Seeing as the “Festival of Lights” is upon us (tonight will be the sixth night after all) we thought we might showcase some children’s books about Hanukkah. As you will see, authors and illustrators approach the story and its traditions in many different ways.
The first Hanukkah book, Happy Hanukah Everybody (New York: United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education, 1955), is notable as an early example of Maurice Sendak’s illustrations. Written by Rabbi Hyman Chanover and his wife Alice Chanover, this book tells the story of one family’s typical first night and Hanukkah traditions.The next book, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (New York : Holiday House, c1989) was a Caldecott winner written by Eric Kimmel and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. The story centers around a wanderer named Hershel of Ostropol (based on the historical folk-hero prankster) who outsmarts a group of goblins haunting a synagogue and preventing the locals from celebrating Hanukkah. The next book is . . . interesting. I chose to include it in this post because of its singular focus and peculiarities. The KvetchiT : a Hanukkah tale, was written by Larry Butchins and illustrated by Celia Yitzchak (St. Helier, Jersey : Pitspopany, c1994). Published on the English channel island of Jersey, the story centers around the miraculous birth of a creature who feeds on kvetches (gripes and complaints). The KvetchiT has been around ever since the Maccabees complained that there wasn’t a lot of oil in the Holy Temple to light the menorah (though it miraculously burned for eight days). For better or worse, we do not have the cassette tape of the The 20 greatest kvetches ever told! indicated on the front cover of the book. The Cotsen collection boasts hundreds of books, pamphlets, toys, and games about or related to the Jewish culture and people, mostly from the 20th century. We hold over 700 titles in Hebrew and Yiddish (in Hebrew script), but many of our books related to Judaism are also in English and German.
Only one of these Hebrew language books, however, seems to be related to Hanukkah. La-sevivon (translating to the dreidel, which is actually a Yiddish word), by Salman Schneur, is a story about a silver dreidel who goes on an adventure to gather Hanukkah gelt (and in this case real gold coins) and meets a sapient goat along the way (Frankfurt am Main: Hotz’at Omonut; 1922):Notably, our holdings of Hanukkah books are mostly English language and published in the US. We have around twenty American books related to Hanukkah, while I could locate only one Hanukkah book in Hebrew (though it has been a very long time since I went to Hebrew school). This collections bias might reflect the importance of the holiday as a particularly Jewish-American tradition (there were simply more American books about Hanukkah for Mr. Cotsen to collect). As a seasonal companion to Christmas, and the very American culture of. . . gift giving. . . surrounding the winter holidays, Hanukkah enjoys a lot of attention in the US. But like the typical American Christmas, the holiday is mostly observed at home and with the family. Since most Jewish families don’t huddle around a fire and read Maccabees 1-2 (these books are actually non-canonical in Judaism), children’s books about Hanukkah provide a useful vehicle for transmitting the story and passing on the holiday traditions.
In locating books for this blog post I also noticed one tradition that my family shares with the Cotsen family: the tradition of giving books!
Happy Holidays everyone!
To learn more about the book La Sevivon and the history and odyssian migration of the Hebrew language publisher Omonut, check out this blog post from the Library of Congress: From Russia With Love: Illustrated Children’s Books in Hebrew