November 18, 2018

Story of ‘Shmelf’ not welcome on every Jewish library shelf

You’d better watch out. I’m telling you why: “Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf” has come to town, and a vocal contingent of Jewish children’s librarians and other critics would like to see him hitch the first sleigh ride back to the North Pole.

Los Angeles-based children’s book author Greg Wolfe, who is Jewish, created the story of Shmelf, an elf assigned to check twice the accuracy of Santa’s list of children naughty and nice. In this new Chanukah-Christmas picture book hybrid from Bloomsbury Publishers, Shmelf is perplexed when he notices that certain children who have been good (identified by a long list of names in a notebook) are not going to get presents from Santa. Why? As the head elf cheerily explains, those children are Jewish and they will get their gifts from their parents on a different holiday — Chanukah: “It won’t be dear Santa who gives them a gift, but their mommies and daddies. Do you get my drift?” 

Still, the earnest Shmelf makes it his mission to check out what he fears is a possible travesty of justice, only to behold a fine Jewish family doing very appropriate Chanukah-related things: “He saw menorahs with candles so thin, and children were giving their dreidels a spin. There was gelt — chocolate coins wrapped up in gold foil — and latkes frying in pans filled with oil.” After he overhears the family retelling the story of the Maccabees, Shmelf “says with a grin: ‘Hanukkah’s awesome! I’m totally in!’ ”

Shmelf returns to the North Pole and tells Santa of his discovery. The big guy responds by making Shmelf “the Hanukkah elf” who, together with his Jewish reindeer, Asher, will visit Jewish children to make sure their “latkes are crispy and thin,” their “menorahs burn brighter” and their “dreidels win.” For the special assignment, Santa provides Shmelf with a blue-and-white elf suit in place of the standard-issue green-and-white one, as well as a yellow-gold Star of David instead of a jingle bell for the tip of Shmelf’s stocking cap.

During Shmelf’s visits, the Jewish children can whisper to him what they want for Chanukah, so that he can relay their wishes to Mom and Dad, because, as the book makes clear, Santa is not in the picture for them. (Interestingly, Shmelf is laser-focused on Jewish children. It seems of no concern to him that millions of other children around the world also don’t celebrate Christmas.)

A few vocal librarians who are members of the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) and have served on the committee for its Sydney Taylor Book Award, which annually recognizes outstanding books for children and teens that best portray the Jewish experience, have posted criticism of the book on Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook and other social media.

Heidi Rabinowitz, former AJL president, hosted a lively discussion about the book in November on her podcast, “The Book of Life,” which has been downloaded more than 5,000 times. And popular children’s book reviewer and sharp-tongued parenting columnist Marjorie Ingall from Tablet magazine wrote a scathing review that included the lines, “Bite me, Shmelf. I like my latkes thick. Stuff that in your stocking.” 

Why the vitriol? Rachel Kamin, a Chicago librarian, reviewer and previous head of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee, has written that the book is “offensive and disrespectful” because “the philosophy that Jews can believe in Santa and Christmas magic and that Santa believes in them too is not an idea that is promoted in mainstream Judaism and is not a philosophy that a mainstream, secular publisher should be validating or promoting.”  

Kamin also criticized that, although the family in the book is clearly enjoying celebrating their holiday as Jews all over the world choose to do it, “Shmelf and Santa still feel their celebration somehow isn’t meaningful and special enough on its own and is in need of a dose of Christmas magic.”

Wolfe was raised Jewish, had a bar mitzvah and is proud of his religious traditions. In an email, the book’s author said that when he was growing up, his parents wanted to make sure he felt included in the shared cultural experience of secular Christmas in America.

“We did things like read ‘ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas,’ get pictures taken [with Santa] at the mall, and leave out cookies and milk for Santa and his reindeer,” Wolfe wrote. “These traditions helped me feel as though I belonged to something bigger. But I don’t believe this detracted from my Jewishness. Hanukkah was my holiday, and I knew and valued that.

“But when I became a parent myself,” Wolfe continued, “my young son wanted to know how Santa fit in with our Judaism. Particularly, he asked, ‘Does Santa know I exist?’ ‘Shmelf’ is my way of saying, ‘Yes, Santa DOES know you exist,’ while still embracing our Jewish heritage — it’s a love letter to Hanukkah seen through the eyes of an elf.

“While I understand some people may not like the idea of Santa showing up in a Hanukkah story, I hope it allows children to learn how other cultures are both similar to and different from their own, and how to spread the joy of the holiday season.”

A quick survey of librarians at Sephardic Temple, Temple Isaiah, Heschel Day School, Sinai Akiba and the Wise School revealed they will not be purchasing the book for their libraries, although it is being considered for possible purchase by the librarian at Valley Beth Shalom due to the value of its multicultural themes.

The “December Dilemma” is a real concern for many Jewish or interfaith parents who want their children to feel part of national secular celebrations and may choose the same path that Wolfe’s parents did. Some of the positive Amazon reviews for “Shmelf” are from parents in interfaith families.

How much Santa an intermarried couple wants in their lives is an issue couples in that situation need to grapple with, but it seems that critics of this particular book are focusing on the appropriateness of the mashup for very young children who don’t yet know Jewish traditions. Jewish parenting guru Ingall recommends parents educate themselves on “both faiths, keep Christmas and Chanukah separate, inform your kids of the backstory of both, and stop trying to compete with Christmas.”