November 20, 2019

Stories and essays and pictures illuminate holiday

“There are many lights in light,” according to a line in the Talmud. Hillel’s words refer to the blessing over the Havdalah candle, but can be applied no less to Chanukah.

The most exquisite of new books for the season is not about Chanukah, but about light. An oversize volume, Sam Fink’s “The Book of Exodus” (Welcome Books) includes 40 watercolor paintings of the sky, each hand lettered with a chapter of Exodus, in Hebrew and English.

In an introduction, artist and calligrapher Fink writes of connecting “the infinite wisdom of the words of Exodus with the never-ending magic of the sky.” He “embroiders the delicacy of the words” into the sky, fitting lines of text into the movement of the clouds. Facing pages include the English text in type and his skyscape paintings with their handwritten English and Hebrew text. The book divides Exodus — described by Fink as “a cry for freedom” — by chapters, as opposed to the weekly Torah readings.

The project began as a personal gift to the author’s family and then was expanded. Fink worked on this for four years, inspired by the custom, seldom invoked, that he learned from his rabbi, that a man copy his own Bible before the end of his days.

Chanukah’s many letters, many spellings and many possibilities are explored in “How to Spell Chanukah: 18 Writers Celebrate 8 Nights of Light” edited by Emily Franklin (Algonquin). The essays are humorous, sometimes nostalgic, irreverent, autobiographical sketches. Young writers including Elisa Albert, Ed Schwarzschild, Adam Langer, Amy Klein of The Jewish Journal, Tova Mirvis, Steve Almond, Joanna Smith Rakoff and others describe and dish about family, rituals, love, Christmas envy, too many latkes, chocolate gelt and “Judas Maccabaeus-shaped candies in blue-and-white tinfoil.

Joshua Neuman, publisher of Heeb magazine, writes about his short-lived efforts as a salesman, his family trade. His immigrant grandfather had made his way convincing people they needed things. The then-25-year-old aspiring writer, with a graduate degree in the philosophy of religion who taught Hebrew school, tries selling stuffed animal mufflers called Creature Comfies — his father’s brainstorm of an idea — to major department stores in the weeks leading up to Christmas. He takes out his earrings, prints business cards, puts on an old suit and soon gets escorted out of Lord & Taylor by security.

Eric Orner contributes a comic strip, “Traditions Break,” in which a young woman has nowhere to go over winter break when she gets thrown out of her dorm room, and the Chanukah package her mother sent is locked up in the closed mail room. Her louse of a boyfriend, Tommy, “the kind of Jew who thinks Maccabees are the fancy nuts people bring back from Hawaiian vacations,” has left her behind while he’s skiing with friends. But an expected new friend takes her in and crafts the “ugliest, loveliest menorah I’ve ever seen” out of foil.

In “Eight Nights,” Laura Dave describes seven nights of Chanukah over her life, where she has been in many places and with many people. She spends the eighth night at her parent’s home in the suburbs, where she naps in her childhood bedroom and takes in the scene with gratitude of being surrounded by family. Before her father drives her to the station for the train ride back to her own new home in the city, she loads up on toilet paper, batteries and fresh apples, things her parents insist she won’t find in the city. As they’re pulling out of the driveway, she remembers all the nights that came before and catches a glimpse: “The Chanukah lights in the window — shining, like eight simple stories — in the night sky.”

For all of these essayists, with their different styles, grudges and dilemmas, sweet and bittersweet memories, Chanukah counts for more than eight nights.

In “The Golden Dreydl,” illustrations by Ilene Winn Lederer (Charlesbridge, ages 8 to 11), Ellen Kushner turns to folklore, fantasy and humor. The host and writer of the public radio series “Sound & Spirit,” Kushner has narrated performances of this original story with the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra around the country. The book opens with a young girl named Sara, who’s upset that her family’s house looks so ordinary next to all the other houses on their block that are so beautifully lit up for Christmas. She’s bored with Chanukah.

At her aunt’s Chanukah party, she is presented with a large, shiny dreydl, which turns out to be a magical dreydl princess who takes her on a great adventure through worlds of biblical figures, demons, fools and other strange folks. Toward the end, Sara gets caught up in a dance where the letters of the dreydl along with every letter of the alphabet combine to make word after word, “as if the world itself were being created in letters.” She awakens into golden light.

“The Best Hanukkah Ever” by Barbara Diamond Goldin, illustrated by Avi Katz (Marshall Cavendish) is a funny and touching story about the Knoodle family and their misdirected efforts at buying each other “the perfect gift, one that will be treasured forever.” Children of all ages will enjoy this story, which seems like a meeting between “The Gift of the Magi,” O’Henry’s classic tale of giving and receiving, and “Tales of Chelm.”

A Sephardic custom of the holiday serves as the centerpiece of “Hanukkah Moon” by Deborah Da Costa, illustrated by Gosia Mosz (Kar-Ben, ages 6 to 10). A young girl named Isobel visits her Aunt Luisa, newly arrived from Mexico with her cat named Paco. They celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month, when the new moon appears. In this enchanting story that features a tree of birds, a dreydl is called trompo, guests knock open a fanciful pinata and wish each other Feliz Januca, and they have couscous with their latkes.

Another story that unfolds on Rosh Chodesh, “Mayer Aaron Levi and His Lemon Tree” by Tami Lehman-Wilzig (Gefen) is a sweet story about a family and a tree that is passed down through generations. Not only has the tree lived on among Mayer Aaron Levi’s descendants, but so has the story of his tremendous generosity.