The Devils Arithmetic book review

By Hugh Bargeron

Annotated book review

In the historical fiction novel The Devils Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, 13 year old Hannah (also known as Chaya) must escape the vivid dream she is stuck in about the holocaust in order to get back to her family and understand them better. I felt like this book was an easy to read compelling novel that is hart to put down once you start reading.

When Hannah’s mother announced that she, Hannah, Hannah’s brother, and her father would be going to visit Grandpa Will and Grandma Belle, Hannah was all but exited. When they got there, Hannah found Grandpa will screaming at the TV and making a scene. She became very annoyed because she feels like every time she is around Grandpa Will he does this. Hannah found herself longing to be with Grandpa Dan and her dad’s side of the family because she deems them as ‘normal’. Later in the evening, when the family began preforming Passover traditions, Hannah was allowed some watered down wine. She then became slightly disoriented. When it was time to open the door to symbolically welcome Prophet Elijah, she fell into a trance and woke up in a strange new place where she was known by her Hebrew name-Chaya. At first Chaya didn’t realize where she was, but she soon found out she was in Poland and the year was 1942, the year the Nazis invaded. By the time Hannah realized this it was already too late, she was about to experience one of the worst events in human history.

Overall, Yolen did a great job of conveying the historical setting of the novel. The dates in the book are accurate and she did a great job of educating readers about the horrors in the camps while also giving them an interesting book. For example, When Hannah was trying to explain what would happen to the Jews if they got on the train, she was also educating readers about what happened in the Holocaust (if they didn’t already know). The novel is very interesting and it held my attention throughout the book. As a reader, I appreciated how Yolen effortlessly changed scenes from the apartment in New Rochelle to Poland in the year 1942 in just a matter of pages. However, it bothered me as a reader that some parts of the novel seemed slightly forced. I also think that Yolen could have added a bit more feeling and emotions to the novel because it would have made the book an even better read.

In conclusion, I would rate The Devils Arithmetic four out of five stars because of its historical accuracy and also because it was very compelling and easy to read. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about the holocaust while also having a great book to read.

Analysis of historical accuracy

Yolen did a very good job of making the novel historically accurate. She used historical terms like musselman, badchan, and Sonderkommando. She also included several horrors that really happened in the Holocaust such as the gas chambers. Other than the characters in the novel, everything is accurate. Yolen used details that were described by real Holocaust survivors. Lublin is a real city and was known as being a Jewish Centre for heritage and culture. I feel like Yolen did not get too detailed in the history but she did enough to allow most people with at least a small amount of knowledge about the Holocaust to understand the historical details. However, there were some inaccuracies. By 1942, all the Jews in Lublin, and in all of Poland for that matter, were already rounded up and in the city’s Ghetto, so Chaya would not have been able to escape. Also, the idyllic shtetl world at the beginning of Chaya's story would have been long gone by 1942 ("A Review of The Devil's Arithmetic").

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Passover Seder

“How could you forget, Hannah. Especially this year, when Passover falls on the same day as Easter? We’ve talked and talked about it. First we’ve got to go home and change. Then we’re Grandpa Will and Grandma Belle’s for the first nights Seder.

The Passover Seder is a Jewish feast that is had on the first night before Passover (fifteenth day of Nissan on the Hebrew calendrer). The Passover is a celebration of the Jewish exodus from Egypt after the ten plagues. Usually people greet each other at this special meal by saying Gut Yontif which means good Holy Day. People also say Chag Sameach meaning Happy Festival. The Seder is the first meal that marks the beginning of the celebration. This is meant to be low key and fun, but there are also several rituals that are performed which include:

  • Kadesh: The Kiddush blessing marking the holiness of this day and candles are lit, too, to mark the beginning of the holiday. When the Seder falls on a Friday night, this Kiddush is recited for Passover and Shabbat. When the Seder falls on a Saturday night, we continue with a special version of Havdalah.

  • Urchatz: A ritual washing of the hands (not found in some Reform Hagaddot).

  • Karpas: Eating a vegetable (often parsley) dipped in saltwater; with this step we combine the hopefulness of spring (represented by the vegetable) with the tears of slavery (the salt water).

  • Yachatz: Breaking of the middle matzah; we remember the brokenness that slavery represents.

  • Maggid: The telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. This story begins with the youngest person at the Seder asking the Four Questions (Mah Nishtanah), and don't worry; if you're the youngest and Hebrew isn't your area of expertise, you're off the hook! These questions provide the impetus for telling why this night is different from all other nights.

  • Rachtzah: Washing of the hands a second time, done with a blessing since you are going to eat more substantial food.

  • Motzi: The recitation of the blessing before eating (leavened or unleavened) bread

  • Matzah: A special blessing said before eating matzah at the seder

  • Maror: Eating the bitter herbs to taste the bitterness of slavery.

  • Korech: Eating a sandwich of matzah and bitter herbs in fulfillment of Numbers 9:11. Then we eat a sandwich of matzah, maror, and charoset (a sweet chopped dish usually made with apple, nuts, cinnamon and grape juice)

  • Shulchan Oruch: Eating the dinner, which traditionally includes matzah ball soup, hard boiled eggs, gefilte fish, meat and vegetables, and macaroons.

  • Tzafun: A piece of the matzah that had been broken earlier has been hidden. This piece, known by the Greek word afikoman, is now found and eaten before the seder can continue. Often the kids are sent to look for it. This is one of several ways that the compilers of the hagaddah entertain the kids. Finding the afikoman symbolizes a move from brokenness toward healing. The afikoman (now the matzah of freedom) is supposed to be the last thing you eat on this evening.

  • Barech: The recitation of the Birkat HaMazon, the grace after meals.

  • Hallel: The recitation or singing of Psalms of praise.

  • Nirtzah: A prayer that God accept our service; as our ancestors have for hundreds of years, we end our Seders with the words "lashana haba'a b'irushalayim!" - Next year may we be in Jerusalem! With these Joyful words we hope to join with all Jews in a peaceful Jerusalem and we remember to keep working to make the world a better place.

The food on the plate usually includes:

Beitzah: The Roasted Egg is symbolic of the festival sacrifice made in biblical times. It is also a symbol of spring - the season in which Passover is always celebrated.

Chazeret: Lettuce is often used in addition to the maroras a bitter herb. The authorities are divided on the requirement of chazeret, so not all communities use it. Since the commandment (in Numbers 9:11) to eat the paschal lamb "with unleavened bread and bitter herbs" uses the plural ("bitter herbs") most Seder plates have a place for chazeret.

Zeroa: The Shankbone is symbolic of the Paschal lamb offered as the Passover sacrifice in biblical times. Some communities use a chicken neck as a substitute. Vegetarian households may use beets.

Charoset: Apple, nuts, and spices ground together and mixed with wine are symbolic of the mortar used by Hebrew slaves to build Egyptian structures. There are several variations in the recipe for charoset. The Mishna describes a mixture of fruits, nuts, and vinegar.

Karpas: Parsley is dipped into salt water during the Seder. The salt water serves as a reminder of the tears shed during Egyptian slavery. The dipping of a vegetable as an appetizer is said to reflect the influence of Greek culture.

Maror: Bitter Herbs (usually horseradish) symbolize the bitterness of Egyptian slavery. The maror is often dipped in charoset to reduce its sharpness. Maror is used in the Seder because of the commandment (in Numbers 9:11) to eat the paschal lamb "with unleavened bread and bitter herbs".

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Dear Aunt Eva,

I am writing this in a concentration camp near Lublin, the year is 1942. Don’t ask me how it’s possible because I’m not sure how it is either. But anyway I’ll just cut to the chase. I am sorry for not taking Jewish traditions seriously. I now know how important it is to remember my history because if not it will repeat itself. I wish I had cherished the time we had together and I’m sorry for being such a spoiled brat. I only just learned all of the horrific things you have been through. If I ever see you again I will prove how sorry I am and how much I have changed.

With much love,


Works Cited

"The Holocaust: Glossary of Terms, Places & Personalities." Jewish Virtual Library. Jewish Virtual Library, 1955. Web. 6 May 2016.

Lublin, Poland 1942. Digital image. Vos Iz Neias? N.p., n.d. Web.

Megan. "A Review of The Devil's Arithmetic." Goodreads. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 May 2016.

"The Seder Service in a Nutshell - A Quick, One-page Overview of the Passover Meal's Steps." - Passover., n.d. Web. 10 May 2016.

Stiel, Debbie, Rabbi. "What to Expect at a Passover Seder." Reform Judaism. ReformJudiasim, n.d. Web. 03 May 2016.