Passover Zoo Seder gives paws to unlikely scenario

In the beginning, there was chaos. In the end there was chaos.

On the firmament of a cloudy mind, sheathed in inchoate thoughts, lay an entombed idea yearning to breathe free. What would happen if a Passover seder took place in a zoo and were run by the animals?

It would probably be more orderly than most seders I had been to. Certainly the animals would be much better behaved, I mused.

Who would be in charge? That ultimate authority figure favored by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Animal Crackers aficionados alike — the Lion.

But what would Leo Rex say to reinforce his authority were it so rudely to be questioned?

Since it was Passover, he thought he should utter a "Ma-roar!" The rest of the story fell into place like so many Tetris blocks descending in a maddening crescendo.

The format would be rhymed poetic couplets, geared for all children under the age of 89 and Jews of all persuasions. Illustrations were de rigueur. I called on Maurice Sendak. It turned out he was frittering away his time doing operas and Bell Atlantic commercials.

I poured my heart out to my childhood friend, Jeffrey Nadel, and he almost had a coronary. Jeffrey is an esteemed lawyer (an oxymoron to be sure), a renowned cantor and has more friends than Will Rogers was reputed to have had. One of these amigos is an artist named Phillip Ratner, who is so much in demand that even his commissions have commissions.

But something about "The Passover Zoo Seder" caused this whirling dervish to pause his whirls long enough to put pen to paper and create a black-and-white menagerie of which Sir John ("Alice in Wonderland") Tenniel would have been proud.

I had my own ideas about the illustrations, but Phil, in a paraphrase of Henry Ford, told me I could have any illustrations I wanted, as long as they were the black-and-white ones he gave me. Phil also requested the not unreasonable assurance that our effort would see its way into print.

At first I wrote the usual publishing suspects: the behemoths as well as the pygmies; the Jew and non-Jew; the generalists, the specialists and the eclectic eccentrists. They were as uniformly encouraging as Alice's Red Queen, whose "off with her head" was one of her milder epithets.

Rejection snowflakes turned into a blizzard. I never knew there were so many synonyms for "this is not suitable for us." I was informed to get back in touch after the Messiah comes, but not with a specific date.

Self-publication seemed the only practical pre-posthumous method of getting "The Passover Zoo Seder" printed. Several calls initially to writer Daniel Pinkwater, a National Public Radio habitué, and then to a friend of a friend of an enemy, resulted in the phone number of a book designer, Kim Adlerman, who serendipitously lives and works a paperclip toss from me.

Moving forward, I fortunately had the one element that unites reporters, electioneering politicians and death-row inmates alike: a drop-dead deadline. I had committed to having a finished product in time for my son Justin's bar mitzvah, since the bar mitzvah party proclaimed "A Taste of Passover in January."

Sure, it's easy to give books away at a bar mitzvah.But would anyone buy it in a bookstore?

For "The Passover Zoo Seder," the answer is yes. At only $5, it's more than token, but not a king's ransom.

It looks like it's for 3-year-olds, but it's got a crossword puzzle. It's got pictures of animals, but it's got sophisticated puns, too. It's neither fish nor fowl. So I guess it's pareve. It's for everybody.

Passover should be both fun and serious. This book belongs to the fun part. And it's meant to be read out loud with your own animal sound effects.

If one person buys a copy of your book, not out of sympathy, you're an official author. Having been invited to a Hadassah emeritus meeting and after an animated book reading before the group, I sold a copy to a 101-year-old woman. Twenty-six grandchildren and she only bought one book. I guess she's got a Xerox.