Light Reading
Wed, 11/28/2007
Jewish Week Book Critic

“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.

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, Tova Mirvis, Steve Almond, Joanna Smith Rakoff and others dish about family, rituals, love, Christmas envy, too many latkes, chocolate gelt and “Judas Maccabaeus-shaped candies in blue-and-white tinfoil. When you bit Judah’s head off, he was hollow inside and you could wear him on your pinkie,” as Josh Braff writes.

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 Hebrew school teacher/aspiring writer with a graduate degree in the philosophy of religion 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 prints business cards, removes his earrings, puts on an old suit and soon gets escorted out of Lord & Taylor by security. Later on, lighting the menorah with his family, he thinks about his father and late grandfather, all standing in front of the same menorah and saying the same blessings, each dreaming of their own empire.

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 mailroom. 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 to go skiing with friends. But a 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, in many places and with many people. She spends the eighth night at her parents’ 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, so beautifully lit up for Christmas. She’s bored with Chanukah.

At her aunt’s Chanukah party, she is presented with a large, shiny dreidel, which turns out to be a magical dreidel 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 dreidel 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. Lederer’s beguiling line drawings enhance the spirited tale. 

“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 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 dreidel is called trompo, guests knock open a fanciful piñata 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.

In this season of miracles, Josh Hanft’s “Miracles of the Bible,” illustrated by Seymour Chwast (Blue Apple) is a wonderful book for young children. Hanft’s retellings of classic biblical stories, like the stories of Creation, Noah’s Ark, and David and Goliath are accompanied by Chwast’s evocative and stylized paintings that fold out into wide and sometimes tall depictions. Jonah sits inside a very large whale, eye-to-eye with lots of colorful fish.

“The Children’s Illustrated Jewish Bible” with stories retold by Laaren Brown and Lenny Hort, illustrated by Eric Thomas (DK) is presented in the publisher’s hallmark style: innovative, colorful design and layout that’s integrated with well-written text and interesting geographical and historical details. A CD accompanies the book.

A spiritually-oriented “Good Night Moon” of sorts, “The Bedtime Sh’ma: A Goodnight Book” adapted by Sarah Gershman, illustrated by Kristina Swarner (EKS Publishing) is a book that young children will enjoy hearing again and again, night after night, and they and their parents will enjoy the luminous paintings. Gershman presents poetic interpretations of the text, highlighting themes of peace and safety in the darkness, encouraging the child’s sense of wonder, strength and drive to seek the light. The book features English and Hebrew translations of selected text, accompanied by a CD with musical selections from the Shema.

“Let There Be Light! A Secular, Cultural, Humanistic Celebration of Chanukah” by Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer of Manhattan’s City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism” is a 20-page booklet highlighting traditional practices and new inventions, including readings, blessings, songs (in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino and English) and historical background.

“On Chanukah we cherish the light of hope that leads us to a vision of a better world,” Rabbi Schweitzer writes. The booklet can be downloaded for free at http://citycongregation.org/myfiles/Let There Be Lights!.pdf