality I imagined for her, but Ksenia has brought her to life.”
“I tried to draw Jodie the way I thought Anna wrote her,” says Topaz.
“She’s a bit mischievous, I think, and she knows exactly what she wants. She’s a little like me, the way I always knew I would be an artist.”