Jewish Journal

Reading for Chanukah

by Rita Berman Frischer

Posted on Dec. 7, 2000 at 7:00 pm

Moishe's Miracle : A Hanukkah Story by Laura Krauss Melmed, David Slonim (Illustrator)

Moishe's Miracle : A Hanukkah Story by Laura Krauss Melmed, David Slonim (Illustrator)

From demons to pious flying rabbis, from magic frying pans to runaway latkes, from hayfork menorahs (in Chelm, where else?) to a multilingual meditation on peace, you can find something for everybody in books available this holiday season. Enjoy.

Good Stories

"For Hope: Shalom, Salaam, Peace" by Howard Bogot, illustrated by Norman Gorbaty (CCAR Press, 2000), is dedicated to the memories of Jordan's King Hussein and slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Its vivid images and words in English, Hebrew and Arabic offer a universal dream of peace, a message rendered increasingly urgent by current events.

"For Entertainment: The Rabbi Who Flew" by Renate Dollinger (Booksmythe, 2000) is a lively shtetl tale, illustrated by the author, in which Rabbi Frum prays so hard he levitates, leading the town's shoemaker to notice, with professional embarrassment, holes in the holy rebbe's shoes as he floats overhead. What a shande! Something will have to be done! Dollinger's bright primitive paintings with scratchy pen and ink enhancements work wonderfully well with the spirit of her story.

"For Year-Long Celebration: Dance, Sing, Remember: A Celebration of Jewish Holidays" by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Ora Eitan (HarperCollins, 2000), is a bright, well-designed work that introduces 11 holidays with simple two-page spreads, sometimes followed by some pertinent reading, recipe, game, song or activity. A good family gift.

"From the Female Perspective: Daughters of Eve: Strong Women of the Bible" by Lillian Hammer Ross, illustrated by Kyra Teis (Barefoot Books, 2000) is a highly attractive book that offers fictionalized stories about Biblical women such as Zipporah, the daughters of Zelophechad, Ruth, Abigail, Huldah, Judith and Esther. A page of historical background before each chapter provides context in this modern midrashic approach to women in the Bible for readers 11 and up.

"For Mischief: The Demon's Mistake: A Story from Chelm" by Francine Prose, illustrated by Mark Podwal, is by the same team that created the entertaining "The Angel's Mistake," which explained the world of the Chelmites. Here, they explore what would happen if the demons who delighted in stirring up trouble in Chelm were to cross the ocean and bring their mischief to the New World. They discover that if you're flexible, there's always trouble to be made, and even old demons can learn new tricks.

A Bit of Chanukah

"Hanukkah! A Three-Dimensional Celebration" by Sara Freedland, illustrated by Sue Clarke (Candlewick Press, 1999) teams straightforward explanations about Chanukah with brilliantly colored illustrations and paper engineering to produce a pop-up book replete with an unfolding chanukiyah, a pig-inhabited 3-D temple courtyard and a battleground where charioteers meet their defeat facing the spears of the passionate Maccabees. A pocket holds a cardboard dreidel ready for assembly, a set table lifts to reveal a latke recipe, and a montage cityscape accompanies brief text introducing Chanukah customs in various places. Painted and printed in Malaysia, some of the book's assembly isn't too sturdy; preserve its gilded collages by using it with grown-up supervision.

Peninnah Schram is a well-known storyteller whose collections of Jewish tales (including "Eight Tales for Eight Nights," "Jewish Stories One Generation Tells Another" and "Tales of Elijah the Prophet") have enriched many a family's bedtime and storyteller's repertoire. Now she has produced "The Chanukah Blessing" (UAHC, 2000), a picture book in the tradition of Elijah tales, featuring a mysterious visitor and a poor family on the night of the fifth candle. This telling, a bit wordy without Shram's vibrant personality to sell every sentence, is unfortunately unevenly illustrated by Jeffrey Allon. The opening cover picture and the final back view of Elijah are inviting and evocative, but Allon's execution of faces appears rather unappealing in picture book format. The message is classic; the medium falls short.

"All About Hanukkah" by Judyth Groner and Madeline Wikler, a good general introduction to Chanukah and its customs, has been revised and newly illustrated by Kinny Kreiswirth (Kar-Ben, 1999). A valuable family resource available in brightly illustrated paperback format, it provides candle blessings in Hebrew, English and transliteration and suggests things to talk about while the candles are burning, such as legends, heroes, miracles, rebuilding, families and giving. Also includes a couple of recipes and songs.

"Jason's Miracle: A Hanukkah Story" by Beryl Lieff Benderly (Albert Whitman, 2000) is a less-than-smoothly worked out variation on the time-travel theme used effectively in such books as Jane Yolen's Holocaust-themed "The Devil's Arithmetic." When Jason, who doesnt see Chanukah as worth much measured against Christmas, pops up in ancient times in Judah Maccabee's camp as a spy, he learns something of the real meaning of Chanukah as a struggle against assimilation. Readers 8-11 may enjoy his adventures even though the book isn't consistent with the demands of convincing, well-written fantasy.

Wholly Chanukah

Author Eric A. Kimmel has outdone himself with his annual Hanukkah offering this year, and that's not easy. "The Jar of Fools: Eight Hanukkah Stories from Chelm" (Holiday House, 2000), illustrated by Mordecai Gerstein, is guaranteed to bring pleasure all year, not just to children 7-12 but to any adult lucky enough to be reading it aloud. By combining, adapting, imagining and enriching, Kimmel has produced a collection in which you will recognize several tales as variants on well-known themes from Yiddish or other traditions, while others are new. Laughter tempered by compassion and even admiration will be evoked by Kimmel's Chelmites; Gerstein's whimsical and fantastic illustrations clothe them in pure delight.

Leslie Kimmelman's "The Runaway Latkes," illustrated by Paul Yalowitz (Albert Whitman, 2000), is, of course, a variation on The Runaway Gingerbread Man. Given a Jewish setting replete with synagogue, rabbi and cantor and a multicultural crowd of characters who join in the feasting, it emphasizes the fun of celebrating the holiday for preschoolers through first grade.

Nancy Krulik's simple text and DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan's soft and friendly illustrations portray a little girl's eager anticipation as she wonders, "Is It Hanukkah Yet?" Part of the Step Into Reading Series (Random House, 2000), this Step 1 book gives preschoolers or beginning readers a very basic overview of family celebration, with easy-to-read type, few lines per page, pleasant pictures, and a brief glossary in the front. Folktales of many cultures have a story about a magic pot or pan that runs amok when wrongly used. Laura Krauss Melmed has produced a variation on this theme in "Moishe's Miracle: A Hanukkah Story" (HarperCollins, 2000), aided by David Slonim's expressive paintings. From the first illustration showing generous milkman Moishe giving cream to the cat while his shrewish wife Baila rolls her eyes heavenward in dismay, we know Moishe deserves some reward other than scolding for his kindness and that Baila deserves whatever she gets. A mysterious stranger leaves a battered old frying pan to be used only by Moishe, who makes limitless latkes he happily shares with the neighbors. But when Baila tries to use the pan selfishly, what she fries up renders her speechless and a changed woman. A brief history of Chanukah and a glossary are included.

You can also find a more traditional version of the magic pan story in Naomi Howland's "Latkes, Latkes, Good to Eat: A Chanukah Story" (Clarion, 1999), in which Sadie's mischievous brothers forget the words to turn off the pan and the entire village is needed to eat up the mountain of latkes that results.

"Our Eight Nights of Hanukkah" by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan (Holiday House, 2000), starts like a standard-issue holiday story with cozy drawings of the family lighting Great Grandma's menorah on the first night. Night No. 2 is spent eating latkes at Grandma's, but from here on, Rosen integrates several special traditions involving outreach, tzedakah, and sharing the holiday with non-Jewish friends and with the needy. Not preachy or heavy-handed, Rosen's work is known for its messages of interfaith respect and communication. Here, he offers a picture of a modern but wholesome Chanukah where presents aren't even opened until the last night and where the tiny miracle of family and continuity glows with a gentle light.

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