Hanukkah Books for Kids Are Full of Wit, Whimsy


Many new Hanukkah-themed illustrated children’s books are full of wit and surprises this year. Some books take on the holiday with a bit of a twist, while others comfortably rely on traditional stories, newly told. All the recommended choices here celebrate the holiday with humor — from a fractured fairy tale and a reimagining of the beloved Chelm stories, to modern-day stories of multicultural families and, surprisingly, even the vaccine controversy.

“Little Red Ruthie: A Hanukkah Tale” by Gloria Koster. Illustrated by Sue Eastland. Albert Whitman & Co.

Spunky Little Red Ruthie wears a puffy, red-hooded parka on her way to Bubbe Basha’s house on the other side of the forest. It’s snowing as she kisses her mother goodbye and leaves her comfortable, modern home with her basket filled with sour cream and applesauce. When a frightening wolf appears on the path and threatens, “Little girl … I am going to eat you up!” Ruthie stays strong and brave. Like the Maccabees of old, she “would stand up to her enemy too.” Ruthie meets up with the wolf again at Bubbe’s house and cleverly tricks him into delaying his evil plan by telling him the story of Hanukkah and frying up lots of latkes. The hungry wolf overindulges and gets too full for another bite of anything else as he is escorted out the door. The humorous illustrations enhance the well-told tale. A useful latke recipe is included.

“Way Too Many Latkes: A Hanukkah in Chelm” by Linda Glaser. Illustrated by Aleksandar Zolotic. Kar-Ben.

Chelm stories are supposed to be funny, and this one will inspire giggling in any child, particularly if the reader hams up the character voices. We learn that Faigel makes the best latkes in all of Chelm, but unfortunately for everyone else, she makes only enough for herself and Shmuel, her hapless husband. One year, she inexplicably forgets the recipe and her husband must go to the rabbi (“the wisest man in Chelm”) to ask how many potatoes need to be used. The rabbi tells him to “use them all” without realizing that Shmuel and Faigel’s larder is full. The cycle is repeated with the other ingredients (eggs, onions) and silliness ensues. The comic-style illustrations capture the kitchen mayhem, idealized shtetl life and the over-the-top storyline with amusing flair. Of course, the whole town gets to partake in the deliciousness by the story’s end.

“The Missing Letters: A Dreidel Story” by Renee Londner. Illustrated by Iryna Bodnaruk. Kar-Ben.

Children will be delighted to find out that dreidels come alive at night at the dreidel factory and talk to one another. Actually, they like to argue about the fairness of the dreidel game rules. The nuns are jealous of the gimels because … who wants to get a nun, anyway? But the shins have the most legitimate complaint, since people have to add to the pot when the dreidel falls on their letter. The heys, shins and nuns band together to figure out a way to make the gimels disappear before Hanukkah begins. They come up with elaborate ways to hide the sleeping gimels in a fun and busy double-paged, purple spread that kids will enjoy deciphering. In the morning, when it is time for the dreidel makers to add on the letters, they can’t find the gimels! When the dreidel maker explains the historical importance of the dreidel, the mischievous letters feel remorseful and do the right thing to make the dreidels whole again. It is a fun and silly story with delightfully appealing cartoonish illustrations and lots of purple — everywhere.

“Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas” by Pamela Ehrenberg. Illustrated by Anjan Sarkar. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The family members of the boy who is this story’s narrator are preparing for Hanukkah, but something about them seems different. They stop at the Little India Market on the way home from Hebrew school, bringing along his “amma-amma” (grandma), who is clothed in traditional Indian dress. They purchase dal and rice, but our unnamed narrator’s active little sister is climbing around the store, upsetting the coconut milk display. To distract her, he makes up new words to an old song: “I had a little dosa, I made it out of dal.” We learn that his father grew up Jewish and his mother is from India, and they have a family tradition of making dosas (a type of pancake fried in coconut oil) at Hanukkah. When they are locked out of their home by mistake at a large family celebration, little Sadie saves the day by using her climbing skills. Multicultural children’s books for Jewish families are an important addition to the literature as they reflect the lives of real families where children can see themselves represented and accepted as part of their community.

“Judah Maccabee Goes to the Doctor: A Story for Hanukkah” by Ann D. Koffsky. Illustrated by Talitha Shipman. Apples & Honey Press.

Kids need books to help them through scary experiences, and getting a shot is clearly one of those times. This book connects the bravery of Judah Maccabee with the bravery of a little boy, also named Judah, as he visits the doctor for a shot. The text emphasizes how much pride he has in being a good brother to his baby sister and how much he wants to protect her, particularly by using the Maccabee shield he gets as a Hanukkah gift. When his dad explains that getting his shot actually will act as a shield to protect his sister in a different way, he sticks out his arm for the doctor and the deed is done. He is proud of his “on-the-inside” bravery and realizes that heroism can manifest itself in a variety of ways. While it is an unusual combination of two subjects, the book is an important validation of science in response to vaccine misinformation. It stands as quite a Jewish educational feat, considering that all the incensed Amazon anti-vaccine reviewers calling it propaganda from “Big Pharma” also learned a lovely lesson on the origins of the Hanukkah holiday.


Lisa Silverman is the director of the Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University.

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.” 

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