Chanukah books: Curl up with a good read
It’s time for a top-10 list of a few of the best recently published Jewish books for this Chanukah season. All make wonderful gifts and span different age and interest levels.
“Oskar and the Eight Blessings” by Tanya and Richard Simon. Illustrated by Mark Siegel. Roaring Brook Press, 2015
With a map of the island of Manhattan as a guide, readers of this remarkably touching picture book accompany young Oskar, a European refugee who arrives in New York City by ship on Christmas Eve, 1938. It is also the last, snowy night of Chanukah, and Oskar navigates 100 chilly blocks of the city to reach his aunt’s house before sunset. He encounters the lights of Broadway, a twinkling Macy’s store window, the just-released Superman comic at a magazine kiosk, Count Basie whistling a jazz tune outside Carnegie Hall, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt leaving a high-rise apartment building. Each encounter draws Oskar closer to the people, images and sounds of the great city, and he experiences small acts of kindness that buoy his spirits and encourage him to find blessings in this new world. This is truly a special book, with wonderfully poignant illustrations that would be particularly meaningful for those who love the great city of New York and its unique place in American-Jewish history and culture.
“Farmer Kobi’s Hanukkah Match” by Karen Rostoker-Gruber and Rabbi Ron Isaacs. Illustrated by CB Decker. Apples & Honey Press, 2015
Farmer Kobi lives happily with his friendly farm animals on an Israeli moshav, but he is looking for his perfect match. When Polly comes over for a Chanukah date, the animals do all they can to help the evening go smoothly. The puns come fast and furious: The goats pick out Kobi’s “blaaack” pants to wear, and the sheep serve “baa-baa ghanoush,” but to their disappointment, Polly turns out to be less than an animal lover, snapping, “I didn’t come here to light the menorah with animals. Shoo, shoo!” A humorous surprise ending can be a discussion starter for the Jewish values of “tza’ar ba’alei chayim” (compassion for animals) and “hachnasat orchim” (welcoming guests). This charming and funny picture book begs to be read aloud and is certain to be a favorite at Chanukah time.
“Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed” by Leslea Newman. Illustrated by Amy June Bates. Candlewick, 2015
This new picture book from a popular author of other Jewish-themed titles relates the unlikely but true story of a cat named Ketzel, who walked across the piano keys of his musician-owner one day, and created a 21-second “composition” that the owner entered into a contest in 1998. The composition received special mention and was played at concerts in the United States and in Europe, resulting in the cat actually receiving a royalty check! The charming story has been embellished by the author to give Ketzel just a bit more kavanah (intention) than she probably had in creating her musical piece, but the details of the real event are included in a long author’s note at the end. An engaging read that could be enjoyed by children of all ages.
“The Mountain Jews and the Mirror” by Ruchama King Feuerman. Illustrated by Polena Kosec and Marcela Calderon. Kar-Ben, 2105
It’s rare to read a children’s book about Sephardic Jewry. This one is even rarer: It is a humorous story of the Mountain Jews of Morocco, who lived in the Atlas Mountains. It reads like a centuries-old folk tale, but it was conceived from the imagination of its author — an adult novelist. The tale relates the story of Yosef and Estrella, young newlyweds who leave their mountain home for jobs in the city of Casablanca and become overwhelmed by the unfamiliar sights and sounds of city life. Kids will enjoy the Chelm-like humor when the unsophisticated couple mistakes their images in a mirror for something else entirely. A fun read-aloud.
“The Safest Lie” by Angela Cerrito. Holiday House, 2015
This new historical novel for kids from fifth through eighth grades is the sensitive and suspenseful story of a 9-year-old girl named Anna Bauman, who escapes from the Warsaw Ghetto with the help of an unnamed rescuer, who turns out to be the famed Irena Sendler. She is sent to a convent with a new identity and later to a Polish farm, where she lives with a family of underground Polish resisters. The text is historically accurate, and the scenes are appropriate for pre-teen and teen readers. What is particularly moving is the way the author imbues young Anna with the intense desire not to forget her Jewish heritage along her way. Get this one for those who liked the award-winning novel “Number the Stars.”
“The Hired Girl” by Laura Amy Schlitz. Candlewick, 2015.
It’s “Downton Abbey” … with Jews. Or it’s “Anne of Green Gables” … in 1911 Baltimore. Lofty comparisons are being made regarding this wonderful new novel for young teens, and for good reason. The author, a two-time Newbery Award winner, has taken on the difficult themes of religion (Jewish and Christian), anti-Semitism, income inequality and the American Dream and wrapped them all up in a romantic coming-of-age historical saga narrated by Joan, a plucky and loveable 14-year-old heroine. Joan comes straight off a Pennsylvania farm to work as a hired girl for an upper-class German-Jewish family. She is smart, eager, naïve and endearing, and she becomes our friend and confidante as we peek into the daily entries of her summer diary. The author has done astonishing research into the period and particularly into the rituals of Jewish life of the time. The details bring alive the era for readers and will particularly enlighten non-Jews who may be hearing about Jewish practices for the first time. There’s so much buzz about this book and its courageous author; she deserves a yashar koach for her fine ability to tackle questions of faith and how young people from different religions may question what is presented to them by adults. An instant classic for historical fiction readers who want a touch of romance, too.
“Celebrate the Jewish Holidays” by Racheli Morris, 2015
Racheli Morris is a local event planner and hospitality guru who lives in Trabuco Canyon and stages fabulous parties for her varied clientele. Her inspired recipes and décor ideas are finally available in this beautiful hardcover cookbook that combines ways to enrich your holiday celebration along with interesting introductions regarding the history and significance of various holidays. The beautiful photography featuring unique, elegant table settings and foods for year-round Jewish holidays would entice any reader to elevate their current holiday parties toward high style. From the “Blooming Chanukiah” (a tall, blue vase with white flowers surrounded by smaller ones) and the matzah-themed table runner for Pesach (with frog cupcakes!), to the splendid table settings and foods for Tu b’Shevat inspired by “first fruits,” this labor of love from a creative and knowledgeable hostess is a fine example of what a person can achieve when they truly love what they do.
“Then Comes Marriage: United States v. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA” by Roberta Kaplan with Lisa Dickey. W. W. Norton & Co., 2015
Prominent litigator Roberta Kaplan, who successfully argued the groundbreaking case before the Supreme Court that brought down the Defense of Marriage Act, inspires readers with a gripping account of what was going on behind the scenes leading to the legal victory earlier this year. Front and center is the inspiring story of Jewish widow Edie Windsor’s 40-year relationship with her late wife, but apart from the fascinating legal strategy, we learn how Kaplan herself was transformed by her fight for spousal rights for others and how she struggled with her own story of coming out, earning acceptance from her Jewish community and eventually creating a loving Jewish family. A real page-turner with an inspirational message.
“Safekeeping” by Jessymyn Hope. Fig Tree Books, 2015
It’s the summer of 1994 on Kibbutz Sadot Hadar near the city of Haifa, a small but proud agricultural community in the midst of profound change. Three strangers arrive as summertime kibbutz volunteers: Ulya, a beauty from the former Soviet Union with big dreams; Adam, a Jewish New Yorker and recovering drug addict on a mission; and Claudette, a young Catholic woman from Quebec with an agonizing past. None are aware of how the summer will not only change them forever, but affect the once-comfortable life of Ziva, the aged kibbutz matriarch who embodies the essence of the Zionist dream. In this well-written debut novel by a promising new author, readers will be fully absorbed by these convincing characters as they search for the redemption they desperately seek.
“Honeydew: Stories” by Edith Pearlman. Back Bay Books, 2015
This new collection of short stories by the multiple award-winning author of “Binocular Vision” validates Pearlman’s reputation as a singular talent. Bursting from her accomplished format and insightful vision are tales of love, hope, pain, age and youth. With a light touch and her signature wit, this heralded master of the short story breathes life into realistic characters; often Jewish, usually flawed, but always fascinating.
Lisa Silverman is the library director at Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library and the Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University.