Every year we open up the Hanukkah box and rediscover classic stories that we haven’t seen in a year. There is such a joy in experiencing these classic tales that retell the story of the Maccabees, the miracle of the oil, and the spirit of the Hanukkah season. I’ve written about many books here and here. But I wouldn’t be a book fanatic if I wasn’t always on the lookout for new titles, both those recently published and just books that are new to me.
For those who don’t know the Hanukkah story well, here is the basic rundown. During the time in which the Syrians ruled Jerusalem, they decided that the Jews should not be allowed to have their own religion and destroyed the Holy Temple. A band of Jews stood up for their rights and defeated the Syrians. When they went to relight the menorah that was to burn at all times, there was only enough oil for one night. We are told that miraculously the oil lasted for eight days, until new oil could be made.
Today when we celebrate Hanukkah we are recalling the miracle that the small Maccabee army defeated the mighty Syrians against overwhelming odds. We are also celebrating the miracle that the oil for the eternal light. Hanukkah is about the rededication of the Holy Temple after it was destroyed and is a time for Jews all over the world to rededicate themselves against forces that try to destroy the Jewish culture today.
Teaching our children about Hanukkah can be difficult when our society is so focused on Christmas, but it is through amazing books that my girls have learned as much as they have. Here are a few books that we discovered for the first time this year and are definitely worth taking a look at.
Simon & The Bear – Eric Kimmel is one of our absolute favorite authors and his latest addition is just as wonderful as his others. I actually read this book to my Hebrew school class the other day and they were spellbound. What’s special about this story is that it focuses on the miracles of Hanukkah and miracles in our lives.
In this story, young Simon leaves his family to make a better life in America. His mother reminds him to celebrate Hanukkah during the voyage for “Who knows? You may need a miracle on your long journey.” Turns out that he needs several, for Simon seems to be on the Titanic, although that is never stated by Kimmel. Simon gets a spot on a life-boat, but gives it up to a man with a family back in America that needs him (a charitable deed and a miracle for the man). He jumps from the boat and miraculously lands on an iceberg instead of in the ocean where he begins to light the Hanukkah candles and spin the dreidel asking for a miracle. He winds up being joined on the iceberg by a giant polar bear who he befriends by giving him some latkes that his mother had packed him. The bear wound up providing him shelter from the cold air so that he could sleep and later brought him fish to sustain him. On the 8th night of Hanukkah, a passing ship saw his candles and sends a boat of to investigate, saving his life. Simon learns that “miracles aren’t just for the Maccabees…They can happen to anyone, anywhere, even in the darkest of times. you just have to believe.”
The Ziz and the Hanukkah Miracle – This isn’t a “new” book, but it is new to us. The story brings back The Ziz and not only explains the story of Hanukkah, but also shows the Jewish value of gemilut chasadim – Acts of Love and Kindness.
When the winter months bring extra hours of darkness that make it difficult for animals to see at night the Ziz receives an oil lamp from God. However, when other animals want to also enjoy the light, the Ziz refuses to share and runs away to get away from them. While escaping, he comes across Judah Maccabee trying to get everything ready for the rededication of the Holy Temple but lacking sufficient oil for the menorah. The Ziz goes to tell God and God suggests that the Ziz help them by sharing his oil. Ziz refuses to obey and flies away. He finds himself back at the Holy Temple and is mesmerized by the beautiful light coming from the menorah. When the light begins to flicker as the oil runs out, Ziz realizes that he is the one who needs to fix it, but he needs help from others since he is too large to fit in the doors of the temple. With the help of a family of mice and an owl, the Ziz shared his oil with the Maccabees for eight nights. In return for helping the Maccabees, the Ziz was surprised with a lamp that glowed even brighter than before. This time, however, the Ziz has learned that we are nothing without the people around us and he shares the beauty of his lamp with all of the other animals.
This is a great way to give another alternative to the miracle of the oil. It also does an awesome job of teaching about loving those around us and about sharing the light of the menorah with others which is another Jewish tradition. The Ziz is always a fun read with kids.
The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin – This is a wonderful book that tackles the topic of the commercialization of Hanukkah and how so many children these days expect to be bought things. Hanukkah was never a holiday about gifts, but has become more so due to its proximity to Christmas. Every home celebrates differently, when it comes to gifts, but it is a hard line to walk at times. Children today want so much, it is important to teach them that sometimes when you ask for less, you actually receive more.
Two days before Hanukkah begins, a peddler brings a beautiful, hand-painted dreidel to a toy shop. The owner hopes to sell it for a large sum since he has sold out of all other dreidels. When a little girl who has already purchased tons of gifts from the most expensive stores in town buys it, she brings it home and it won’t spin. A little boy then comes demanding that his mother buy it for him saying that “surely you wouldn’t deny your son a new dreidel for Hanukkah,” again, the dreidel comes back the following day having not worked properly. Finally, on the afternoon before Hanukkah begins, a poor boy and his father ask to just look in the shop, admitting that they cannot afford to purchase anything. This little boy appreciates everything in the store from a doll’s smile to interesting markings on Noah’s Ark, and thanks his father just for bringing him to the store. “The shopkeeper’s heart was touched. Here was a child who say beyond price or appearance, one who understood what was truly precious.” The shopkeeper gives the boy the dreidel as a gift. As he spins it, the letters change so that it now reads “Nes katan hayah poh” – “A small miracle happened here.” The little boy has reminded the shopkeeper that the true miracle of Hanukkah cannot be bought.
(Note – I received a copy of The Dreidel that Wouldn’t Spin from Wisdom Press, but the review is completely my own)
The Eighth Menorah – This story touches on something that a lot of Jewish families go through – having too many menorahs! Every year, it is fun to make menorahs in Hebrew school, but then what do you do with all of those excess menorahs? Some don’t last for more than a year, but it is very easy for a family to become inundated with menorahs.
In this sweet tale, Sam’s class is making menorahs out of found objects in nature, but his family already has seven that are important to them. He was going to give it to his parents as a surprise, but realized that his grandmother, who has recently moved into a new condo, could use it more. While she isn’t allowed to light candles in her room, candles are permitted in the common room. Sam gives his grandmother the menorah which she is then able to share with her neighbors. Sam has made their holiday and done a mitzvah all at the same time.
I Know an Old Lady who Swallowed a Dreidel – Everyone knows the song about the old lady and the fly. They have made tons of versions for holidays – Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, autumn, St. Patrick’s day….It was only a matter of time before someone came up with a Jewish version. This silly story tells of a grandma who swallows a dreidel thinking it was a bagel. She washes it down with a variety of traditional Hanukkah items – oil, latkes, applesauce, brisket, gelt and candles. At the same time that the author is providing us with some holiday comic relief, the illustrator, David Slonim, is utilizing the space to introduce kids to some classic art work presented in a completely different light. For the slightly older child, there is even information on the original artwork in the back of the book plus information on how to go to David Slonim’s website to see the artwork and links to the originals they are based on. A very funny book that brings something kids recognize into a new light.
My First Chanukah – Finding good beginner books that aren’t completely about just spinning the dreidel or getting presents is really difficult. I walked into our local bookstore last week and was shocked to find a cute beginner book on sale. It is by no means new, having been written by Tomie dePaola in 1989, but it is definitely new to us. It is a really wonderful first book that touches on why we celebrate Hanukkah, what a menorah is, what latkes and dreidels are, and a little bit about presents. For the young ones in your family, or for a lesson in a preschool, this one is one of the best books I have found.
It is nice that there is such a wealth of books about Hanukkah. Books are the best way for me to share the holiday with my girls and with our friends. Happy Hanukkah!