Merry Hanukkah? The yearly tension felt by some who negotiate Hanukkah amid the Christmas season gets an ironic twist in several new books. Given the diversity of even single-faith families, this may not be a surprising move. Whether trend or coincidence, it means more books for children, which is always a happy result.
"Old man Scroogemacher was as sour as a pickle and had a tongue like horse-radish." The first sentence of Hanukkah, Shmanukkah! gives a forshpice (appetizer) of the Yiddish flavors that follow—a hint that Dickens' A Christmas Carol has undergone a religious and cultural conversion. Yes, the most unloved character in the most beloved Christmas story has been appropriated for the other big holiday in December. As odd as it may seem, author Esmé Raji Codell pulls off the switcheroo with humor, history and heart.
Codell folds Dickens' universal themes of social justice, class and belonging into a particular place and time of Jewish history. Scroogemacher is a merciless factory owner on New York's Lower East Side until, courtesy of three visitors—the Rabbis of Hanukkah Past, Present and Future—he learns how to be a real mensch (human being). Along the way, readers witness the rededication of the Holy Temple in Maccabean times (the event Hanukkah commemorates), a perilous transatlantic journey to Ellis Island, and the eventual good life in the Golden Land (present-day America), created from the hard work and labor reforms of immigrants who kept alive Old World traditions in a New World.
Readers unfamiliar with Yiddish terms will find the glossary invaluable, and two bibliographies (one for kids, one for adults) point to resources on the Jewish immigrant experience and Jewish history in general. Illustrations pepper at least every other page, keeping visual interest throughout a fairly long story, and the artist's conception of the Rabbi of Hanukkah Future (a wise woman with reading glasses) is not to be missed.
Joanna Brichetto negotiates Hanukkah and all Jewish holidays as a graduate student in Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University.