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.

FOR KIDS

“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.

FOR TEENS

“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.

FOR ADULTS

“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.

For Chanukah, books that bind us


Giving a book as a Chanukah gift is a fine, old Jewish tradition, although nowadays books often take the form of a Kindle download or a digital gift certificate from Amazon rather than a festively wrapped hardcover. Still, the tactile pleasures of what publishers now refer to as a “physical book” are undeniable, and for those who are shopping for book lovers, the season brings some exceptional choices.

For eye-dazzle, theological mind-play and sheer chutzpah, “The 613” by painter and muralist Archie Rand (Blue Rider Press) is unique. The text consists of nothing more than one-line summaries of the 613 mitzvot that are regarded as divine commandments in observant Judaism. For each one, Rand provides a painting that depicts the commandment in ways that are sometimes literal, sometimes oblique and sometimes just baffling, but always provocative. The 241st commandment (“To leave gleanings”), for example, is illustrated by an image depicting a distraught figure running away from a biplane as it strafes the ground around him.

Rand himself contributes a resonant introduction: “Judaism and art don’t mix well,” he explains. “ ‘The 613’ houses an unwilling Judaism, invited to sit on view in this fun house.” It’s significant that the enthusiastic blurbs for the book come from luminaries ranging from essayist Cynthia Ozick to director Ang Lee, from Rabbi Laura Geller to Playboy artist LeRoy Neiman, but the one that says it best is from Art Spiegelman, creator of “Maus.” “Archie Rand’s ‘The 613’ is all the religion one can use in a lifetime,” Spiegelman enthuses. “… In the beginning was the word, and the word was ‘Wow’!”

The books and movies that we call “noir” were often created by Jews but seldom featured Jewish characters or settings, and prize-winning mystery writer Kenneth Wishnia insists there is something deeply Jewish about the fatalism that is a hallmark of the genre. “In Judaism, you can follow the right path and still get screwed,” he explains in “Jewish Noir: Contemporary Tales of Crime and Other Dark Deeds” (PM Press). “That’s noir.” There are rarities and delights throughout Wishnia’s collection, ranging from a 1912 story that first appeared in Yiddish in the pages of the Forverts, to a resurrected little masterpiece by the immortal Harlan Ellison, “Final Shtick.” One contributor, Adam Fisher, is a rabbi, although his story, “Her Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah,” contains some ribaldries that have never been heard coming from a pulpit. Heywood Gould’s “Everything Is Bashert” conflates a hard-boiled tale of murder and mayhem with pious (and ironic) quotations from the Shulchan Arukh. And a story by film historian Eddie Muller, the celebrated “Czar of Noir,” is ornamented with an irresistible opening line: “The mishegas really started with the cat, but my version begins with Daphne’s boobs.”

Now that we all know the Bible is Donald Trump’s favorite book, we have new reasons to delve into the Scripture, if only to find out what unspecified message he finds so compelling. To assist us in our own Bible reading, Oxford University Press has issued an elegant and authoritative new edition of the Tanakh under the title “The Jewish Study Bible, Second Edition,” edited by Hebrew Bible scholars Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. Starting with a refreshed and revised version of the venerable 1917 translation by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), they have enhanced the received word with introductory essays as well as maps, charts, tables and diagrams, all of them contributed by a roster of fellow scholars. 

The core text is presented in a page design that resembles the Talmud, with the JPS translation surrounded on all sides by lavish explanatory notes and commentaries that enable us to enter the text in fresh and illuminating ways. The goal, as the editors explain, is “to convey the best of modern academic scholarship on the Bible,” but always with “a strong conviction that this approach does not undermine Judaism, as leading figures of a previous generation had argued, but can add significant depth to Jewish belief and values.” 

For exactly that reason, I suspect that some readers will, as I did, spend even more time in the footnotes than in the Scripture.

Gloria Steinem is so iconic that even the sound of her voice over the radio is instantly recognizable, a fact that surely results from her tireless activism. “My Life on the Road” (Random House) is a chronicle of what she has heard and what she has learned over the decades she has spent as an advocate for women’s rights and women’s causes, a mission that necessarily required her to address audiences of both genders and every point of view. 

As a young woman, she was determined not to follow in the footsteps of her restless father, whose absences were painful for young Gloria, but her life’s work turned her into a kind of latter-day Joe Hill, wandering from place to place and showing up wherever the action is. “The road is messy in the way that real life is messy,” she explains. “It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories — in short, out of our heads and into our hearts.” Whether chatting up a taxicab driver or delivering a formal address at Harvard, Steinem always seeks to connect with those she wants to influence and inspire. “If you want people to listen to you,” she writes, “you have to listen to them.”

Journalist Dan Ephron succeeds in elevating the hard facts of history into an epic and a tragedy in the pages of “Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel” (Norton), a work of investigation and analysis that often reads like a police procedural or a political thriller. Yet Ephron — who reported from Israel for Newsweek — is just as interested in showing us the precarious state of politics and diplomacy that prevailed at the moment of the assassination in 1995. The parallel accounts of a visionary and courageous Israeli leader and his relentless assassin are ultimately heartbreaking, but they also help us understand the slough of despair into which Israel and the Middle East slumped in the aftermath of Rabin’s murder. “A twenty-something law student, smart and exceedingly radical …, set out to alter the slope of history,” Ephron writes, “and succeeded.”

Everyone has an opinion on the Middle East, but when Dennis Ross speaks, people listen. As a participant in American policy-making under several presidents, Ross was the voice of America in peace negotiations between Arabs and Israelis under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and he sums up what he saw in “Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship From Truman to Obama” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a book that takes on a special relevance in light of recent tensions between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Such tension is nothing new, he reports. The realities of American politics, for example, cautioned Truman during the birth pangs of the Jewish state: “He faced constraints, and the actual support he provided was limited.” Even in those early days, Ross reports, Truman was unhappy over the reluctance of Israel “to allow at least some Arab refugees to return after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.” 

Ross accepts that American and Israeli interests may diverge: “Perhaps the best approach is one that tries to distinguish with the Israelis between those issues that actually do pose existential threats and those that do not.” And Ross issues a warning: “While humility should be the order of the day in predicting what will unfold in the Middle East, one thing is clear: The U.S.-Israel relationship is going to be buffeted by the transformation that is taking place.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Say it with song: Children’s books for the Festival of Lights


“I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel” by Caryn Yacowitz, illustrated by David Slonim (Arthur A. Levine Books). 

It seems that old ladies don’t just swallow flies anymore. Comical illustrations, all satirizing famous paintings, are the stars of this funny book, beginning on the title page. A family on a road trip drives by a billboard of the “Mona Lisa” (with a dreidel in the foreground) reimagined as their friendly bubbe. Upon arrival at her house, they pose for a family portrait à la Grant Wood’s “American Gothic (substitute a menorah on a big stick for the pitchfork), while she prepares bagels and cream cheese. The rollicking rhyme begins: “I know an old lady who swallowed a dreidel, a Chanukah dreidel she thought was a bagel … perhaps it’s fatal.” Although it is clear she possesses an iron stomach, she screams like a famed Norwegian existential work of art, and the silliness continues. Art-savvy adults will be laughing out loud with recognition of the wacky illustrations. But no worries — the last two pages provide the titles of the real artwork, and kids are encouraged to go online to compare and learn more. A successful idea, well told and great fun.

“Lullaby” by Debbie Friedman, illustrated by Lorraine Bubar. (Jewish Lights) 

Another new book and CD set this season is an illustrated version of the beloved late songstress Debbie Friedman’s take on the bedtime Shema prayer. “Lullaby” is one of her most popular songs, and it is often sung to children as they drift off to sleep. The lyrics are simple and taken from the prayers many Jews say at night, but re-created as a prayer an adult might say to a young child: “Know that God will keep you safe throughout the night. … So many things to think about before you go to sleep. You did so many things today and you’ll do so many more tomorrow. … God will take care of the ones you love and keep you safe throughout the night. Shekhinah come to you and stay with you until morning comes. The angels all around you will keep you safe throughout the night.” The melody is comforting, and Friedman’s powerful voice and guitar on the accompanying CD is a gentle reminder of her great talent. Although the back matter provides a short biography of the singer, the one thing missing from this book is an explanation of the depiction of the four archangels — Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael — along with the Shekhinah, who are all illustrated as hovering with white wings above the child’s bed. Although this scene is directly referenced in the siddur, it is not a usual sight in a Jewish book, and some explanation of its origins would have benefited readers.

“The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin: A Toyshop Tale of Hanukkah” by Martha Seif Simpson, illustrated by Durga Yael Bernhard (Wisdom Tales). 

Folktales about greedy brothers getting their just deserts while the kindest one marries the princess always seem so satisfying. This tale about a striking jeweled dreidel that will not spin for selfish, materialistic children, but does so for the one child who appreciates it, is a charming story that could grow into a family favorite. The typeface is large and appealing to a beginning chapter-book reader, and the colorful illustrations convey an Eastern European sense of time and place — including peddlers and storekeepers (all wearing kippot or hats) and horse-drawn carriages with small-town appeal. After the selfish customers purchase the beautiful dreidel only to find it will not spin, the understanding shopkeeper realizes it should go to the one boy “who saw beyond price or appearance” and “who understood what was truly precious.” Of course, the dreidel does spin for him and amazingly transforms its letters to read “Nes katan hayah poh” — “a small miracle happened here.” The shopkeeper comes to realize that the miracle of Chanukah cannot be bought as the tale provides a noteworthy conclusion: Wonders still happen for those who can appreciate them. 

“The Maccabee on the Mantel” by Abra Liberman Garrett and Four Day Weekend, illustrated by Ivan Escalante (Viper Comics; Toy Vey!) 

For those who think the Chanukah story has gotten short shrift in the toy department, meet this smiling Maccabee plush doll and book set. Clearly patterned after the popular “Elf on the Shelf” Christmas toy, the makers of this attractive boxed set envision Jewish children falling asleep with their own stuffed Maccabee in their arms. Although it takes some brain readjustment to combine “ancient Judean warrior” with “cute” (and many just won’t want to go there), this book remains in the tradition of many other Chanukah children’s books that explain the historical narrative of the Maccabee revolt in language accessible to a young child. Children are encouraged to name their Maccabee and hide him around the house while doing Chanukah-ish things, like eating latkes or playing dreidel, thus creating new family holiday traditions. The story is gently told in pleasing rhyming couplets, and the illustrations and the doll are, well, really cute. The whole set comes in a handsome gift box that even Antiochus would love.

“Honeyky Hanukah” by Woody Guthrie, illustrated by Dave Horowitz (Doubleday)

Here’s another song reimagined as a children’s book, this time including a CD of the Klezmatics performing a great klezmer version of this Woody Guthrie Chanukah song. The illustrations are large, lively and bright, and will surely engage preschool children. The back matter for adults includes interesting information about how “Woody Guthrie’s Jewish songs can be traced to his friendship with his mother-in-law, Aliza Greenblatt, a well-known Yiddish poet who lived down the street from Woody and his family in Coney Island.” This delightful song is not well-known to the Jewish preschool set, but here’s hoping that this book changes that. The little ones will be happily bopping around in the back seat for all eight days of Hanukah and into the New Year.


Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library.

Eight books to light your Chanukah season


The early arrival of Chanukah coincides with Jewish Book Month, which suggests a convenient shopping list for gift-giving. Here are eight books I am planning to give this year to the book lovers among my family, friends and colleagues. Some of these books already have been reviewed at greater length in these pages over the past year.

My sentimental favorite for Chanukah is Alisa Solomon’s “Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof” (Metropolitan Books, $30).  Solomon approaches the Broadway musical from her perspective as a theater critic, journalist and scholar, but she also helps us understand the unlikely process by which the works of the Yiddish master storyteller Sholem Aleichem, first published in the 19th century, were artfully reinvented as a cultural artifact for American Jews in the 1960s, eventually transcending their Jewish origins to become a worldwide phenomenon. While Solomon does not avoid the controversies about the authenticity of “Fiddler” as a Jewish tale, her book is richly ornamented with Yiddishkayt, theater lore and cultural politics, all of which only deepen the reader’s appreciation for the familiar tunes. As for me, I played the Broadway cast album as I read “Wonder of Wonders,” and I took pleasure from both. 

The debut novelist who won the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize for Literature is Francesca Segal, a young writer who was inspired by Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” to tell a tale of star-crossed love set in contemporary London. In her prize-winning “The Innocents” (Hyperion, $14, paperback), we are introduced to the betrothed couple, a pair of Jewish Londoners who met in Israel while still teenagers and who seem to be fated to marry, but a shadow is cast over their romance by the bride’s cousin, a seductive woman with a lurid past who quickly catches the fiance’s eye and then his heart. It’s an age-old tale of temptation on the eve of marriage with Jewish 20-somethings cast in the principal roles.

Chanukah shopping: Revisiting some classics


Take time this holiday season to slow down and catch up on your pleasure reading. We’ve gathered a list of classic books to suit everyone’s taste  — from spine-chilling science fiction to classic modern novels. Whether you’re looking for a humorous Sunday afternoon read, an enchanting novel or the perfect bedtime story for your kids, these selections should offer ideas for your Chanukah gift-giving needs.


1.”STORIES FROM THE TWILIGHT ZONE” by Rod Serling ($8.99)

Genre: Short fiction

Summary: This is a collection of stories adapted from scripts of the successful sci-fi television series “The Twilight Zone.”

Best-suited for: Anyone who can quote Serling’s speech from “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”

Favorite childrens’ books old and new


Remember “The Chanukkah Guest” by Eric Kimmel? Those 20-somethings who consider their favorite Chanukah stories from childhood would no doubt recall the tale of the 97-year-old woman who “did not see or hear as well as she used to, but she still made the best potato latkes in the village.” Now it’s been reimagined with a shorter text (by the same author), new illustrations (by a different illustrator), and a new title: “The Hanukkah Bear” (Holiday House). The original version regaled scores of first- and second-graders with the antics of a hungry latke-sniffing bear as he is mistaken for the town rabbi by a misguided old woman who has invited her rabbi for a Chanukah feast. The new incarnation simplifies the text, but remains the same spirited, humorous tale. When the old woman tries to take the bear’s “coat,” he roars, “Grrrrowww!” so she lets him keep it on. When she attempts a game of dreidel, he eats the nuts she offers for game pieces. She admonishes him for not using a fork to eat from the large stack of latkes, but she is pleased to find that he is so enthusiastic about her cooking. Eventually she wipes the jam from his messy “beard,” offers him a knitted scarf as a Chanukah gift, and the satiated bear goes back to his den just as the old woman’s real houseguests arrive at her door. Everyone pitches in to make more plates of latkes, and a happy Chanukah is had by all. The updated illustrations in this new version are whimsical, featuring a more endearing bear and a sweeter-looking old lady. Enthusiasts can argue over which version is better, but no matter — this delightful old favorite is back in the hands of children and will again become a perfect holiday read-aloud.

We find more bears celebrating Chanukah in “Beni’s Family Treasury: Stories for the Jewish Holidays” by Jane Breskin Zalben (Henry Holt and Co.) — another favorite from the ’90s that has been reprinted by the publisher. Thankfully it is available again to a new generation of kids who will delight in the intricately detailed illustrations of a colorful bear family who celebrate five major Jewish holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Chanukah, Purim and Passover. Each of the previously published warm and entertaining stories has been collected into this one volume, originally bound together in 1998. 

Those same now-grown kids who remember those two holiday books will also fondly recall “The Keeping Quilt by renowned children’s author Patricia Polacco. A short time ago, Simon and Shuster reissued a 25th anniversary edition of the beloved story of a handsome quilt handed down through generations of the author’s family. The book was cleverly updated to show how even today the quilt continues to move through the celebrations of the author’s family and is now displayed at the Mazza Museum in Ohio. Polacco has drawn upon her family history once again in her new and richly illustrated companion book to “The Keeping Quilt,” titled “The Blessing Cup” (Simon and Shuster). The new book serves as a sort of prequel to “The Keeping Quilt,” this time telling the story of a special teacup lovingly separated from a colorful china set by Polacco’s ancestors fleeing Tsarist Russia. The “blessing cup” was taken with them as they journeyed to America, and eventually it is passed down to her in 1962, when the author received the cup from her mother on her wedding day. The theme of family and tradition shines through this lovely, heartfelt story and would make a wonderful gift to any child. 

A couple of new Chanukah stories for the younger set highlight New York City in text and illustration but retain universal themes of sharing and family. In “The Eighth Menorah” by Lauren Wohl, with illustrations by Laura Hughes (Albert Whitman and Co.), young Sam gets a chance to make a secret clay menorah in Hebrew school but begins to think about how many menorahs his family already owns. They have seven: One came from Russia with his great-great-great-grandmother, one was a gift from Nana and Poppy, one was from his other grandparents’ trip to Israel, two others were owned by his parents when they were children, and one was the menorah his parents bought for their first Chanukah together. What is the point of making another? After a conversation with his grandmother (who has recently moved to a new high-rise condo in the city), Sam figures out how to share his perfect Chanukah gift with new friends. The appealing, childlike illustrations evoke a sense of place and genuine family warmth.

From too many menorahs to too many gifts, sometimes we need to just sit back and take stock of all that we have. “Gracie’s Night: A Hanukkah Story” (Cookie and Nudge Books) also takes the reader through the Big Apple during wintertime. Debut author Lynn Taylor Gordon prefaces her unusual Chanukah tale with meaningful words: “When we are brave enough to reach out instead of looking away, miracles can happen.” The jaunty rhyming text relates the story of Gracie and her father, both of little means living in the big city; charmingly depicted in bold colors by illustrator Laura Brown. When young Gracie gets a holiday season job at Macy’s department store, she is delighted to be able to purchase eight gifts for her papa for the upcoming eight nights of Chanukah. She buys “mittens, sweaters, snow boots and socks, and had them gift-wrapped with a bow on each box.” Her joy at her new-found fortune is diminished, however, as she spies a homeless man huddling inside a cardboard box, cold and sad. She anonymously leaves him the gifts, fully knowing that her papa would approve. The final heartwarming spread shows the meager family of two (along with dog, cat and goldfish) celebrating Chanukah with a bright menorah, latkes, dreidels and gelt, along with loving and knowing smiles. The author’s Web site states that the book is based on the true Gordon family tradition of foregoing gifts on one Chanukah night and giving anonymously to someone in need. Check it out for discussion questions and some fun printable activities. 

For a Chanukah book that makes a double gift, consider the new “Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales” by Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand (Barefoot Books), which comes with a two-disc narration by well-known Jewish actress Debra Messing. This is a beautifully imagined book. The publisher has previously published “The Barefoot Book of Animal Tales” and “The Barefoot Book of Buddhist Tales,” and this third offering of Jewish tales shows the kind of care and attention they have taken to getting things right. The volume consists of eight well-told tales, along with source notes, and a useful and thorough glossary. The CDs are professionally produced and Messing’s calm storytelling will captivate children. The stories include, “Elijah’s Wisdom,” “The Boy Who Prayed the Alphabet,” “The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster,” “The Challah in the Ark,” “Heaven and Hell,” “Clever Rachel” (a Chelm story) and “The Perfect Mistake.” The author begins the volume with a two-page tale titled “The Power of Story” about the Baal Shem Tov and how his followers forgot exactly how he had prayed but did what little they remembered throughout the generations. She writes that “even when we can no longer remember exactly where to go or what to do or what words to say, we can tell the story and that will be enough. This is a book of stories, to be told from one generation to the next. Tell the stories and pass them on. Whatever your child remembers, that will be enough.”

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library.

Shining a new light on the Jewish response to Christmas


From Kung Pao kosher comedy to a swinging Mardi Gras version of the “Dreidel” song, two new Chanukah season releases explore the intriguing, delightful and sometimes perplexing ways in which American Jews have responded to Christmas.

In a book and an audio CD compilation, the holiday season known as the “December dilemma” is seen and heard in a new light. An added bonus: the covers of both are enticing and entertaining.

In the book “A Kosher Christmas” (Rutgers University Press, $22.95) subtitled “'Tis the Season to be Jewish,” Joshua Eli Plaut offers a richly detailed, page-turning read that draws on historical documents and ethnographic research sprinkled with often humorous images and photos.

In his introduction Plaut, a rabbi and scholar, admits to a lifelong fascination with Christmas. The son of a rabbi, he recalls as a young child growing up on Long Island in the 1960s that his mother dutifully took him to sit on Santa's lap every December.

“She was never worried about any influence on me as a child because my family was secure in its Jewish identity,” he writes.

Plaut paints a historical portrait of the shifts in American Jewish attitudes toward Christmas — the only American holiday founded on religion, he notes.

Jews have employed “a multitude of strategies to face the particular challenges of Christmas and to overcome feelings of exclusion and isolation,” he writes, adding that Jews actually have played a crucial role in popularizing Christmas by composing many of the country's most beloved holiday songs.

Plaut treats readers to a chapter on the popular Jewish custom of eating Chinese food on Christmas, a tradition that surprisingly dates back more than a century to Eastern European immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York. One  photo shows a sign in a Chinese restaurant window that thanks the Jewish people for their patronage during Christmas.

In the 1990s, comedian Lisa Geduldig hosted the first Kung Pao Kosher Comedy evening of Jewish stand-up comedy in a San Francisco Chinese restaurant on Christmas. Two decades later the event is still going strong and being replicated in cities across America.

On a more serious note, Plaut reveals a long history of Jewish volunteerism on Christmas, serving the needy and working shifts for non-Jewish co-workers, allowing them to spend the day with family and friends.

Plaut also covers the challenges faced by intermarried families at Chanukah and Christmas. He addresses as well the subject of public displays of religious symbols, with Jews on both sides of the issue.

Jonathan Sarna, the American Jewish historian who wrote the foreword, cautions that the book should not be read merely as a story of assimilation. In a phone conversation with JTA, the prominent Brandeis University professor argues that if that were the case, the book would be about how Jews observe Christmas.

Rather, Plaut chronicles how Jews demonstrate their Jewish identity through alternative ways of acting on Christmas that show them to be Jewish and American. Most significant, Sarna asserts, “A Kosher Christmas” is important because it portrays how two religions are transformed by the knowledge of the other.

The CD, “'Twas the Night Before Hanukkah” ($15.99) is a lively and inspiring music collection gathered by the Idelsohn Society, a nonprofit volunteer organization that aims to celebrate a Jewish musical heritage that may be lost to history.

The two-CD set includes 17 tracks for Chanukah and Christmas — some familiar and others that are lesser known. Performers on the Chanukah disc include Woody Guthrie, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, Flory Jagoda, Mickey Katz, the Klezmatics and Debbie Friedman. Among the voices that croon and swing on the Christmas disc are The Ramones, Theo Bikel, Dinah Shore, Sammy Davis Jr. and Benny Goodman.

A 31-page booklet of liner notes is a fascinating read of short essays, notes on the songs and colorful reproductions of old Chanukah recordings.

The project started as an effort to present a historical survey of Chanukah music, according to David Katznelson, a veteran record producer who is one of the four principals of the Idelsohn Society. Other members of the core group include Roger Bennett, Courtney Holt and Josh Kun.

As their search deepened, they found noteworthy Chanukah recordings, Katznelson recalls, some by well-known performers, others by little-known singers and educators. But the group was most struck by the abundance of Christmas music by Jewish composers and performers.

“The biggest Jewish names in music have at least one Christmas recording in their catalog,” they write in the liner notes.

The group shifted the lens of their project to tell the full story “of how American Jews used music to negotiate their place in American national culture,” according to the liner notes.

“This was an amazing way to look at Jewish identity in the 20th century, through a combination of the history of Chanukah recordings side by side with Jews performing Christmas songs,” Katznelson affirms.

Some of the earliest Chanukah recordings appear in the 1920s and 1930s. By then, what had been a minor Jewish holiday through the later years of the 19th century had been transformed into a major celebration that was promoted by Jewish religious leaders and embraced by American Jewry.

The emergence of Chanukah recordings parallels that transformation, Katznelson suggests. In the postwar 1950s, in addition to traditional songs, livelier recordings targeted children.

On the Chanukah recording, Katznelson points to “Yevonim” (The Greeks) by Rosenblatt as the showstopper. Rosenblatt, a Ukraine native who immigrated to New York in 1912 at the age of 30, became known in the U.S. as the greatest cantor of his time.

A Yiddish song about the Chanukah oil that burned for eight days, “Yevonim” opens with a chorus of women followed by Rosenblatt's huge, haunting rich tenor full of color and warmth.

Many will be surprised by Guthrie's upbeat version of “Hanukkah Dance,” part of his 1940s collection of Jewish songs made for Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records.

“He can take anything and make it American,” Katznelson says of the late folk legend, whose centennial birthday this year is being marked by performances of his music across the country.

Sure to be a party favorite is the version of “Dreidel” performed live by Jeremiah Lockwood, Ethan Miller and Luther Dickinson. The song was recorded live at a pop-up Chanukah record store concert hosted last year in San Francisco by the Idelsohn Society.

At the end of the song, the trio takes off into the New Orleans classic “Iko Iko,” sung to the tune of “Dreidel.” The tune no doubt will get listeners off the couch, singing and dancing.

On the Christmas CD, Katznelson is most drawn to Bikel's little-known 1967 recording of “Sweetest Dreams Be Thine.” Bikel, the beloved Jewish folk singer and actor, performs the Christmas song moving between Hebrew and English.

“It's the quintessential track of the whole compilation,” Katznelson says. “It's just Chanukah and Christmas, side by side, a perfect mishmosh.”

Katznelson says the society hopes the music conveys a deeper sense of Jewish history while raising questions that provoke conversation about the meaning of the holiday music.

Some may hear familiar songs in a new perspective, he says.

“This is music that is usually in the background,” Katznelson says. “We're bringing it to the foreground.” 

Books: Wrap up new worlds for your young readers


Many inns throughout the Mid-Atlantic states claim that George Washington slept here or there, but a new book makes an altogether new claim about the first president: that he learned about Chanukah from a Polish-born soldier at Valley Forge in 1777, when he noticed the young man lighting a candle.

“Hanukkah at Valley Forge,” by Stephen Krensky and illustrated by Greg Harlin (Dutton), is a retelling of the Chanukah story, framed by a story — based on factual research enhanced by a leap of faith — about George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The general is surveying his troops, concerned about the cold and their poor conditions. When he sees a soldier speaking softly and lighting a candle, he engages him in conversation about his home in Poland, where the young soldier’s family would have to light their candles in secret.

While the soldier explains the origins of the holiday, the commander-in-chief listens intently and then remarks about the brave tale he has heard, “Perhaps we are not as lost as our enemies would have us believe. I rejoice in the Macabees’ success, though it is long past.”

He adds, “And it pleases me to think that miracles may still be possible.”

The story, as the author notes, has its basis on a 1778 meeting Washington had at the home of Michael Hart, a Jewish merchant in Easton, Pa., during Chanukah. When Hart began to tell the story of Chanukah to his guest, Washington told about how he had heard the story of the holiday the year before from a soldier. Hart’s daughter recorded this story in her diary.
The dialogue is based in part on Washington’s own writings to give the text an authentic feel. Harlin’s dreamy paintings are full of light.

Another retelling of the traditional Chanukah story can be found in “The Ziz and the Hanukkah Miracle” by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn (Kar-Ben). In this case, the adventures of a large yellow bird with bright red wings are the vehicle for telling of the Macabees and the oil that lasted for eight days.

In “Bubbie and Zadie Come to My House” by Daniel Halevi Bloom, illustrations by Alex Meilichson (Square One), a magical older couple — a wise and warm set of grandparents — pay a visit on a family who are not their relatives on the first night of Chanukah. The Bubbie and Zadie float in, as though in a Chagall painting. They are people of great heart, and when they leave, they are missed. Readers are invited to write to Bubbie and Zadie and are given an address.

According to the publisher, every letter will be answered either by the author or by some actual bubbies and zadies who reside in a senior citizen residence in San Rafael, called “Bubbie and Zadies L’Chaim House.

This is a new edition of a book first published in 1985. When that book came out, thousands of children, and adults, too, wrote letters. Now, they can send the letters by e-mail.

Check for These Other Picture Books:

“Before You Were Born” retold by Howard Schwartz, illustrated by Kristina Swarner (Deborah Brodie/Roaring Book Press), is based on the Midrash, or rabbinic legend, about the guardian angel who teaches unborn children the secrets of the world; the child then forgets it all when born. Folklorist Schwartz first heard this story as a child from his mother. The book, a winner of the Koret International Jewish Book Award, features Swarner’s radiant artwork.
“The Jewish Alphabet” by Janet Clement, illustrated by Albert G. Rodriguez (Pelican) uses the ABCs to illustrate Jewish concepts and ideas. More sophisticated than usual alphabet books, this pairs the letter U with unmistakable candles every Friday night, and V with victory for religious freedom, linking the letter with the eight nights of Chanukah.

“Izzy Hagbah” by J.J. Gross, illustrated by Ari Binus (Pitspopany), is a lovely and uncommon story about a muscular guy with mighty forearms. Izzy attended shul regularly and insisted on doing the mitzvah of hagbah, lifting the Torah at the end of the reading. Dressed much more casually than the other shulgoers, he lifted the Torah as if it were made of feathers, spreading it so that nine or 10 columns were showing, rather than the usual three or four, or at most five. But no one else in this shul lifted the Torah but Izzy, even as he got older. The congregants, who were a tight-knit group, knew nothing about him, not even his last name. Finally, one Yom Kippur, Izzy himself is lifted by the words of the Torah.

In “Dreamer from the Village: The Story of Marc Chagall” by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Emily Lisker (Henry Holt), the author describes how the young Moshe (later Marc) Chagall knew early on that he didn’t want to spend his days hurling barrels of herring at a factory like his father. A poor student in both cheder and high school, he began to paint. His family didn’t like these early works and, in fact, his sisters would wipe their shoes on them. He was then sent to art school and while painting, he felt content. Later, he went to Paris, and his career flourished. Lisker paints in a folk art style, based on Chagall’s own paintings, where cows are green and people float.

“I am Marc Chagall” by Bimba Landmann (Eerdman’s) similarly tells the story of Chagall’s early life and career, in the voice of the artist himself. He explains that his childhood dreams of a bright future, of doing something different from those around him, made him happy, “like I was flying over Vitebsk, over all of Russia.” Landmann’s illustrations are bright collages in the style of the painter, using fabric, found objects, small constructions and sequin threads.

For Young Readers:

“The Dolls’ Journey to Eretz-Israel” by Abraham Regelson (Biblio Books) is a vintage book, now back in print. The author was a well-known and award-winning poet in Israel who made aliyah with his family from America. He wrote this story about his daughter’s dolls, at first left behind in America, but later sent across the ocean in 1933. The book was acclaimed by many Israelis, and the late songwriter Naomi Shemer described it as her favorite book. This edition was translated into English by the author’s daughter, Sharona, the actual “mother” of the dolls.

Dybbuks and Heroes Liven Holiday Books


Kibitzers, dreamers, medieval travelers and dybbuks are among the wide array of heroes, heroines and mystical villains in this season’s crop of Jewish children’s books, as publishers expand their offerings beyond holiday books and biblical retellings.

The roster of publishers is also evolving as much as the books they publish. An estimated 160 new Jewish children’s titles were published last year by a growing number of mainstream and religious publishers. This reflects a national growth among religious-themed books.

Ilene Cooper, the children’s book editor of Booklist, a trade magazine published by the American Library Association, said that several years ago, Booklist began publishing an annual spotlight on religion books.

“It was hard then to come up with enough books to fill the list,” she said, but not anymore.

Here are some of the most notable new titles.

“Angel Secrets: Stories Based on Jewish Legend,” by Miriam Chaikin, illustrated by Leonid Gore (Holt, $18.95, ages 5 and up)

Chaikin reveals her mastery of lyrically crafted, endearing stories based on biblical interpretations about the angels who link heaven and earth. Perfect for reading aloud. Chaikin writes warmly of angels of forgetfulness, alphabet angels and the palace of love. Gore’s dreamlike illustrations accompany each story.

“Dreamer From the Village: The Story of Marc Chagall,” by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Emily Lisker (Holt, $16.95, ages 4-8)

From the attic window of his home in a small town in Russia, the young Moshe Chagall, better known as Marc, sees the world differently from others. Colors are bolder, houses float in the sky and fiddlers dance on rooftops. Markel chronicles Chagall’s young life as he turns from a dreamer to an artist.

Lisker’s fanciful, colorful Chagallesque illustrations dance across the pages. A short biography is provided at the end.

“Dybbuk: A Version,” by Barbara Rogasky, illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher (Holiday House, $16.95, ages 7-10)

This tale, loosely based on the famous Kabbalist play by S. Ansky, is a mysterious, intricate story of broken promises, retribution and love set long, long ago in the tiny village of Brinitz. Rogasky’s retelling is skillful and engrossing. Illustrations by the award-winning Fisher are bold and haunting.

“Hidden Child,” by Isaac Millman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $18, ages 8-12)

As a young boy growing up in Paris before World War II, Millman, whose name then was Isaac Sztrymfman, lived a happy life, accompanying his father on Sunday mornings to the nearby cafe, where Yiddish-speaking patrons debated politics.

But the German occupation of France in 1940, when Isaac was 7 years old, changed life forever. In straightforward prose and captivating graphic artwork and photographs, Millman recounts the story of his survival as he became one of the “hidden” children of the war.

Millman strikes a perfect balance in recounting the tragic hardships he endured, while revealing the acts of human kindness of people who took risks to protect him.

“A Horn for Louis,” by Eric Kimmel, illustrated by James Bernardin (Random House, $11.95, ages 6-9).

Leave it to master storyteller Kimmel to write a flowing and heartwarming story about the unique friendship between the young Louis Armstrong and the Karnofskys, a Jewish family in New Orleans. Great for reading aloud, this early reader about New Orleans’ most famous jazzman is made ever more powerful as a portrait of daily life long before Hurricane Katrina devastated this colorful city rich in American cultural history.

“Kibbitzers and Fools, Tales My Zayda Told Me,” by Simms Taback (Viking, $16.99, ages 3 and up)

Bedtime reading doesn’t get more fun than with these Yiddish tales recast by Taback, Caldecott-winning author and artist of “Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.” Be prepared to laugh along with the kids who’ll delight in the baffling riddles of kibitzers and shlemiels. Why bring along an umbrella full of holes, asks Mendel. “I didn’t think it was going to rain,” replies Itzik.

The colorful illustrations are as offbeat and humorous as the narrative. Taback fills his short stories with easy-to-learn Yiddish expressions (and their definitions) and adds a glossary at the end.

“Sholom’s Treasure,” by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16, ages 4-10)

The two award winners are perfectly matched as Silverman engages young readers with the childhood world of Sholom Aleichem as he grows from class clown to master storyteller. Gerstein’s illustrations are delightfully playful as he gives readers a Sholom with rosy cheeks, reddish-brown curls under his cap and an impishly endearing smile.

“The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela,” by Uri Shulevitz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17, ages 5 and up)

Shulevitz has created a wondrous, illustrated travelogue just right for children by recreating the little-known voyages of a Jewish traveler who visits Rome, Constantinople, Baghdad and Jerusalem in the 12th century. Shulevitz uses the first-person narrative to draw readers in.

Shulevitz has won awards for several books, including “The Treasure” and “The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship.”

“Four Sides, Eight Nights,” by Rebecca Tova Ben-Zvi, illustrated by Susanna Natti (Roaring Brook Press, $16.95, ages 4-8)

An offbeat, fun book that goes beyond the traditional Chanukah story to explore the history of the dreidel and spinning tops from around the world. There are dreidel facts from collectors and Sevivon science, including a lesson on friction from Sir Isaac Newton.

Natti is familiar to young readers as the artist of the popular Cam Jansen series, and her light touch and expressive characters enliven the book.

A Funny Present Happened Here


Lighten up your Chanukah without striking a match. Yes, we fought, we won, we ate — but we can also laugh. While gift-buying is sometimes lumped in the same category as root canals and traffic on the 101, the humorous books, music and DVDs below will make the whole process a lot more fun.

Even better, every item below is available via the Internet. So stay home, put your feet up, crack open some foil-wrapped gelt and get ready for myriad thank-yous from your friends and family, who are so glad you didn’t give them socks — again.

Nap time is Shluffy Girl’s favorite time of the day…. Unfortunately, Shluffy Girl’s love for sleep sometimes gets her into trouble.” While most of us have been there, done that, there are lessons to be learned from Shluffy Girl, the newest character in Anne-Marie Asner’s Yiddish-titled Matzah Ball Books series (Gingerbread houses might be nice — but nothing beats a gingerbread menorah. The Popcorn Factory’s (Make 2006 go by just a bit funnier with “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Presents America”: The Calendar — now with August (Warner Books, $11.95). Based on the book of the same name, the desk calendar comes with instructions on how to assemble the darn thing (it’s really difficult).

Keep an eye out for the nods to the MOTs, such as on Rosh Hashanah, where the Timeline of Democracy notes that in 1,300 B.C.E., God gives the Ten Commandments — “and nothing bad ever happens to the Jews again.”

You think your family is bad this time of year? What about Holistic New Age Aunt, Uncle Speedo and Child Who Was in a National TV Commercial? All the freaky relations are gathered together in Justin Racz’s new book, “50 Relatives Worse Than Yours” (Bloomsbury, $14.95).

Each relative comes with a profile, gift idea, motto, home, benefits and drawbacks. But even if you can’t relate, literally and figuratively, to Uncle Speedo, fear not — Jewish Mother is at No. 23 (and there is room in the back to add in other odd branches of your family tree).

While it’s Chanukah at your house, it can be “Springtime for Hitler,” as the musical film version of the musical stage version of the nonmusical film, “The Producers,” releases its soundtrack (Sony, $18.98). Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Gary Beech and Wisteria Lane’s favorite pharmacist, Roger Bart, reprise their roles in Mel Brooks’ Tony Award-winning show. The veterans are joined in absurdity by Will Ferrell and Uma Thurman, who actually sings. No, really.

What if you hit your head and woke up in Menorahville — where everything is bought and sold in gelt, every female is Jewish and single and almost no guy wants to get married? OK, Los Angeles right now isn’t too far off, but this stuff is fiction.

Author Laurie Graff takes us to the crazy world of dating in “Eight Dates of Hanukkah,” one of the three stories in “Scenes From a Holiday” (Red Dress Ink, $12.95). When singles events planner (and slight commitmentphobe) Nikki Heller lands in a “Chanukoma,” it may take more than a miracle to help her find her way out of an endless cycle of the Festival of Lights.

Forget The Wiggles. If you’re getting songs stuck in your head, they might as well be Jewish ones from “OyBaby 2” (

Thanks for Everything


Our holidays are as much about what we are bidden to remember as about what we are willing to forget.

At Chanukah we celebrate the miraculous rededication of the Second Temple by Judah Maccabee. In so doing the festival’s complex historical background fades to backstory. The part we more typically overlook is that the Maccabean revolt was not just a struggle versus Antiochus, an anti-Jewish ruler, but against a larger group of Jews who wanted to be more Greek and less Jewish.

And, according to the unvarnished account, the Maccabees treated their more-Hellenized brethren viciously. Judah’s father Mattathias derived his status from his peremptory murder of a Jew who offered a pagan sacrifice — an act that, from the outside, looks an awful lot like political terrorism.

Anyway, enjoy your latkes.

As for Passover, we tend to elide right over the seder’s little tidbit about the Lord smiting all the firstborn sons of Egypt. Sure, we dip a finger in our wine glass and dab it on our plate to recall the innocent blood that was shed, but most of us then lick our fingers and proceed to the soup.

Purim ends in a bloodbath, plain and simple, which is conveyed by an almost throwaway line. The Book of Esther speaks about how the king, instead of murdering the Jews, carried out his decree instead against their foes: “As a result, the Jews killed more than 70,000 of their enemies.”

Maybe it’s time to amend the tongue-in-cheek definition of a Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us. They failed. We’ll forget the ugly parts. Now let’s eat.”

Thanksgiving, interestingly enough, offers the same challenge. Compared to the Jewish holidays we celebrate, the historical events that we celebrate this Thursday are centuries nearer in the historical record. But how soon we forget, or, more accurately, misremember.

Two new books provide a historical before-and-after picture of our beloved national holiday that is as cold as a cranberry mold.

In “Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition and the Defeat of the Moors” (Doubleday), James Reston, Jr. documents the events in Spain that surrounded Columbus’ voyage to America. In their drive to consolidate their rule, to be more Catholic than the Vatican, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella launched the Inquisition, a campaign of terror, torture, murder and exile against some 120,000 Jews and thousands of Muslims.

“It is little appreciated,” Reston writes, “how intimately the discovery of the New World is bound up with the victory of Christianity over Islam … with the expulsion of the Spanish Jews, with the terrible Spanish inquisition…”

The piety and savagery that marked the reconquest of Christiandom crossed the Atlantic in 1492 (thanks, as Reston points out, to Abraham Zacuto, an exiled Jew who supplied Columbus’ four voyages with maps and copper astrolabe).

Charles C, Mann picks up the story in his book, “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” (Knopf). Drawing on new research, he puts the pre-“discovery” population of the Americas at 112 million, larger than the entire population of Europe. Contact with European diseases wiped out 90 percent of these people.

And consider this lovely Thanksgiving tableaux: In his history of Plymouth Colony, the colony’s governor William Bradford wrote that he and his fellow Puritans only survived the first winter by robbing vacant Indian houses and graves. In Plymouth, the colonists established their homes in a deserted Indian village.

The “good hand of God,” as Bradford terms it, evidently favored the Pilgrims with a plague of viral hepatitis upon the land’s former inhabitants, ” sweeping away great multitudes of the natives … that he might make room for us.”

And what disease didn’t accomplish, outright military force and broken treaties took care of.

I don’t mean to ruin your holiday: I plan to celebrate it with as much poultry and pie as you. And I’m not going to lead the protest against Thanksgiving’s place as one of our favorite national holidays, one that Jewish Americans of almost all stripes celebrate.

But these darker histories, like the shattered glass at the end of a wedding ceremony, should give us pause in the midst of our joy.

So in that spirit, even as we celebrate with gratitude this Thursday the blessings bestowed upon us and our loved ones, let’s not forget our obligation to bestow blessings on those still in need:

  • The victims of Hurricane Katrina, some 50,000 of whom, as I write this, could soon be rendered homeless, as CNN reports, when federal and state financial support is scheduled to end.
  • Our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting a war based on bad intelligence, and conducted unintelligently by our political leaders. Let’s resolve to find a way for them to complete their missions as safely and as soon as possible.
  • The victims of American torture. Let’s resolve to speak up against methods and practices, as the Israel Supreme Court did in 1999 to stop the practice in Israel. Torture dehumanizes us as well as our enemies.
  • The victims of genocide in Darfur and Chad. Without forthright action, more than 2 million people will languish, die or be slaughtered in refugee camps, victims of the same sort of hate and violence that engendered the phrase, “Never Again!”

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

Calendar


The Jewish Journal is no longer accepting mailed orfaxed event listing information. Please e-mail event listings at least threeweeks in advance to: calendar@jewishjournal.com.

By Keren Engelberg

Calendar

NOVEMBER 27/Saturday

SHABBAT

Hebrew Discovery Center: Nov. 26-28. Family Shabbaton with special guest speaker Rabbi Isaac Balaness. $195, $375 (couples). Ventura Beach Marriott, 2055 Harbor Blvd., Ventura Beach. R.S.V.P., (818) 348-4432.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Padua Playwrights: 4:30 p.m. Padua Playwrights presents a workshop production of “Tirade for Three” and “Gary’s Walk,” parts one and two of a trilogy by Murray Mednick. $10. Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. (310) 823-0710, ext. 4.

28/Sunday

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

San Diego Center for Jewish Culture at the Lawrence Family JCC: Noon-5 p.m. “Diversity of Life: A Photographic Exhibit” by Zion Ozeri. Free. David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre, 4126 Executive Drive, La Jolla. (858) 362-1348.

EVENTS

Yiddish Alive: 4-7 p.m. A new conversation group in Orange County. All ages and experience levels welcome. Temple Beth Tikvah Fullerton, 1600 N. Acacla, Fullerton. (714) 671-0707.

29/Monday

LECTURES

Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel: 7 p.m. Discussion on “‘In God’s Image’ or ‘The Image of God’: a Spiritual Look at Your Brain.” $15 (includes dinner). 10500 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 475-7311.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Workmen’s Circle: 3-5 p.m. Stanley Schwartz presents his “The Peaceable Kingdom” sculpture. 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007.

Academy for the Performing Arts at Huntington Beach High School: 7:30 p.m. “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” the story of one boy’s journey through the Terezin ghetto on the way to the Auschwitz death camp. $6. Huntington Beach Library Theatre, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach. (714) 536-2514, ext. 4305.

MET Theatre Company: 8 p.m. Opening of “The Merchant of Venice,” the classic play reset in early 20th-century New York. $15, $12 (students and seniors). 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood. (323) 957-1152.

EVENTS

Beth Jacob (teens): 9 a.m. “NFL” Non-stop Fun and Learning, featuring four big-screen NFL games playing simultaneously. Free. 9030 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 278-1911, ext. 120.

OASIS (seniors): 1:30-3 p.m. Yiddish conversation group. All levels welcome. $5 (per trimester). Jewish Family Service, 8838 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 446-8053.

City of Hope Singers: 5:30-8:30 p.m. Vocal group for singers of all skill levels from all over Los Angeles. Hope Village, Comedy Theatre, 1500 E. Duarte Road, Duarte. (714) 562-0860.

30/Tuesday

LECTURES

Caravan for Democracy: 5 p.m. Natan Sharansky, Israeli minister for Jerusalem and diaspora affairs addresses students and faculty at UCLA. Free. www.caravanfordemocracy.org. For more information, see page 16.

The Menachem Institute: 7:30 p.m. Rabbi Laibl Wolf discusses “The Art of Jewish Meditation.” ($5 in advance), $7 (at the door). 18181 Burbank Blvd., Tarzana. (818) 758-1818.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Hammer Museum: 7 p.m. Hammer conversation with screenwriter Bill Condon and author T.C. Boyle. Free. 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 443-7056.

EVENTS

Jewish Federation of the San Gabriel and Pomona Valley Jewish Book Festival: 7:30 p.m. Author Kate Wenner discusses “Dancing With Einstein.” La Canada residence. R.S.V.P., (626) 967-3656.

1/Wednesday

LECTURES

Adat Ari El: 12:30-1:30 p.m. Erika Jacoby a Holocaust survivor discusses her new book, “I Held the Sun in My Hands – a Memoir.” $3. 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426.

StandWithUs: 7 p.m. Lecture by Khaled Abu Toameh, award-winning Palestinian journalist. $10 (in advance), $15 (at the door). Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (310) 836-6140.

Jewish Book Month: 7:30 p.m. Author Ruth Ellen Gruber speaks about her latest book, “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” Alpert JCC, 3801 E. Willow St., Long Beach. (562) 985-7585.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Hammer Museum: 7 p.m. Some Favorite Writers presents Jonathan Franzen. Free. 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 443-7000.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple: 7 p.m. (beginners), 8 p.m. (regular class), 9:15 p.m. -midnight (open dancing). David Dassa leads Israeli dancing. $7. Irmas Campus, 2112 S. Barrington Ave., Los Angeles. ddassa@att.net.

OPEN HOUSES

Valley Beth Shalom Day School: 9:15 a.m. Kindergarten Live. 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 530-4072.

EVENTS

Temple Isaiah: 4-7 p.m. Chanukah Bazaar. 332 W. Alejo Rd., Palm Springs. (760) 325-2281.

PROGRAMS

Northridge Hospital Medical Center: 6:30 p.m. The Healing Arts program offers its monthly topic, “Balanced Nutrition for Holiday Eating.” Roscoe Campus, Penthouse Auditorium, 18400 Roscoe Blvd., Northridge. (818) 885-5488.

2/Thursday

LECTURES

Israel Cancer Research Fund: 7 p.m. Dr. Timothy Cloughesy, associate clinical professor, UCLA department of neurology, discusses “Using Molecular Biology to Individualize Brain Cancer Care.” Free. Loews Beverly Hills Hotel. 1224 Beverwil Drive, Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P., (323) 651-1200.

California Museum of Ancient Art: 7:30 p.m. “Warrior Women of the Bible” with speaker Dr. David Noel Freedman. First in a two-part series, “Women of the Ancient Near East.” $15 (adults), $12 (seniors), free (members). Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Piness Auditorium, 3663 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (818) 762-5500.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

L.A. Film School: 8 p.m. Larry Hankin’s “10 Funny Fables Plus 1” with cameos by Janeane Garofolo, Larry Hankin, Jeff Garlin, Jerry Stiller and others. Free. 6363 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (877) 952-3456.

3/Friday

SHABBAT

B’nai Tikvah Congregation: 6:30-7:30 p.m. A musical family shabbat. Services and potluck dinner. Free. 5820 W. Manchester Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 645-6262.

Nashuva: 6:45 p.m. Nashuva community service-oriented Kabbalat Shabbat.

Westwood Hills Congregational Church, 1989 Westwood Blvd, Westwood. www.nashuva.com.

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

CSUN Arts Council: 7-9 p.m. Eighth annual high school art invitational opening reception. Thirty-nine Valley high schools and more than 200 students are participating in the show. Main Gallery, N. University Drive, Northridge. (818) 677-2226.

Camelot Artists Productions: 8 p.m. David Steen’s “A Gift From Heaven” is the story of an Appalachian family’s demise. $28 (general), $20 (students). Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 358-9936.

Vanguard Theatre Ensemble: 8 p.m. Opening night gala of the holiday play “Greetings.” Champagne reception immediately follows the show. $23. 120-A W. Wilshire Ave., Fullerton. (714) 526-8007.

Imaginary Friends Music Partners: 9 p.m.-midnight. Jazz pianist George Kahn and the George Kahn Quartet play songs from their newest release “Compared to What?” Featuring Andy Suzuki, Karl Vincent and Paul Kreibech. $10 cover, plus minimum. Lunaria Jazz Club, 10352 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City. (310) 282-8870.

EVENTS

Chai Center: Dec. 3-5. Desert Hot Springs Retreat. Hot springs mineral baths, women speakers and teachers, gourmet healthy food, stress reduction, massage and informal classes. R.S.V.P., (310) 391-6691.

UPCOMING

Sat., Dec. 11

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

MnR Dance Factory: Creative drama workshops for children with Chicago actress/writer Lisa Diana Shapiro. Free. 11606 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 826-4554.

Sun., Dec. 12

PROGRAMS

ATID (21-39): Dec. 12, 4 p.m. “Adventures in Judaism II” for young professionals ages 21-39, an afternoon of workshops, latkes, cocktails, “ultimate dreidel” and a Middle Eastern buffet. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 481-3244.

Dec. 30-Jan. 2

ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Wilshire Boulevard Temple: Winter Rikud in Malibu. Israeli dancing weekend. From $175. www.rikud.com.

Feb. 17-21.

PROGRAMS

Jewish Student Union: Applications now available online for the annual JSU New York experience trip. www.jsu.org.

SINGLES

27/Saturday

Conversations at Leon’s: 7:30 p.m. Post-Thanksgiving mixer. $15-$20. 639 26th St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 393-4616.

Jewish Singles, Meet! (30s and 40s): 8 p.m. “Not-So-Speedy Meeting” and game night in conjunction with Temple Ner Maarav. $9. 17730 Magnolia Blvd, Encino. R.S.V.P. by Nov. 26, (818) 750-0095.

28/Sunday

Jewish Singles Volleyball: 3 p.m. Volleyball and post-game no-host dinner. Free. Playa del Rey Beach court No. 11 at the end of Culver Boulevard, Playa del Rey. (310) 278-9812.

JDate: 7 p.m. (reception), 7:30 p.m. (concert). Performance by Israeli recording artist Noa. $45 (online only). Fred Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. www.jdate.com.

New Age Singles (55+): 7 p.m. “Starlight Ballroom Dance” with music by Johnny Vana Trio. $10-$12. University Synagogue 11960 Sunset Blvd., Brentwood. (310) 473-1391.

29/Monday

Nexus (20s and 30s): 7:30 p.m. (beginners), 8:15 p.m. (intermediate), 9-10 p.m. (open dance). Israeli dancing lessons and open dance. $5 (members), $6 (nonmembers). Alpert Jewish Community Center, 3801 E. Willow St., Long Beach. www.jewishnexus.org.

Project Next Step: 8 p.m. “Coffee Talk” with coffee and pastries. $7. 9911 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 284-3638.

30/Tuesday

L.A.’s Fabulous Best Connections: 6-9 p.m. Dinner at Marmalade Cafe. The Grove, Third Street and Fairfax Avenue. R.S.V.P., (323) 782-0435.

Westwood Jewish Singles (45+): 7:30 p.m. Therapist Maxine Gellar leads a discussion about “My Most Embarrassing Moment.” $10. R.S.V.P., (310) 444-8986.

The New JCC at Milken: 8-11 p.m. James Zimmer leads Israeli folk dancing. $5-$6. Salsa, swing and tango lessons for an additional $3 (7-8 p.m.). 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (310) 284-3638.

1/Wednesday

Nexus (20s-40s): 6 p.m. Volleyball followed by no-host dinner. End of Culver Boulevard, near court No. 15, Playa del Rey. www.jewishnexus.org.

2/Thursday

Conversations at Leon’s: 7 p.m. “Date or Mate, What Are You Looking For?” $15-$17. 639 226th St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P. (310) 393-4616.

J Networking: 7:30 p.m. The new Jewish networking group meets in the West San Fernando Valley. R.S.V.P. by Nov. 26, (818) 342-2898.

Mosaic: Dec. 2-5. Trip to Kartchner Caverns, Ariz. info@mosaicla.org.

3/Friday

Brandeis-Bardin/Makor Jewish Learning Circle: Dec. 3-5. Partnership weekend with the theme “The Search for Roots and Wings: Commitment and Creativity” with Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin. $130 (singles), $240 (couples). Simi Valley. (805) 582-4450.

New Age Singles: 6 p.m. No-host dinner at Nibbler’s in Beverly Hills followed by Creative Arts Shabbat Service at Temple Beth Am. 1039 La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 838-7459.

Singles Toward Marriage (30-39): 6:30 p.m. Monthly Shabbat dinner with group discussions led by Rabbi Shlomo and Tovi Bistritzky. 5998 Conifer St., Oak Park. R.S.V.P., (818) 993-0441.

upcoming

Sat., Dec. 11

Sephardic Singles Havurah (40s-60s): 7 p.m. Chanukah celebration and potluck dinner with candlelighting, prayers, songs and dancing. $5. R.S.V.P., (323) 294-6084.

Jan. 21-23

J-Ski (20s-40s): Mammoth Ski Trip. $185. Also, March 2-6, Whistler Ski Trip. $759. JskiLa@aol.com.

Keren’s Corner

Le Nouvel Anti-Semitism

What’s new in French anti-Semitism? Head downtown Thursday, Dec. 2 to find out as ALOUD at Central Library presents Michael Curtis, who will discuss “Anti-Semitism in France: Past and Present.” The author of numerous books on the history of France and anti-Semitism will discuss the relationship between historic traditional anti-Semitism in France and its current manifestations, including new factors like the extreme political left and Muslim

Spicy ‘Shores’ of the Mediterranean


Celebrated cookbook author and chef Joyce Goldstein can trace her bloodline to a Russian shtetl, but her heart and soul lie in the Mediterranean.

In "Cucina Ebraica" (Chronicle Books, 1998) and "Sephardic Flavors" (Chronicle Books, 2000) she explored Italian Jewish and Spanish Jewish cuisine, and now, to round out the trilogy, in "Saffron Shores" (Chronicle Books, $35) she continues her Mediterranean culinary journey with the exotic cuisine of the Maghreb: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, even including related Judeo-Arabic countries like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.

"I have been cooking this food for I cannot tell you how many years," said the former chef/owner of the renowned Mediterranean restaurant Square One in San Francisco. "When I was doing research for ‘Sephardic Flavors,’ I realized the subject was so huge I couldn’t do it all in one book, so I covered the northern Mediterranean in ‘Sephardic Flavors’ and the southern Mediterranean in ‘Saffron Shores.’ Here the style of cooking changes with a lot more spices and herbs and additional uses of fruit, but, of course, there is some overlap."

Notable for its absence is Israeli cuisine. "I left it out because it’s a hodgepodge," she explains. "The last time I was in Israel I was served sashimi and Thai-flavored something or other, and I thought, sorry, I didn’t come here for that. Israeli cuisine is a melting pot, a lot like America. Whoever is there is cooking Romanian food, Italian food, Yemenite food. Is there Israeli cuisine? I think it’s fusion, so I didn’t give it much attention. It’s not pure. I’d rather go back to the sources."

Indeed, each recipe reflects Goldstein’s impeccable research and attention to detail, and regional differences are carefully noted. For example, for the Cumin Flavored Meatballs, Goldstein offers Moroccan and Syrian variations. But she never sacrifices flavor for authenticity, adding a touch of orange to the sfenj (Moroccan Chanukah donuts), for example, and adjusting the spices in various dishes.

"The spices of North Africa are really vibrant, just incredible, so much fresher and more intense than those we can buy here," she said. "To make these recipes taste right, I often had to double them."

More than just a recipe collection, "Saffron Shores" traces the history of Jewish life in these exotic lands and its impact on the cuisine. We learn that unlike the Ashkenazim, who preserved their Judaism by isolating themselves, the Sephardim were more involved in the communities in which they lived. "They shared recipes and culinary traditions with their non-Jewish neighbors," she writes. "Their food reflected the cuisine of their homeland but adapted to follow the kosher laws."

Because the Sephardim were more active in the community, in trades and in business, there was a greater exchange of ideas between Jews and Muslims, and the similarity in recipes between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors is striking, she notes.

"On the other hand, certain [Eastern European] dishes, when you think of them, you know they are Jewish. I have many Russian cookbooks, but I don’t see too many recipes in there for brisket or tzimmes. There’s not as much overlap between the Jewish and non-Jewish dishes. Some of the ingredients are the same, like cabbage and potatoes, but the recipes don’t track the same way that the Sephardic ones do."

A tireless researcher, Goldstein combed cookbooks from the area, written in French, to capture the authentic tastes and aromatic flavors of such dishes as Iraqi Chicken and Chickpea Pastries, Lamb Tagine with Prunes and Honey and Moroccan Chicken and Almond Pie. The latter, known as B’Stilla, Goldstein calls "a masterpiece of Moroccan cuisine."

And while most of the recipes are easy to prepare, favoring the use of fresh, local ingredients over the labor-intensive method, the savory pastries that Goldstein calls "labors of love" are worth the extra effort, she said. Teams of women would prepare them together for special occasions, a tradition that is sadly dying out. Goldstein suggests families create their own traditions by preparing these bistels, briks or buraks together. "Anything that is fried is appropriate for Chanukah. The Tunisian briks are rounder in shape and contain egg, as compared to the bistels from Morocco and buraks from Algeria," she explains, "but they all can be fried."

For those who can’t think of Chanukah without potatoes, there are potato filled briks from Tunisia. But Goldstein offers a variety of fillings for these pastries, from beef or lamb to feta cheese to chicken with chickpea to spinach with pine nuts. Depending on the region, the dough may be phyllo, yeast raised, short crust or semolina, and the pastries may be baked as well as fried.

These spice-infused pastries make an alluring addition to any Chanukah table. And for Ashkenazic Jews, what an exotic change from latkes.

>Cumin Flavored Meatballs With Onion Jam and Spicy Tomato Sauce

1 pound ground beef

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander (cilantro)

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1¼4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

11¼2 teaspoons salt

1¼2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Light a fire in a charcoal grill. (You may also use a skillet heated over medium-high heat.)

2. In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients. Mix well, form into 16 oval meatballs wrapped around skewers, or into eight oval patties.

3. Grill or cook in oil on a hot pan until browned on all sides.

4. Serve with onion jam and tomato sauce.

Serves four.

Moroccan Chanukah Doughnut

2 envelopes active dry yeast

1¼4 cup sugar

1¼2 cup warm water

4 cups all-purpose flour

1¼2 teaspoon salt

2 eggs, lightly beaten (optional)

grated zest of 1 orange

1¼4 cup canola oil, melted margarine,

or melted unsalted butter (optional)

11¼2 to 2 cups warm water or part

water, part orange juice

Peanut or canola oil for deep frying

Granulated sugar for sprinkling or warm honey for dipping (optional)

1. Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the water. Let sit until foamy, about 10 minutes.

2. Pour into a large bowl and gradually stir in the flour and salt.

3. Stir in the eggs, zest, and 1¼4 cup oil, margarine or butter, if using.

4. Stir in just enough water or water and juice to make a soft and elastic dough.

5. Knead well, with a dough hook or by hand, on a lightly floured surface, until the dough is elastic, smooth and shiny.

6. Roll the dough into a ball, place in an oiled bowl and turn to coat.

7. Cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled (11¼2 to 2 hours).

8. Oil your hands. Divide the dough into 20 balls about 2 inches in diameter.

9. In a deep saucepan or wok, heat 3 inches of oil to 365 F.

10. Take a ball of dough, make a hole in the center, and pull it out to make a doughnut shape. Deep fry a few at a time until the donuts are puffed and golden.

11. Using a slotted spoon or skimmer, transfer to paper towels to drain.

12. While still hot, sprinkle with granulated sugar or dip in warm honey. Serve warm.

Makes about 20 donuts.

Judy Bart Kancigor, the author of “Melting Pot Memories” (Jan Bart
Publications, $19.95), can be found on the Web at

Beyond Miracles and Maccabees


My mother was surprised when I said I was reviewing Chanukah books for kids. “Is there a lot out there?” she asked.

I don’t remember ever coming across a Chanukah book growing up. Now there are titles geared for all ages and interests — historical accounts, folk tales, activities, even poignant literature.

Ages: Baby-Preschool

“My First Hanukkah Board Book” (DK Publishing, $6.99) is a good introduction to the holiday. This book combines the story of Chanukah with its practices. Photographs of actual objects and costumed children acting out scenes from the Chanukah story reinforce a sense of involvement for young readers. In addition, the laminated cardboard construction is great for car trips and flights.

Another special story is “Happy Hanukkah, Biscuit!” by Alyssa Satin Capucilli (Harper Festival, $6.99). The familiar puppy accompanies his owner to a Chanukah party at a friend’s house where, in typical Biscuit fashion, he gets into all sorts of mischief. Despite his being young and clumsy, no one gets annoyed with Biscuit. This gives the tale the added dimension of modeling patience.

Ages: 4-8

David A. Carter’s “Chanukah Bugs” (Little Simon, $10.95) is a delight. It’s a pop-up book, and every page features a wrapped present along with the question, “Who’s in the box on the first (second, third, etc.) night of Chanukah?” Opening lids or untying bows reveal “a storyteller bug,” “a dreidel bug,” “bugs who sing and dance out loud” and more. This is sure to be a giggly favorite.

For kids already familiar with the holiday, anticipating it may be the best part. “The Hanukkah Mice” by Ronne Randall (Chronicle Books, $15.95) would be part of my anticipation ritual if I were 4 years old! Three young mice emerge from their hole every night of Chanukah hoping to see the menorah. They come upon dreidels, feast on latke crumbs and discover beautifully wrapped presents. With the help of their mother, they get to see the menorah set aglow on the last night. This book is so sweet that grownups won’t mind a bit when little ones pull it out for the hundredth time.

I0n “Light the Lights!: A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas” by Margaret Moorman (Scholastic, $5.99) we meet Emma. Emma lives in an interfaith family and “Light the Lights” chronicles her experience of wintertime festivities. Even more than what the story does tell, this book is notable for what it does not include: there is no tension, no competition over family allegiances, no hint that these holidays are part of different traditions. I imagine this reflects the dreams of more than a few interfaith couples.

As much as “Light the Lights” has a contemporary grounding, “Zigazak! A Magical Hanukkah Night” by Eric A. Kimmel (Random House Children’s Books, $15.95) comes straight from the heart of tradition. Set in the Chasidic past, the action opens with two devils causing havoc in a town celebrating Chanukah. Latkes fly, musical instruments play themselves, and people are terrified. Only the rabbi is unafraid. He summons the evil spirits, diffuses their power and when they refuse the rabbi’s offer to turn them toward goodness, he destroys them. The question of how to address dark forces is particularly timely in the post-Sept. 11 era. It is also a mystical theme of Chanukah, symbolized in the lighting of the menorah.

In “Nine Spoons: A Chanukah Story” by Marci Stillerman (Hachai, $11.95), the author’s background as an award-winning journalist is evident from the very first line: “The entire family had enjoyed Oma’s famous latkes down to the last delicious crumb, and the children were finished playing the dreidel game.” Now what? You wonder, and you aren’t sure whether to linger over the drawing or turn the page to find out. What follows is a grandmother’s Holocaust memory of Chanukah in the camps. Both the writing and the illustrations convey the gravity of the time without actually imparting fear. What comes through is an ultimately uplifting feeling, and the timelessness of the holiday’s message.

Ages: 9-12

Those who have celebrated several Chanukahs will relate to “The Dreidel Champ and Other Holiday Stories” by Smadar Shir Sidi, (Adama, $13.95). The title story in the collection features a boy who wants very much to beat his cousins in their annual game. In the process, he learns about healthy competition, family love between generations and the importance of trying his best. Chanukah is the point of departure, but those are the real themes here.

Ages: Teens and Adults

Dalia Hardof Renberg’s “The Complete Family Guide to Jewish Holidays” (Adama, $23) offers just what the title suggests. The Chanukah section begins with a highly readable story of the holiday. There are special sections on women as well as sidebars on specific customs. This is followed by sheet music for several well-loved songs. Craft projects feature clear directions. Finally there are recipes for traditional holiday foods. This book is equally enjoyable when read by an individual or shared with friends and family.

All Ages

“The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah” by Isaac Bashevis Singer (Sunburst, $8.95) is one of the most heartwarming collections I’ve ever seen. The stories connect to Chanukah, but reach far beyond it. These are stories about life, and all the best it has to offer — warmth, hope and faith. Singer’s view is summed up by the words of a character in “A Chanukah Evening in My Parents’ Home”: “I didn’t preach. I told them a story. I wanted them to know that what God could do 2,000 years ago, he can also do in our time.” Readers younger than 12 may be too young to grasp the beauty here. None are too old.

I once saw a quote that read, “Nothing’s as good as an old friend, except a new one that’s fit to make into an old one.” So it is true with traditions — and Chanukah reading tops the list.

Reading for Chanukah


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.

Four for Chanukah


When the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles celebrated the launch of its anti-illiteracy program KOREH Los Angeles in September, the focus was on educators and celebrities to read children’s books to kids. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the spotlight at that event were some local women who are equally vital in the campaign against illiteracy: the creators of the children’s books themselves.

Nancy Smiler Levinson, Sonya Levitin, Joanne Rocklin and Erica Silverman are all award-winning authors behind some of the books that line the shelves of our nation’s classrooms and libraries.

With Chanukah upon us, the Journal spoke with them (all old friends) and discovered four distinct voices whose nexus is an appreciation for family, a passion for storytelling, and a shared sense of their Jewish roots.

Something for Everyone


Some years ago, the American Booksellers Association’s holiday advertising theme was the phrase: “Give a gift of love; Give a book.” Jewish Book Month, scheduled in November, anticipated the gift-giving season. This year, as always, a fresh crop of children’s books appeared for the holiday. Consider choosing one of these instead of toys that beep and break:

* Highly praised in publications of the American Library Association and other reviewing journals, Cathy Goldberg Fishman’s “On Chanukah” (Atheneum, 1998) describes the meaning and rituals of the holiday as observed by a young girl and her family. As each candle is lit, a different aspect of the observance is examined and differing qualities are associated with each night’s light: a light of hope, strength, giving, knowledge, freedom, happiness or faith in the darkness. Illustrations by Melanie W. Hall are in mixed media, soft and somewhat abstractly rendered images of family celebration, which include specific symbols in their fluidly glowing composition. Ages 4-8.

* “A Chanukah Treasury” (Henry Holt, 1998), compiled by prolific children’s writer Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Emily Lisker, is a delightful compendium of not only history and tradition, but stories, songs, poetry, recipes, legends and lore. It offers information found nowhere else I know of: for example, the source of the White House Menorah (did you know there was one?); how to celebrate Chanukah in Alaska while being stalked by a moose (hint: he loves latkes); and a few interesting variations on the dreidel game. The pictures, in acrylic paints on canvas, are brightly colored, reminiscent of folk art and a definite asset to this entertaining and educational work. For family use; all ages.

* Little people are not unknown in Jewish children’s literature. We did, after all, have K’tonton. But he was an out-in-the-open human family member. In “When Mindy Saved Chanukah” (Scholastic Press, 1998), also by Eric Kimmel, Mindy Klein’s miniature family — like The Borrowers — live very much behind the scenes, in the back of the walls of the famous Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York. When the shul brings in a predatory cat, the Klein family’s plans to go foraging for a candle with which to celebrate Chanukah become very dangerous indeed. After Papa fails, intrepid Mindy dares all and succeeds, helped by zayde, who understands that cats can seldom resist pickled herring. Barbara McClintock’s ink, watercolor and gouache illustrations are a delight, using sepia tones to enhance the early 1900s setting and amusing details to underscore the family’s size (zayde’s helmet is a thimble; Mindy’s climbing hook is a paperclip). Ages 4-8.

* Mark Podwal, whose work appears both in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Times, is the author/illustrator of many Jewish books. His latest, “The Menorah Story (Greenwillow, 1998), is in simple text and glowing pictures. Podwal gracefully casts light on this important symbol and its place in Chanukah’s history. Ages 5 and up.

* In 1987, Jane Breskin Zalben began writing and illustrating a series of warm and cozy stories that brought Jewish holiday tales into the popular tradition of using small animals to tell universal stories. This holiday season brings us “Pearl’s Eight Days of Chanukah (Simon & Shuster, 1998). Pearl, a young lamb, celebrates each of the eight days along with visiting cousins Harry and Sophie. Linked by short segments describing the family’s activities for each night are recipes, crafts, puppet shows, songs, history of the holiday and more. Painstakingly and charmingly illustrated in pencil and watercolor, this is an excellent guide for families celebrating with young children. Ages 4-9.

* For a Chanukah chuckle, seek out David A. Adler’s “Chanukah in Chelm,” wonderfully illustrated by Kevin O’Malley, (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1997). In this picture book, Mendel, the caretaker of the shul, has a big problem when the rabbi instructs him to place the chanukiyah on a table by the window so its glow may be seen outside. Finding the menorah in a closet, he goes off in a futile search for a table, ignoring (like many of us) what is right under his nose, the table the menorah rested on in the first place. Funny and fond old-world watercolor and pen pictures by O’Malley are just the thing to expand upon Adler’s humorous folk tale. Ages 4 and up.

Also appropriate for Chanukah are several new books that not only address Chanukah, but the entire Jewish year:

* Gilda Berger’s “Celebrate! Stories of the Jewish Holidays” (Scholastic Press, 1998), with vivid and dramatic watercolor paintings by Peter Catalanotto, first ties each holiday to a story from the Bible (e.g. the story of Jonah for Yom Kippur), Berger then appends three sections on each story: What We Celebrate, exploring the background of the holiday including a timeline; How We Celebrate, explaining traditional observances; and Crafts and Food, which provides activities and recipes with careful instructions. All ages.


Rita Berman Frischer is the librarian at Sinai Temple