Hanukkah Books Are Scarce; Yiddish Is Trending

December 18, 2019

Every year, children’s publishers usually add a title or two about the Hanukkah holiday by the time December rolls around, but this year the pickings are rather slim. What is notable, however, is that the world of Jewish children’s literature has seen a sudden glut of books celebrating all things Yiddish. Included in the new books here are three Yiddish-centered picture books, one spooky chapter book about a boy, his bubbe and a modern-day
Brooklyn dybbuk, and the one and only Hanukkah book celebrating an unlikely holiday food: kugel. 

“The Book Rescuer,” by Sue Macy. Illustrated by Stacy Innerst. (Simon & Schuster)
The full title of this beautiful picture book is “The Book Rescuer: How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come.” Adults familiar with Aaron Lansky’s amazing story will know what this means, but children are probably unaware of his heroic efforts to save Yiddish books from being relegated to a literal dustbin of history. The author follows young Aaron, an “all-American boy,” from his youth in Massachusetts to his college years (as he first began to learn Yiddish) and later, when he started collecting Yiddish book cast-offs from elderly Jews he knew. The book recounts how he ended up rescuing thousands of Yiddish titles, digitizing them, creating the fabulous Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, and almost singlehandedly being the catalyst for the resurgence of the study of the Yiddish language today. 

The engaging illustrations are inspired by the art of Marc Chagall. Aaron Lansky provides an “Author’s Note” at the end, and both author and illustrator provide explanatory pages, along with a useful Yiddish glossary. An inspiring tale for children that proves the power of one individual to change the world if they care enough.
Purchase on Amazon here.

“Yiddish Saves the Day,” by Debbie Levy. Illustrated by Hector Borlasca. (Apples & Honey Press)
Ashkenazi or Sephardic? Who cares about your DNA results when you can share funny rhymes like these with your child: “Oy, did I have a shlep! I fell on my shnoz when my foot missed a step! I tripped like a klutz and lost my left shoe! And, oy vey, my tuchis! I fell on that, too!” Each page contains adorable illustrations of exactly what kind of mishegoss is going on, along with a vocabulary box at the bottom with proper English translations and a pronunciation key. Follow along as our hapless shlemiel gets fartootst because he loses his notebook, but his menschy little brother and his food-obsessive mishpachah help him just in time for him to contribute enough outsized Yiddish words to bring to school the following day. Now he’s a maven, and his vocabulary-crazed teacher is duly impressed. 

“Yiddish words,” says the author in an endnote, “are so powerful, and so often comical, they’re like the superheroes of language.” This hilarious book proves it.
Purchase on Amazon here.

“Goodnight Bubbala: A Joyful Parody,” by Sheryl Haft. Illustrated by Jill Weber. (Dial Books)
The little old lady whispering “hush” from the original “Goodnight Moon” has nothing in common with this boisterous family of rabbit bubbes and zaydes and various grandchildren who descend upon a cute bubbeleh bunny getting ready for bed one Hanukkah night. They dance and sing, spin dreidels, nosh on bagels and knaidels, and play with a toy gorilla — an apparently useful item used later to rhyme with the line “the whole megillah” on the final page.

The humor here is overblown and silly, but kids familiar with the original may get a kick out of saying, “Goodnight knaidel and the shmeer on a bagel. Goodnight gelt, and goodnight dreidel, Goodnight little blocks, and goodnight tzedakah box.” You get the idea. The lively illustrations are also a parody of the original and full of Jewish ritual objects to spot and identify. Look for the “Easy Latke” recipe at the end, supplied by popular Jewish cookbook author Ina Garten. Purchase on Amazon here.

“Kugel for Hanukkah?” by Gretchen M. Everin. Illustrated by Rebecca Ashdown. (Kar-Ben Publishing)
A wide-eyed animal-loving young girl celebrates Hanukkah with her family, hoping for the gift of a pet, such as a puppy, kitten, bird or hamster. Instead, on the first night, she receives a hard metal lamp. On the second night, she gets a “strange kind of thermometer.” On the third night, she gets a squirty spray bottle. Things are becoming confusing! To add to the puzzlement, her grandma is receiving odd gifts, as well: chocolate chips, cinnamon sticks, a tiny bottle of vanilla and candied cranberries. As the clues grow, children will have fun trying to guess what the eighth night will bring. For Grandma, it turns out to be the ingredients for a family favorite holiday treat: Cranberry Chocolate Chip Hanukkah Kugel. (Recipe included.) By the last night, the delighted little girl has received all she needs for her new pet — an unexpected iguana!

There is a lot to this simple story for young children. Besides the eight candles, there are the eight different gifts to count, along with eight different kinds of latkes served (potato, carrot, turnip, beet, etc.) The illustrations are charming and reflect a newer trend in Jewish children’s books regarding realistic depictions of grandparents. Here, Grandma is not sporting gray hair or wearing pearls and a dress, but appears to be a slim, hip-looking 60-something with a purple-striped turtleneck and leggings. All the male characters are wearing kippot, which also serves as a teachable moment in many homes. A fun and appealing new Hanukkah story to share with animal-loving children.
Purchase on Amazon here.

“The Ghost in Apartment 2R,” by Denis Markell. (Delacorte Press)
This middle-grade chapter book made this year’s list and it is full of great references to classic (spooky) Yiddish literature and lore. The story begins when Danny’s older brother moves out to go to college and his (well-meaning but rather clueless) parents decide to rent out the now empty room on the new “AirHotel” app. This relegates poor Danny to the closet under the stairs, a la Harry Potter. When strange things start happening to guests who sleep in the rented room, Danny and his friends Nat and Gus do some sleuthing to figure out if the house is haunted. 

The multicultural Brooklyn neigh-borhood is full of fun and diverse characters, and the gentle scares keep the pages turning. As the clues pile up, Danny’s Bubbe Ruth (who speaks with a Yiddish-tinged cadence) provides some context with her stories of dybbuks, Ellis Island immigration and snippets of Yiddish songs such as, “Raisins and Almonds,” all elements of the creepy sounds emanating from the eerie room. Is there a young Jewish woman possessed by a dybbuk in search of her lost family haunting the bedroom? This clever mystery is highly entertaining and a sure winner for the fourth- through sixth-grade reader. Purchase on Amazon here.

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

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