If someone brought you a Christmas tree as a gift, would you accept it?
It’s Brooklyn, 1948. You’re Jewish, ten years old, and the great Jackie Robinson and his family just moved in next door. Your family is kind to the new neighbors while others shun them due to their race. You befriend Jackie’s son, Jackie Jr., and you idolize his dad, enjoying special trips to Ebbets Field to watch the Dodgers from seats reserved for the ball player’s families. One Christmas eve you even help the Robinsons decorate their tree. After mentioning to them that your family doesn’t own a Christmas tree, you are surprised to answer the doorbell later to witness the smiling second baseman standing at your door lugging a new Christmas tree he wants to give your family. This is because
a) he doesn’t know you are Jewish, and b) he thinks you are too poor to buy your own.
What do you do?
A new Hanukkah book for children entitled Jackie’s Gift: A True Story of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Jackie Robinson (Viking, 2010. Illustrations by E. B. Lewis, $16.99), written by Jackie’s daughter, Sharon Robinson, not only relates this true scenario, but gives us the rest of the story. In reality, the Satlow family of Tilden Avenue took in the tree (although they seemed rather unnerved by doing so) and even chose to decorate it with the Robinson family, while at the same time explaining to the Robinsons that they are Jewish and do not celebrate Christmas.
“What a mess I’ve made of things! Please forgive us,” Jackie said, chuckling.
“We’re so embarrassed,” Mrs. Robinson added.
“Please don’t be!” Mrs. Satlow said, “You were being generous to our son. There’s no harm in that.”
“So, Dad?” said Steve, looking to his father hopefully. “What do you think?”
Mr. Satlow smiled down at his son.
“Okay,” he declared. “This Jewish family is going to have a Christmas tree and a Menorah this year.”
And they did.
It seems that all it takes for a child to get a coveted Christmas tree is for a generous neighbor to show up on the doorstep with one.
Although critics and children’s librarians love this beautifully illustrated book for its message of tolerance and friendship (the story is a boon for Black-Jewish relations), others have trouble correlating that message with the story of the Maccabees. When asked to comment on this book, writer Dara Horn stated she had a bit of a problem with its conclusion. “The entire purpose of Hanukkah is to commemorate Jews standing up to the pressures of not only persecution, but assimilation. The victory of the Maccabees was about their ability to resist assimilation into a huge empire whose culture rejected theirs. This is a lovely story about Christmas, but unfortunately it’s also a lousy story about Hanukkah.”
However, others prefer to see the beauty of the message. Kathe Pinchuck, the former chairperson of the Sydney Taylor Award Committee for the best Jewish children’s books, who is also a Yankee fan and an observant Jew, emailed her thoughts. “What if Alex Rodriguez came over and gave me a ham? I guess I would take it and say thank you, then donate it to the food bank…. But I do think this story teaches a valuable lesson - not to embarrass anyone, and to seek peace (darchei noam) with your neighbors.”
Sharon Robinson writes in her author’s note at the end of the book that the Christmas tree story was always a “big hit” in her family and both families have remained friends until this day. “Now I hope our story will inspire families for generations to come to look beyond race and religion and into people’s hearts.”
Another new picture book published for this Hanukkah season runs the risk of getting into Christmas overload. A Chanukah Noel: A True Story, by Sharon Jennings (Second Story Press, 2010. Illustrations by Gillian Newland, $15.95), follows young Charlotte and her family as they learn to adjust to a new life “across the ocean” in France. Charlotte is fascinated by Christmas and is told by her mother to keep quiet when she complains that she wishes she could have a day off from her studies on that holiday.
“But it was hard to keep quiet. It seemed that every house and shop was decorated with boughs of evergreens and holly and garlands of white lights. All we had was our one small menorah for Chanukah.”
Another cross-cultural great gesture of kindness ensues as Charlotte convinces her parents to “give Christmas to someone else”, in this case a poor school friend, by purchasing all the gifts and decorations for the family and helping them set up their tree, ensuring young Charlotte a beautiful Christmas after all. “My heart was filled with joy, all the joy of Christmas and Chanukah together.” Here is another confounding true story that has a limited audience. Teachers may chose it as a read-aloud in order to cover the multi-cultural requirement that they include something about Hanukkah for the “holiday season”, but in this Christmas vs. Hanukkah match-up, boring Hanukkah loses by a mile.
However, for those who are looking for Hanukkah themed picture books that are only about Hanukkah will not be disappointed with these ten (mostly old) favorites*:
1. Heller, Esther. Menorah Under the Sea. (Karben, 2009) A marine biologist finds a way to celebrate Hanukkah while stationed in Antarctica. (ages 5 – 8)
2. Jaffe, Nina. In the Month of Kislev. Illustrated by Louise August. (Viking, 1992). A rich arrogant merchant takes the family of a poor peddler to court and learns a lesson about the meaning of Hanukkah.” (ages 8-12)
3. Kimmel, Eric A. The Chanukkah Guest. Illustrated by Giora Carmi. (Holiday House, 1988). On the first night of Chanukkah, Old Bear wanders into Bubba Brayna’s house and receives a delicious helping of potato latkes when she mistakes him for the rabbi. (ages 4-8)
4. Kimmel Eric. Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. (Holiday House, 1985). Relates how Hershel outwits the goblins that haunt the old synagogue and prevent the village people from celebrating Hanukkah. (ages 6-12)
5. Krensky, Stephen. Hanukkah at Valley Forge. Illustrated by Greg Harlin. (Dutton, 2006) During the Revolutionary War, a Jewish soldier from Poland lights the menorah on the first night of Hanukkah and tells General George Washington the story of the holiday. (ages 5 – 9)
6. Kimmel, Eric A. The Magic Dreidels. Illustrated by Katya Krenina. (Holiday House, 1996). When an old lady swindles him out of his magic dreidels, Jacob tries to get them back in time for the family’s Hanukkah celebration.” (ages 4-8)
7. Kushkin, Karla. A Great Miracle Happened There. Illustrated by Robert Parker. (Harper Collins, 1993)
On the first night of Hanukkah, a mother tells her family and a young guest the story of the holiday’s origin.
(ages 4 – 8)
8. Ofanansky, Allison. Harvest of Light. Photographs by Eliyahu Alpern. (Kar-Ben, 2008). The olive harvest in Israel is a special time. Follow the tiny spring flowers blossom into green fruit, then ripen into shiny black olives. Watch as the olives are gathered, sorted, and pressed into oil. Then celebrate Hanukkah with an Israeli family as they use the oil to light their Hanukkah menorah. (ages 5-9)
9. Topek, Susan Remick. A Turn for Noah. Illustrated by Sally Springer. (Kar-Ben, 1992). Hanukkah is supposed to be fun, especially in nursery school, but things had been going wrong for Noah all week. He couldn’t spin the dreidel, he spilled the blue paint, and he hadn’t had a turn lighting the menorah. The holiday would soon be over. (Preschool.)
10. Zwerin, Raymond A. Like a Maccabee. Illustrated by Giora Carmi. (UAHC Press, 1991). This beautifully illustrated text explores the themes of leadership, bravery, determination, problem solving, and pride through the story of the Maccabees and Chanukah. Young readers will learn to be “like a Maccabee.” (Preschool.)
*(with many thanks to Kathe Pinchuck)
Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library in Los Angeles and the children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine.