Review: The Secret Journey

The Secret Journey

by Rivkah Yudasin, illustrated by Jacky Yarhi

Hachai Publishing, 2024

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Chava Pinchuck

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Inspired by true events, The Secret Journey is the story of Reb Yitzchak Zilber and his family. In Communist Russia in 1953, it was a challenge to “live as a Torah Jew.” Reb Yitzchak is sent to a prison camp, and his family must prepare for Pesach. Mama, Sarah, and Bechik take the train to a small village, where an old man shows them the strip of land where he grows wheat for matzah. The family brings a heavy sack of flour home with them, and Mama adds it to her “stash.” She brings all the flour to a cellar, where Rabbi Sandok mixes the flour and water and Mama and Mrs. Sandok roll out the dough. Then the matzahs are put in the oven. When they are done baking, Mama loads her sled and covers them with a blanket. On her way home, she encounters two soldiers. They are suspicious about her cargo, but she says a silent prayer, and the soldiers decide to let her go home. They realize they will face the same problem if they send the matzah to their father, so they break it up into little pieces and label the packages “cookies.” The Afterword explains how Reb Yitzchak made a Seder and observed Passover in the prison camp. The pictures are simple and complement the text, effectively illustrating Communist Russia at the time. Part of the Junior Fun-to-Read Adventures, the text is spaced out on the page for early readers.

Judaism is integral to the story, as Mama is doing everything to make sure her husband and his fellow inmates will have matzah for Passover. While there is no overt Jewish observance in the book, it is emphasized that the mitzvah of baking matzah and providing it to Reb Zilber and his fellow prisoners is a big mitzvah. Non-Jewish readers may not appreciate the importance of having matzah on Passover, but they will appreciate the courage to live by one’s beliefs. Although somewhat dated, readers should appreciate that in the past, you couldn’t just go to the supermarket and buy a box of matzah. It was (and is) an intense process.

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Reviewer Chava (Kathe) Pinchuck worked in private and public libraries in New Jersey before making aliyah in 2012. In Israel she has worked as a cataloger of legal documents and a cybrarian for a distance learning institution. She is a past chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee, past co-editor of the Children's and YA Book Reviews for AJL News and Reviews, and the current editor of the Jewish Values Finder, a database of Jewish children's books. [Ed. Note: Chava is one of the co-chairs of The Sydney Taylor Shmooze.]