Green Bean Books

Q&A Maayan Ben Hagai

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

Workitu’s Passover allows a glimpse, through a little girl’s eyes, at Beta Israel Judaism’s Passover customs in Ethiopia. Beta Israel is an ancient community with a glorious heritage. Since most of the community members immigrated to Israel, its customs and way of life no longer exist. They live in memory and through documentation recorded by those born in Ethiopia who immigrated to Israel in the 1980s.

When we wrote this story together, Zahava Goshen, who was born in Ethiopia, and I, who was born in Israel, thought about the children from the Ethiopian community, who were born in Israel to parents also born in Israel. We wanted to allow them to learn more and be proud of their grandparents’ cultural heritage. Now we are glad and proud that more children who speak English will be introduced to the world of Workitu.

We found that the custom of breaking the dishes and remaking them communicates Jewish and universal themes of innovation and the preservation of tradition. These themes connect to the creative power in nature and man, the cycle of life, sustainability and recycling, and more.

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

We hope that Workitu’s Passover 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. We hope that Workitu’s story will create 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?

In the story, Workitu learns through her hands, and in a very tangible way about the sense of belonging and continuity that Passover customs give her. Passover utensils are broken and remade are made of clay. The clay is as old as the Exodus from Egypt and it is the basis of all the utensils created for hundreds of years, but every generation and every year it is created anew, so that it will be used for the needs of its time. The balance between innovation, creativity, the preservation of tradition and the permanence of customs is rooted in Judaism and the Jewish way of life. It gives the solemnity, holiness, and a meaning that we so need.

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

Zahava told me a long time ago about the custom of breaking the dishes and remaking them for Passover, and this appealed to me because it reminded me of my childhood in a kibbutz by the Sea of Galilee, where in a certain place on the beach there was clay soil that we liked to knead dishes from. I liked to imagine that it was here that the prehistoric people also made their own dishes from the exact same mud. When we were asked to write a story about a Jewish holiday, I remembered immediately the utensils that Zahava had to break and remake. I researched with Zahava about every detail in the process and that’s how the story was born.

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

Workitu’ Passover is based entirely on Zahava’s childhood memories. It was Zahava who described to me and Eden Spivak, the illustrator of the book, “how things looked and how they were”. We also used pictures Zahava sent or found online. My job was to get into the character of the girl, understand her, and design the literary movement using tools that are at the disposal of a writer: understanding the character’s mental motivations, designing the plot, setting the pace and the tone, so that the story will ‘work’ and speak to children of the 21st century. The reality of their lives is very different from that of the heroine of the story.

The fact that Zahava and I wrote a novel for teenagers called Gudai, which deals with childhood and Aliyah (journey to Israel), helped us both a lot in the process of writing Workitu’s Passover. In fact, the characters here are taken from Gudai but are at an earlier stage of their lives.

By the way, Zahava’s Amharic names are Gudai and Workitu. Gudai means secret or hidden ways of God and sometimes it is given to a child born after the mother had an abortion. Workitu 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 (Hayim Nahman Bialik, Leah Goldberg Miriam Yalan-Shteklis, Kadia Molodowsky), translated Russian literature, and Zionist adaptations of Jewish tales. My father used to read to me the Bible Stories for Children and told us the Bible stories by heart while we walked around the places where the stories took place. When I started reading, I devoured classics as well as less classic books found in the messy and abandoned library in the Kibbutz where I grew up.

I admire Erich Kästner, Roald Dahl, Astrid Lindgren and others. I admire their free and wild spirit, creativity, brilliant humour, a call for change and faith in the human spirit. All of this is done without didacticism or preaching.

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

Read a lot, and whenever you come across a literary piece that seems brilliant, 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, the one that is still unclear to you.

Apparently, these are two contradictory pieces 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?

I don’t have an unequivocal answer to this. When we finished writing Workitu, I told Zahava that this is it, that even if she has another name in Amharic, we will no longer write a book together about her childhood in Ethiopia, because now is the time for her daughter and others to write stories about their parents’ and grandmothers’ childhoods. They are not newcomers and can tell stories of their community’s glorious and beautiful past.

At the same time, it seems to me that Eden Spivak and I gave a lot of respect, space, and life to Zahava’s memories, oral stories, experiences, and faith. The result – the book we wrote – benefits from the joined hands that created it and poured into it a diverse cultural and artistic wealth.

I believe that a dogma of prohibited or permitted does not promote good art. The way you work together – the dialogue and the reciprocal relations created through the creative process determine, every time anew, whether proper and decent artistic work has been done.