Rachelle Burk remembers her long and boring family seders from when she grew up in New Orleans. But after her mother’s death when Burk was 10, her father remarried and added two irreverent stepbrothers to Burk’s family of four siblings, and he put the children in charge of the second seder.
“My father was pretty religious but said as long as you tell the story of Passover during the seder, do what you want,” said Burk, an East Brunswick resident and children’s book author, during a phone interview with NJJN. She recalled those seders being filled with “hysterical” skits, jokes, and laughter. “We were always cutting up,” she said, adding, “I still have those skits, interviews with Moses, Passover restaurant reviews. We enjoyed being together and having fun.”
The latest of her eight books — not all of them Jewish-themed — is “The Best Four Questions,” based on those memorable childhood experiences, bringing a humorous twist to the traditional questions recited by the youngest child.
The book, for children ages 3-6, was released Feb. 1 and selected for distribution by PJ library, the national partnership program of the West Springfield, Mass.-based, Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which provides books and CDs of Jewish content to families with children through middle school. The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey is a partner agency and co-sponsored Burk’s PJ Library appearance at the East Brunswick Jewish Center on April 7.
Burk said 29,000 copies of her book have been sent out nationally in advance of Passover by PJ Library.
“PJ Library is always looking for humor and it’s a quick read in anticipation of the seder,” said Burk. “Asking questions is always encouraged in Judaism.”
In the book, illustrated by Mélanie Florian, the main character, Marcy, comes up with her “best” four questions.
Her creative inquiries include: Is horseradish made from horses? How many matzah balls are in grandma’s chicken soup? Are worms kosher? Why does Uncle Benjy always fall asleep during the seder?
“She just loves to ask questions, and these are not what the family expects,” said Burk. “But they decide to take her seriously and answer them and laugh with her.”
Burk did not set out to be a writer. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Louisiana State University and came to New York City to earn a graduate degree in social work from Hunter College. She spent 25 years as an emergency room crisis intervention social worker, and was a psychiatric social worker at Raritan Bay Medical centers in Old Bridge and Perth Amboy before retiring two years ago.
Burk has also worked as a professional clown and she conducts writing and creativity seminars in schools for students from pre-K through eighth grade.
“I push their intuitiveness and creativity,” she said about her students. “I can guarantee the fun from my being a clown all these years. That’s how I keep them entertained while they’re learning. I love getting kids excited about writing.”
Burk has two grown daughters and her Passover traditions now include a family seder at the Millburn home of her aunt and uncle, Kopel and Renee Burk. (Kopel, a physician with a degree in Bible studies, and Rachelle co-authored “The Walking Fish,” published in 2015 by Tumblehome Learning, which was designated an outstanding science trade book by the National Science Teachers Association. Now, at age 90, he and his niece are collaborating on a book for middle school students about American slavery and the Underground Railroad.)
“We have lively seders with discussions that are so much more interesting” than a traditional seder, she said.