Do your spirits need a lift? In this time of raging COVID-19 and President Trump’s outrageous behavior towards President-elect Biden, my heart has been gladdened by picture books casting new light upon Hanukkah. One of these charming works is particularly well-suited for young readers whose families may celebrate Christmas as well as this upcoming Jewish holiday. All these books emphasize human determination, generosity, and emotional connections, regardless of religious affiliation—or lack of any affiliation. Their refreshing takes on Hanukkah, each deploying a child-friendly literary tradition in a new way, are comfortingly familiar even as they are engagingly different.
The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol (2020), written by literary luminary Arthur A. Levine and illustrated by the accomplished Kevin Hawkes, creates a new mythic character to represent Hanukkah, much as Santa Claus is a secular representative of Christmas. In fact, in this picture book we discover that Nate Gadol and Santa are old friends! This title character’s name comes directly from the supposed miracle that occurred at the end of an ancient fight for religious freedom, commemorated during Hanukkah. When only one day’s holy oil was left in the main Jewish temple, it miraculously lasted eight nights. World-wide, Jews now recognize the Hebrew words “Nes gadol haya shem”, meaning a “A great miracle happened there,” attached to the dreidel (spinning top) game typically played each Hanukkah night. Nate Gadol echoes “nes gadol.”
In this book, Nate Gadol is a magical character credited not only with the holiday’s original supposed miracle but also with dispensing gifts to good needy Jewish people. Levine’s main story shows how the children of one 19th century immigrant family, the Jewish Glasers, receive winter holiday presents just like their Christmas-celebrating neighbors. In his final “Author’s Note,” Levine, who is Jewish, does not view the children’s wish for presents as a “December dilemma,” as many traditional Jews still do, but as just one part of Jewish-American history. It is, Levine writes, just “a bit more mythology” added to a religious holiday, similar to Santa, his elves, and reindeer. (Along the way, I also see that the supersized Nate Gadol is shown fixing some colossal problems, such as a burst dam, akin to the spectacular deeds of such American tall tale heroes as Paul Bunyan—a further link with traditional Americana.)
Hawkes’ richly-colored, painterly illustrations emphasize this connection with American history, depicting Nate dressed in clothing worn during the Revolutionary War. Hawkes’ illustrations, gleaming with gold much like Nate’s eyes—”shiny as golden coins and. . . smile that was lantern bright,”—also complement the joyful receipt of gifts by Levine’s characters. The immigrant Glaser children and parents are worthy of gifts because of their generosity to their fellow immigrants, the O’Malleys. Packaged gifts are shown by the book’s end to be a new, delightful part of their American Hanukkah.
Generosity, compassion, and family feeling, however, remain more important than gifts, with the Glasers buying the O’Malleys needed medicine with money they might have spent on Hanukkah chocolate. Mrs. Glaser also is shown earlier quietly giving up her own tiny bit of chocolate to her children. Then, Nate Gadol steps in to magically reward these good deeds with those presents! This brief, warm-hearted book will be best appreciated by young readers who already have some knowledge of Hanukkah and its traditions.
Similarly, some familiarity with Hanukkah will enhance enjoyment of Little Red Ruthie: A Hanukkah Tale (2017), written by Gloria Koster and illustrated by Sue Eastland. This variation on “Little Red Riding Hood” proudly acknowledges its literary heritage in Koster’s opening dedication to her mother, “who gave [her] the gift of fairy tales once upon a time.” In an interview, the author has explained that another of her favorite fairy tales, the “Snow Queen,” inspired the icy, snow-laden setting of “Little Red Ruthie.” Her modern-day Ruthie is going to her Bubbe’s house (“Bubbe” is the Yiddish word for Grandmother) to again make potato pancakes, a traditional Hanukkah food, with her. In fact, Ruthie’s recipe for these “yummy ‘latkes’ ” (Yiddish for pancake) concludes this playful, positive book.
Eastman’s full-color illustrations, created with computer graphics, aptly use red throughout the revised fairy tale. Instead of a hood, Ruthie is bundled up in a scarlet, puffy down jacket, while interior scenes in Ruthie’s and Bubbe’s houses feature red décor and clothes. Outdoors, red-tinged squirrels and birds stand out against the snowy confrontations between Ruthie and the wolf. The exaggeratedly cartoonish features of that creature are a visual reassurance that Ruthie will triumph here. Yet it is the way she tricks the wolf that is notable.
Unlike some traditional Red Riding Hoods, Ruthie does not require rescue by someone else. She reminds herself to be “brave as the Macabees,” the heroic warriors in the Hanukkah story, and she cleverly delays the wolf by playing upon his greedy appetite. Being an “excellent reader” also helps Ruthie, as reading Bubbe’s note helpfully explains where her grandmother is and when she will return. Determination, family feeling, and literacy—as well as the ability to prepare a delicious Hanukkah food, all the while explaining the holiday’s story—are the values and achievements extolled in this seemingly simple tale.
Family warmth and connectedness are also extolled in There Was a Young Rabbi: A Hanukkah Tale (2020), written by Suzanne Wolfe and illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler. This picture book draws upon the cumulative rhyme tradition exemplified in “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly” and, particularly at this time of year, in the traditional English Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
This picture book shows a young woman rabbi successfully juggling her synagogue obligations with preparations for Hanukkah, a religious holiday notably celebrated at home. So, watched and at times helped by her husband and elementary-aged children, the rabbi is both very busy as well as happy! On single pages and on a few double-page spreads, we see images that add visual pleasure to such refrains as “There was a young rabbi who played dreidel to win. She watched it closely as it started to spin. /The dreidel—it spun. The rabbi—she won! Kosher brisket she made. At least ten pounds it weighed.” For young readers unfamiliar with Hanukkah, some pages have a brief boxed fact in unobtrusive type at the bottom of the page. Also, these readers will benefit from the short overview of the holiday provided on the book’s final page. (Youngsters will have to learn elsewhere that some Jewish denominations still do not accept women as rabbis.)
Every reader will smile at Ebbeler’s cheerfully colorful, cartoon-like drawings, with grandparents whose features and big eyeglasses resemble the rabbi’s coming to celebrate one holiday night. On another night, Hanukkah food and games are shared with a child guest, her wheelchair no obstacle to enjoying the menorah’s bright lights and holiday fun. Reading this story book aloud, for those who do celebrate Hanukkah, might just become a new family tradition!
As the days grow shorter and the countdown to a new president looms ever larger, I needily relish these glimpses of holidays to come, of times when virulent disease will not keep cautious, concerned families apart on such festive occasions. These books are indeed happy reading.