"Welcoming Elijah" book cover

Revered Passover traditions take place in a home setting at a time when pandemic isolation is not required and allow a new direct relationship to be established as shown through illustrations by Susan Gal.

In Lesléa Newman’s new children’s book, Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with a Tail, the essence of hospitality extends beyond the holiday as expressed with poetic contrasts.

Revered Passover traditions take place in a home setting at a time when pandemic isolation is not required and allow a new direct relationship to be established as shown through illustrations by Susan Gal.

The book features two Elijahs — one known throughout Jewish history as projecting a time of peace and another in the form of a cat transitioning from unrest into peaceful times after finding a home through the door opened for the symbolic figure.

“I would love readers to see the joy of coming together for Passover,” said Newman, recognized for this project with a National Jewish Book Award, Sydney Taylor Book Award presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries and Northern Dawn Religious/Spiritual Children’s Book Award.

Lesléa Newman
Lesléa Newman

“There are all kinds of people [in the story] and a willingness to be open-hearted to bring a stranger — the kitten represents a stranger — into a home with kind and loving arms. Young readers learn about the beautiful rituals that encompass the holiday.”

Newman, who writes for varying age groups from children to adults, has been a guest speaker at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield. Her earlier children’s books with Jewish themes, counted with some 30 books, include A Sweet Passover, Hanukkah Delight! and Matzo Ball Moon.

Among her multiple writing awards are Bank Street College Best Books of the Year (2020), Wall Street Journal Top Ten Children’s Book of the Year (2019) and New York Children’s Library Best Ten Children’s Books of the Year List (2019).

Welcoming Elijah is short, which I think lends itself well to Zoom seders,” Newman said. “I think it lends itself to be read out loud and have the pictures shown. People in different locations can all have a copy and read it together.

“There’s not a lot of explanation of the holiday, but there is the feeling of the holiday — of togetherness, of celebration, of lovingkindness. That’s what the holiday is all about.”

Newman’s career has been all about writing.

“I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was 8 years old,” she explained. “I was an avid reader, and I wrote poetry from a very young age. When I was a teenager, I noticed that Seventeen magazine published poetry, so I sent them poems, and they accepted some.

“I met with the editor, Hilary Cosell, daughter of the famous sportscaster Howard Cosell. That was the beginning, and I never looked back. I took creative writing in high school and went to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Colorado; it was part of Naropa Institute, now Naropa University.”

Among recent adult books are two dedicated to her late parents, one for her mom (I Carry My Mother) and one for her dad (I Wish My Father). In poetry, they chronicle the last five years of their lives as she cared for them.

Writing for Kids

“The way I got into children’s books was quite accidental,” she recalled. “A lesbian mom told me she didn’t have any books that showed a family like hers to read to her daughter.

“When she said that to me, it resonated, and I wrote Heather Has Two Mommies. I thought about that because I grew up in the 1950s and never read a book about a Jewish family.

“After that, I realized that poetry and children’s books are very similar. They both use very little text and have literary devices (rhyme, repetition, rhythm). I just fell in love with the form of picture books, so I kept at it.”

Newman, raised in Brooklyn and living in Massachusetts, spells her first name Lesléa to combine her English and Hebrew names and reflect her religious commitments, which include membership in Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton, Mass. She loves crossword puzzles and is thrilled to have appeared in one published by the New York Times.

“This new book brings together several passions of mine — my love of Judaism, my love of Passover and my love of cats,” said Newman, planning this year’s seder only with her spouse. “The artist was kind enough to use my cat as the model for her illustrations.”

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