By Deborah Fineblum/JNS.org
Chanukah and children’s books go together like latkes and applesauce.
In fact, Chanukahs of old often included a book, its pages spotted with droplets of candle wax. In its pages the brave Maccabees once again defeat the Syrian Greeks, a tiny cruse of oil keeps the temple’s menorah aglow for a miraculous eight days, children spin dreidels for chocolate gelt (money) and you can almost smell the sizzling latkes.
These days, the marketplace overflows with books that can warm up the coldest Chanukah night. The books reflect both the holiday’s miracles and the nuances of growing up Jewish in the 21st century.
“We’re seeing an exciting diversity in kids’ Chanukah books now,” says Joy Getnick, director of Jewish life at the Louis S. Wolk Jewish Community Center of Greater Rochester. One of the best parts of her job: funneling children’s books into the JCC’s preschool, books Getnick test-drives with her two-year-old son.
Experts say there’s a certain quality of magic in the best of these books – making them the kinds of gifts that keep giving.
“They have to celebrate being Jewish in a diverse world and transmit powerful values to the new generation,” Getnick tells JNS.org.
“They have to make the child wonder what’s going to happen next,” says Lyndall Miller, who directs the Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute, where the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion provide leadership training and Jewish learning to directors of early childhood centers.
“They have to give Jewish children a sense of pride and inclusion,” says Rachel Kamin, a book reviewer, judge and editor who directs the Joseph and Mae Gray Cultural & Learning Center at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Ill.
Chanukah-themed children’s books “help us see how the miracles in our own lives reflect the miracle” of the holiday, says Meredith Lewis, director of content and engagement for the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s PJ Library program, which distributes nearly 200,000 Jewish children’s books to families in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere.
As of press time, publishers were still rolling out new Chanukah releases, but several titles had already surfaced. Among them are Little Red Ruthie: A Chanukah Tale by Gloria Koster, a spin on Little Red Riding Hood; and Queen of the Chanukah Dosas by Pamela Ehrenberg, featuring a family celebrating with spicy Indian food.
“You can smell the curry coming off this wonderful new book,” says Lewis, noting that Queen of the Chanukah Dosas and Little Red Ruthie made it into PJ Library’s fall lineup. Other notable new releases include Judah Maccabee Goes to the Doctor by Ann Koffsky; Way Too Many Latkes: A Chanukah in Chelm by Linda Glaser; and The Missing Letters: A Dreidel Story by Renee Londner.
But tried-and-true Chanukah classics continue to delight.
“If I had to pick one Chanukah book to read to my kids every night, it would be Eric Kimmel’s brilliant Hershel and the Chanukah Goblins, says Kamin. She also loves Kimmel’s lesser-known goblin story, Zigazak! A Magical Chanukah Night and his The Chanukah Bear, in which an elderly latke-maker mistakes a bear for her rabbi.
Meanwhile, for interfaith families, Chanukah can be a delicate time when it comes to reading.
“Parents and grandparents say, ‘A book about Christmas and Chanukah? That’s great!’ But they need to read it first,” warns Kamin. “Is it patronizing or insulting? Or does it sensitively reflect the message of Chanukah for an interfaith family?”
“In what can be a confusing time of year,” she says, “it’s often the grandparents who become the portal to tradition and play a key role in shaping identity.”