Grinch-like Chanukah tale among book choices this year

steven friedman   |   correspondent

Latkes sizzle in the pan, dreidels spin on the table, lights glow from the menorah — and parents scurry from store to store looking for presents to buy.

Four books released in time for Chanukah offer parents gift options for younger children.

“Happy Hanukkah Lights” is a book for young children (ages 1 to 4) by an award-winning author that combines rhyme, counting and Jewish traditions into a happy Chanukah tale.

Written by Jacqueline Jules, with illustrations by Michelle Shapiro, the book is short and easily can be read again and again (and again?) before child (or parent?) nods off to sleep.

Shapiro’s whimsical illustrations fully complement Jules’ text. They are bright and silly and enhance Jules’ sing-song verse.

“Maccabee! The Story of Hanukkah” is also written in rhyme. The book, by Tilda Balsley with illustrations by David Harrington, outlines the basic Chanukah story as taught in religious schools across the planet for the past 75 years.

Intended for ages 3 to 8, Balsley’s traditional narrative presents the Jews as rebels against the evil polytheist Antiochus. Only one man, according to Balsley, had the courage to fight against assimilation and anti-Semitic tyranny: Mattathias, who enlisted his son, Judah, to lead the rebellion.

The refrain, “Sometimes it only takes a few who know what’s right, and do it, too,” runs throughout the book.

The story ends, as we all know, when a tiny amount of oil miraculously lasts for eight days. Only after the story’s conclusion does the author mention the “legend of the oil.”

Balsley’s text, however, paints the world of the Maccabees as way too black and white. Sure, it’s tough to present scholarly history to kids more interested in latkes, dreidels and presents, but whitewashing and simplifying Jewish history does a disservice to younger generations. The Jews of ancient Israel were not some monolithic God-fearing clan of the righteous and devout, waiting to be rescued. Nor were the Syrian Greeks hedonistic polytheists who cared more about fun and worshiping the sun, moon and stars than anything else.

It should be noted, however, that Harrington’s colorful illustrations do a very good job of illuminating the “black-and-white” story.

“The Kvetch Who Stole Hanukkah” clearly rips off, er, borrows from the Dr. Seuss classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” It takes place in Oyville and is about a Kvetch who hates anything to do with Chanukah. Written in rhyme as well, the Kvetch, like the Grinch, eventually conspires to steal Chanukah and terminate Oyville’s holiday celebrations forever.

Three children ultimately warm the Kvetch’s heart with the true message of Chanukah: “The Maccabees taught us to be free, and to treasure true justice and charity.”

Written by Bill Berlin and Susan Isakoff Berlin, with illustrations by Peter J. Welling, the book is cute and whimsical, and will certainly entertain kids ages 5 to 10. The problem for some of them (and their parents) might be that “The Kvetch Who Stole Hanukkah” is a pale pretender to the holiday throne when compared to Seuss’ classic, which also soared as a made-for-TV cartoon (with Boris Karloff voicing the Grinch).

The Berlins do succeed in creating a Chanukah version of a story that will resonate with readers unfamiliar with Dr. Seuss. And Welling’s illustrations do add to the zaniness and tension of the story.

“A Mountain of Blintzes” has nothing do with Chanukah, although many people certainly enjoy the fried variety during the Festival of Lights.

The book, by Barbara Diamond Goldin with illustrations by Anik McGrory, is a Shavuot story, loosely based on a Chelm tale that appeared in Philip Goodman’s “The Shavuot Anthology” several years ago.

But given that Shavuot is not a tremendously popular time for book publishing, “A Mountain of Blintzes” squeezed through just in time to make an appearance for Chanukah.

The book is well written and nicely illustrated, and the story follows Sarah and Max, who toil in upstate New York in the 1920s and are poor. They want to provide their five children a mountain of blintzes in order to celebrate the sweetness of the Torah, which is what Shavuot is all about.

Sarah and Max decide to do extra work around town and put the money earned each night into a coin box. But both husband and wife hold back their earnings each evening to have more disposable income, thinking the other is contributing to their ultimate goal.

When Sarah and Max finally open the coin box and find it empty, each blames the other for their predicament. But there is a happy ending: Sarah and Max’s children had also added chores in town to their daily tasks, and that resourcefulness enables the family to prepare, yes, a mountain of blintzes.

“Happy Hanukkah Lights” by Jacqueline Jules, illustrations by Michelle Shapiro (12 pages, Kar-Ben, $5.95)

“A Mountain of Blintzes” by Barbara Diamond Goldin, illustrations by Anik McGrory (28 pages, Marshall Cavendish Children, $6.99)

“Maccabee! The Story of Hannukah” by Tilda Balsley, illustrations by David Harrington (32 pages, Kar-Ben, $17.95)

“The Kvetch Who Stole Hannukkah” by Bill Berlin and Susan Isakoff Berlin, illustrations by Peter J. Welling (28 pages, Pelican, $16.99)


Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.