Every year we look forward to taking out our Hanukkah decorations and big box of books. As with any other subject, picture books are one of the best ways to learn about a holiday, so grow, and to share that knowledge with others. Each year I not only read Hanukkah books with my girls, but I also go into classrooms at their schools to share a holiday that so many of their friends have little to now knowledge of.
For anyone who isn’t aware of the background story of Hanukkah, here is a quick overview. About 200 years B.C.E. in Jerusalem, the Jews were under the rule of the Greek-Syrians. King Antiochus III allowed the Jews to practice their own religion. His son, King Antiochus IV, proved less kind and demanded that the Jews bow down to the Greek gods. His soldiers desecrated the holy temple and killed hundreds of people. HOWEVER, one Jewish leader and his 5 sons stood up to the Syrians. When Judah the Maccabee (the hammer) took control after his father died, the small Jewish army beat the Syrians through guerilla warfare. They cleaned the temple, rebuilt the altar, and had a celebration to rededicate it. One thing they needed, was to have the 7 candle menorah that adorned the alter be lit. As the story goes, there was only enough oil to light the menorah for one night, but it miraculously lasted for 8 days, enough time to make more oil. For that reason, we celebrate the rededication of the temple with a holiday where we light candles for 8 days and eat lots of foods fried in oil.
While Hanukkah has been seen by many as the Jewish Christmas, it really is nothing of the sort. It is a holiday celebrating the miracle of the weak overcoming the mighty. It is a holiday celebrating being allowed to practice your own religion, even when it isn’t what everyone else does. It is a holiday to simply celebrate being Jewish. Traditionally there are no gifts involved, but that has evolved over time in America to children often receiving one small gift each night.
There are a wealth of awesome Hanukkah books out there. I have tried to write about them over the years as seen here, here, and here. I am always on the lookout for new books, plus we get a book every year from the PJ Library. Here are some of our newest finds.
Most children are familiar with the story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Jewish folklore has a similar character in the form of the Golem, which in Hebrew literally means lump. In The Golem’s Latkes, Eric A. Kimmel mixes the story of the golem and his inability to stop himself with the traditions of Hanukkah. Rabbi Judah, in the story, had created the Golem to help him. On the day before the first Hanukkah candle has to be lit, Rabbi Judah had too much to do and not enough time. He instructed his housemaid, Basha, of all that needed to be done and allowed her to use the golem, but to never leave him alone. Basha was impressed by all that the golem could do and began to take advantage of him so that she could go visit with friends. However, when she instructed him to make latkes, she stayed at a friend’s house for too long and latkes soon took over the house. Rabbi Judah finally puts an end to the latke making, but now had enough to feed all of Prague, so they invited everyone to come and celebrate. A fun book to get into the holiday spirit and one that receives a big thumbs up from my 9 year old.
On first look, Emanuel and the Hanukkah Rescue doesn’t seem to feel like much of a Hanukkah story, but by the end, all I could say was, “wow.” The story is set in New Bedford, MA at a time before electricity. New Bedford was a big whaling port and was also the home of a group of secret Jews had emigrated from Portugal due to religious persecution. The story tells of young Emanuel whose father sells supplies to the whalers. Emanuel doesn’t want to be a merchant, he wants the adventure of going to sea, but his father warns him of how dangerous a life that is. To Emanuel, his father was always afraid. One thing they were afraid of was letting anyone know that they were Jewish, a hold-over from the persecution they faced in Portugal. So when Hanukkah comes, Emanuel’s father and the other Jews don’t put the menorah in the window as is customary, his father won’t even light the Hanukkah lights. By the seventh night of Hanukkah, Emanuel can take no more and stows away on a whaler’s ship, yearning to be free, and hoping that one day his father can learn to be free as well. The ship struggles in a great storm and has trouble finding its way home. But by a great miracle, they see lights from the shore. The even bigger miracle was that the lights came from menorahs glowing in the windows of every Jewish home “proclaiming the last night of Hanukkah.” Emanuel’s father had realized that it was not good to be ruled by fear and instead wanted to embrace his Judaism.
In A Hanukkah with Mazel, Joel Edward Stein has given us a very traditional feeling tale about the importance of commemorating Hanukkah even when life doesn’t feel very joyous. The painter, Misha, is struggling to make ends meet when a stray cat wanders into his barn. Misha doesn’t have much, but what he has he share with the cat, whom he names Mazel, which means luck. It is the first night of Hanukkah, and while Misha can’t afford candles for his menorah, he decides to paint a menorah and “light” each candle by painting their flames. On the final day of the holiday a merchant comes to his door. Misha admits that he has no money to purchase anything, but the merchant suggests that perhaps they can trade. Misha shows him his paintings and while he is looking at them, Mazel comes out. As luck would have it, Mazel is the merchant’s missing cat, Goldie. The merchant winds up purchasing Mischa’s paintings to sell and also asks Misha to take care of Mazel since he is on the road so much. This is a very sweet tale that happens to take place during Hanukkah, but is also reminds us to be kind to animals, the importance of tradition, and to never stop believing in the miracle of Hanukkah.
Oskar and the Eight Blessings utilizes Hanukkah as a way to bring up the Holocaust and the loss that it caused while reminding us all to look for the blessings and that “even in bad times, people can be good.” Young Oskar is sent to America to live with his aunt after Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, November 9, 1938. He arrived in New York on the 7th day of Hanukkah, which also happened to be Christmas Eve that year. He walked from Battery Park to 103rd street and found people performing random acts of kindness toward him. This is a book about hope, the thing that the ancient Jews had when they fought against Antiochus. We always need to have hope, even when things seem incredibly dark. While a simple story, this one is probably best for slightly older children as it has more opportunities for talking points than for telling the Hanukkah story.
Gracie’s Night, by Lynn Taylor Gordon, is less about Hanukkah and more about tzedakah, but wrapped up in a Hanukkah bow. The background is that it is holiday time in NYC and Gracie is taking in all of the beauty. She loves looking in the beautiful store windows, but she shops at The Second Chance Shop and is excited to find a pair or matching mittens. Gracie’s father is a bus driver and they are unable to pay all of their bills. But when Gracie manages to get a holiday job at Macy’s she is able to purchase her father 8 much needed gifts, like boots, a new coat, and a hat. When she leaves on a bitter-cold night, Gracie sees a homeless man huddled in a box. She realizes that while their life is tough, his was worse, and she wordlessly left him her father’s gifts. There weren’t many gifts that year for Hanukkah, but they lit the candles, ate latkes, spun the dreidle, and had warm feelings in their hearts. The book encourages all children, young and old, to “become someone’s miracle; be someone’s light! Give up just one gift on one Hannukah night.” This was a PJ Library selection and their note at theh end of the book talks about how many Jewish communities have started celebrating “The Fifth Night,” an annual event during which a night of Hanukkah gifts are donated to a children’s charity. I love this concept and think that this year would be the perfect year to start this tradition.
This summer I stumbled upon the book Tashlich at Turtle Rock, an amazing take on a ritual that has only recently gained popularity. So when I found that the authors wrote a Hanukkah book, I had to check it out. While not quite as powerful as the Tashlich book, Potatoes at Turtle Rock is still is an excellent way to approach Hanukkah in a different way. This family brings their Hanukkah celebration out to Turtle Rock on a snowy evening and young Annie has planned 4 stops. Each stop has a little lesson in history, astronomy, resourcefulness and togetherness. It is an unusual way to celebrate Hanukkah, but does encourage thinking about the things that are truly important.
I first heard about The Only One Club while reading an article on Kveller. This isn’t a Hanukkah book, per se, but it is a great book to consider during the holidays when lots of people celebrate a variety of different festivals. Growing up, I was surrounded by lots of Jews, but now my daughters are growing up in an area where they could easily be the only Jewish person in their class. In this special book, Jennifer’s first grade class begins making Christmas decorations, but because she is Jewish, her teacher, Mrs. Matthews, allows her to make Hanukkah decorations instead. Jennifer enjoys the attention and creates “The Only One Club,” of which she is the sole member. When her classmates want to join, she is resistant until she realizes that each of her friends is also “the only one” at something. As she inducts them into her club she reveals the unique qualities that make each of her classmates extraordinary. Through this book, young children are encouraged to discover and treasure their own uniqueness and to actively look for special qualities in others beyond race or culture.