With December upon us once again, it's time to take a step back and think of what the holiday season means to us: family, friends and heritage. This month is the perfect time to teach children about special traditions. Two new books do just that, delving into the meaning of Hanukkah and the Jewish holidays in ways that young readers will love. A story that spans generationsOne Candle (Joanna Cotler, $15.95, 32 pages, ISBN 00602281154) by Eve Bunting is the touching story of a young girl whose extended family gathers together each year to celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. And every year her grandmother and Great Aunt Rose perform a ritual to recall their childhood, part of which was spent in a German concentration camp during the Holocaust. In those bleak days, despite unrelenting hardship and fear, they sought to maintain their religious faith by smuggling a potato and some margarine into camp elements which they used to construct a makeshift candle so they could surreptitiously celebrate Hanukkah.
Fifty years after the fact, the two sisters recreate their story with a wonderful clarity of detail. As they gather, surrounded by the warmth and safety of their family on the first night of the holiday, they painstakingly hollow out a potato, pour in a small amount of oil, and once again light "one candle."Toward the end of the story, the young narrator says: "My sister Ruth whispers close to my ear, Ã”Why do you think Grandma wants to do this every year?'"I shrug my shoulders because I don't know for sure. But I think it has to do with being strong in the bad time and remembering it in the good time."It's a hard but valuable lesson to teach the target audience of this book. K. Wendy Popp's haunting pastel illustrations mirror One Candle's dramatic theme. While the pictures of Grandma and Great Aunt Rose as young girls surrounded by their fellow captives are beautifully rendered, the story they reflect might be better suited for older readers. The suggested age range for One Candle is 4-8, but preteens are more likely to reap the benefits of the story.
Learning about heritage Jewish Holidays All Year Round, written by Ilene Cooper, children's books editor of Booklist, in association with the Jewish Museum in New York, is an excellent introduction to the special days on the Jewish calendar. Beginning with the Sabbath, the book discusses the major religious holidays such as the New Year (Rosh Hashanah), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), Purim and Passover, as well as more recent additions like Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Ha-Shoah) and Israel Independence Day (Yom Ha'aztma'ut). The stories are told in a straightforward yet entertaining manner that's neither too childish nor too theological. Each chapter includes a description of the significance of the special days and the preparations families make to observe them. There are also suggested activities and arts and crafts to make the holiday more "user-friendly" for kids. There are noisemakers for Purim, plants for Tu B'Shevat (Arbor Day) and dreidels (tops) for Hanukah. And since food is such a big part of the celebration, Cooper includes several recipes to commemorate the holiday, such as potato pancakes for Hanukkah; fruit compote for Shavuot, which marks the giving of the Ten Commandments; and Haroset, an integral condiment used in the Passover feast.
In addition to the simple-yet-evocative drawings by Elivia Savadier, Jewish Holidays contains dozens of photographs and illustrations of pieces from the Jewish Museum's collection. A bibliography encourages further research for youngsters and adults.
Both books would make wonderful gifts for the young readers on your shopping list. But don't let the fact that they're aimed at children fool you; adults will get a lot out of them as well.
Ron Kaplan writes from Montclair, New Jersey.