Green Bean Books

Q and A with Maayan Ben Hagaifor Workitu’s Passover

1. Why do you think this story is an important one to tell?

The book Workitu’s Passover is important because it weaves themes relevant to the twenty-first century with the customs and traditions of the Jewish community in Ethiopia, all through the eyes of a little girl named Workitu. The Beta Israel Jewish community lived in Ethiopia and were isolated from mainstream Jewish communities for millennia. They maintained some unique traditions; one of them – the recycling of Passover dishes to and from the earth – is our story’s focus.

In writing this story, my co-author Zahava Goshen and I first wanted Israeli children of Ethiopian origin to learn and be proud of their cultural heritage. Most community members emigrated to Israel in the late twentieth century, and their customs and way of life are on the verge of extinction. These customs survive through memories, stories and artefacts collected by those born in Ethiopia. But as we wrote it, we realized the stories are relevant to our time (as I detail below). Children in every language can benefit from hearing about the world of Workitu.

2. What do you hope this story inspires in or teaches readers?

Our story revolves around the custom of the breaking and renewal of Passover dishes from the earth. Beta Israel Jews break all their dishes and cookware before Passover and make new ones. So this breaking is also the beginning of a new dish. We hope that telling the story will ignite current Jewish and universal themes such as innovation versus tradition, the creative power in nature and humans, the cycle of life, and sustainability and recycling. Children will likely find many more themes they can relate to through this story. We also hope the story will make children and adults reflect on their own lives (for example, the Passover customs they are familiar with) and understand something new about themselves. Workitu’s story will arouse curiosity and a desire to learn more about the history and traditions of the Beta Israel community.

3. Do you see a Jewish value behind the tale, and if so, what is it?

Workitu feels deeply the sense of belonging and the unbroken chain of Passover customs. The dishes used during this time are made from clay that dates back to the time of the Exodus from Egypt. Each year and with every generation, new dishes are crafted, tailored to meet present needs and designed according to current preferences. This delicate balance between embracing innovation and creativity while preserving tradition and upholding lasting customs is an inherent characteristic rooted in Judaism and the Jewish way of life. It provides us with much-needed solemnity, sacredness and meaning.

4. How do two people go about writing a children’s book together? What does the process of collaboration look like?

Workitu’s Passover began with Zahava telling me about breaking and remaking dishes for Passover. Her story evoked memories of my childhood in a kibbutz, where we made dishes from the clay at the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Inspired by this connection, we researched every detail, and our story took shape from there. 

Zahava and I have already co-authored a novel for young adults called Gudai, which explores themes of Zahava’s childhood and voyage to Israel. Our previous collaboration greatly assisted us in the creation of Workitu’s Passover. The characters are derived from Gudai, but portray an earlier phase of their lives.

5. How did your experience writing this book differ from that of your co-author, Zahava Goshen?

Our experiences of writing Workitu’s Passover differed in several ways. Zahava’s childhood memories formed the book’s foundation, as she described in great detail how things looked and how they were during that time. We also incorporated pictures she offered to enhance the story’s authenticity. My role as the writer involved delving into the girl’s character, understanding her perspective and crafting the literary elements that would resonate with twenty-first-century children, whose reality differs significantly from the life of the story’s heroine. It’s worth mentioning that Zahava has two Amharic names, Gudai and Workitu. Gudai signifies the hidden ways of God and is sometimes given to a child born after the mother had a miscarriage. Workitu, on the other hand, means ‘my gold’.

6. Which Jewish stories or secular children’s books did you love as a child?

I grew up on Hebrew children’s literature, including works by Bialik, Leah Goldberg, Miriam Yalan-Shteklis and Kadia Molodowsky and Russian literature translated and adapted into a Zionist context. My father used to read Bible Stories for Children to me and would recount the Bible stories from memory as we walked through the locations where these stories took place. Once I started reading on my own, I eagerly consumed classic and lesser-known books I discovered in the disorganized and rundown library of the kibbutz where I grew up. I greatly admire authors such as Erich Kästner, Roald Dahl and Astrid Lindgren. In their works, I find a sense of freedom and wild spirit, boundless creativity, brilliant humour and a profound belief in the potential of the human spirit. They manage to convey these qualities without being didactic or preachy.

7. Can you offer words of wisdom for aspiring young writers?

Read a lot, and whenever you come across a piece of writing that seems brilliant to you and makes you jealous, reread it again and again until you crack the literary trick that created it. When you sit down to write your piece, look for the fluttering, childish, unlearned place that is still unclear to you. These might sound like two contradictory bits of advice. However, when you put them together, you may be able to create a new and beautiful work of art.

8. Where do you stand on the ‘Own Voices’ debate? For a Jewish story, do you think it’s important to have a Jewish author/illustrator? Could this story have been written and illustrated as well by a non-Jewish author/illustrator?

This is a good question! I don’t have an unequivocal answer to it. When we finished writing Workitu, I told Zahava that this was it – even if she had another name in Amharic, we wouldn’t write another book together about her childhood in Ethiopia because now it was time for her daughter and others to share stories about their parents’ and grandmothers’ childhoods. They are not newcomers and can share the stories of their community’s illustrious and beautiful past. At the same time, Eden Spivak and I gave considerable respect, space and vitality to Zahava’s memories, oral stories, experiences and faith. The resulting book benefits from the collaborative effort that brought it to life and encompasses a diverse cultural and artistic richness. I believe that adhering to rigid prohibitions or permissions does not foster great art. How you work together – the dialogue and reciprocal relationships forged through the creative process – determines, each time anew, whether good artistic work has been created.