Hanukkah is an endlessly flexible holiday, one whose meaning is subject to constant reevaluation by Jews. We ask, what is Hanukkah about? Does it commemorate a historical Jewish military victory against the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire? Or perhaps the struggle against assimilation, both cultural and spiritual? Is it a transparent substitute for Christmas, the holiday with which it coincides on the Western calendar, with rich foods and present giving?
Hanukkah has a special resonance as a historical moment when Jews had to confront a difficult reality and make choices, ones which were dictated by time, place, and community. Two thematically and artistically rich modern classics, one for older readers and one for young children, have become essential books for Hanukkah reading. Karen Hesse and Brian Pinkney’s The Stone Lamp: Eight Stories of Hanukkah Through History tells eight different stories in verse about courage and persistence in some of the most trying eras of the Jewish past. When Mindy Saved Hanukkah, by Eric A. Kimmel and Barbara McClintock, focuses on one relatively familiar time and place, turn-of-the century New York’s Lower East Side, giving the setting and story renewed resonance through inventive literary and visual allusions. Both these books illuminate the core of Hanukkah, namely an insistence on self-definition in the middle of darkness, whether temporary or prolonged.
Both these books illuminate the core of Hanukkah, namely an insistence on self-definition in the middle of darkness, whether temporary or prolonged.
In The Stone Lamp, poet and novelist Karen Hesse frames the story of Hanukkah through eight stories, beginning with the Crusades, and concluding with the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In between, readers meet a Jewish boy in medieval Paris whose father consoles him over the Church’s burning of the Talmud by reciting sacred texts from memory, and an Eastern European boy victimized by pogroms, whose brother resolves to join the revolutionary movement. In another chapter, two young children in 1938 Austria cautiously celebrate Hanukkah in the aftermath of Kristallnacht’s violence. The book’s tone is consistently solemn, yet there is joy in Jewish resistance and tradition. Hesse’s poems validate children’s fears, but also affirm the resilience that is part of their heritage. Families, even ones torn apart by oppressors, remain an anchor in their lives. In “Exodus 1947,” refugees from the Holocaust arrive aboard the famous ship S.S. Exodus in Palestine, only to be turned back by the British and detained in Germany again. A desperate girl reminds herself that she has a future:
But there are no soldiers now,
I must remember.
It is the baby in her mother’s arms that is real, the girl in the purple coat,
and the stone menorah,
radiant in the snowy yard.
Hesse refracts the meaning of Hanukkah through a time in Jewish history when the State of Israel was being founded, following the tragedy of the Holocaust. This sequence of stories reverses the story of the Maccabees, whose victory would not be permanent; Roman defeat in the first century of the Common Era, in spite of later rebellions, would end Jewish statehood until the twentieth century. In modern Israel, the Hanukkah story became evidence that Jews would eventually fight their oppressors and achieve nationhood. Hesse’s poem about the S.S. Exodus is a bitter reminder of how even the survivors of genocide were turned away. The stone menorah is an insistent reminder that the “ghosts” of the past will be vindicated.
The story of “The Burning of the Books” responds to the Catholic Church’s violent attacks on Jewish learning in the Middle Ages. In 1242, volumes of the Talmud and other sacred writings were publicly burned in Paris. Hesse’s poem relates both the existential threat this act posed to Judaism, and the stubborn survival of tradition even in the face of physical destruction. Empty bookshelves record a sense of terror, but also a child’s determination to keep the practice alive: “I read the glint of red stones on the riverbank/I read the bent figure of my grandfather, as he reaches to help me with my load of sticks/and I read Mama’s face, steeped in a thousand thoughts…”. The illustrations by Brian Pinkney are powerful complements to Hesse’s text. A young boy sits on his father’s lap, as his father extends his hands broadly: “Papa opens his arms like a great book.” Father and son are dressed in earth-colored robes, in contrast to the yellow-gold kippot on their heads, identifying them as Jews. The father becomes a kind of human book, whispering words of forbidden texts in his son’s ear. He lights the family’s Hanukkah lamp in defiance, remembering the narrative of the Maccabees, along with all the other Jewish words and burned in the Church’s fires. The book’s opening and final pages evoke an eternal Jerusalem, in swirling blue and purple with windows full of light. The city of the Maccabees enfolds all the episodes within. The different chapters in The Stone Lamp collectively emphasize that Hanukkah is a holiday of protest, when actions, large or small, call for solidarity with a past of survival amidst persecution.
Not all of Jewish history is tragedy, even when obstacles to Jewish identity and survival seem insurmountable. When Mindy Saves Hanukkah is an affectionate and wry homage to the characters of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952), with illustrations by Beth and Joe Krush in the American edition. The Kleins are a Jewish family making their home in the famous Eldridge Street Shul, a cultural and religious touchstone for turn-of-the century Jews who settled in New York until punitive immigration laws restricted their entry. Imagine if the Borrowers, tiny people who live by their wits in an Edwardian British home, were Jewish. Imagine if, in addition to evading capture while “borrowing” from full-sized humans, such items as postage stamps to be repurposed as wall décor, or empty spools as furniture, they needed to borrow last year’s full-size Hanukkah candle from behind the synagogue’s Torah ark. Their diminutive stature is a reminder of their vulnerability as Jews, determined to appropriately celebrate Hanukkah in spite of any obstacle.
Their diminutive stature is a reminder of their vulnerability as Jews, determined to appropriately celebrate Hanukkah in spite of any obstacle.
Eric Kimmel is one of the best-known authors of Jewish-themed children’s books, often drawing on traditional folklore in an accessible way, which minimizes the line between generations. In When Mindy Saved Hanukkah, he puts his young heroine in peril, but emphasizes her indomitable toughness, as well as the support of her grandfather. At opposite ends of the age spectrum, both characters refute assumptions about limitations on what they can do. Kimmel captures the family’s argument in short, Yiddish-inflected, sentences, as they consider the possibility of capture by a menacing cat brought in to keep mice out of the shul. Mindy resolves to come back with a candle. Armed with paperclip and some twine, she sets out on an expedition to obtain supplies. Unlike her counterparts in the beloved British classic, Mindy also wears a bag of garlic and carries her grandmother’s protective imprecation: “ Kenahora!…No evil eye!”
At this point in the narrative, children may feel uneasy, as Mindy meets a terrifying cat the size of a tiger. Zayde suddenly appears, looking like an Ashkenazic Maccabee. He is armed with a bottle cap shield and toothpick spear herring to ensnare the hungry cat and help to save the day, but, as the title assures readers, it is Mindy’s refusal to take no for an answer that is the real source of freedom for the Klein family. There is a great deal of distance between the painful realities of The Stone Lamp and the happily resolved adventure of Mindy and her family. Still, Kimmel projects the truths of Jewish experience onto his small and vulnerable characters while respecting the way in which his young and vulnerable readers can process those experiences. Rather than using personified animals as metaphors, as in Spiegelman’s Maus or director Don Bluth’s An American Tail, the Jews in his story are people, but reduced in size to the point where an ordinary encounter with a cat can topple their existence and deprive them of Hanukkah’s celebration of freedom. Neither the dangers of assimilation nor the temptations of Christmas are part of the Klein’s traditional Hanukkah.
Barbara McClintock brings rich, historical illustrations to Mindy’s story. The book’s contemporary message of female strength unrolls in a distant past, but a Jewish one, both strange and familiar. Pocket watches and suspenders may not be familiar to children reading the book, but the brass menorah and wooden dreidels of Hanukkah are still part of their visual vocabulary. Characters’ faces have the timelessly exaggerated expressions of fairy tales, and the cat embodies the cautionary stories of Aesop or the Brothers Grimm.
The book’s contemporary message of female strength unrolls in a distant past, but a Jewish one, both strange and familiar.
Children are never too young to explore Jewish history and the festival of Hanukkah allows different points of access to the past.When Mindy Saved Hanukkah ends with an unforgettable party. Klezmer musicians play their instruments on a matchbox stage while men and women dance apart from one another in equally joyous circles. Of course, there are guests, and, like the Borrowers, they have last names which reveal their origins. Instead of the Clock family, the Overmantels, and the Sinks, Kimmel has invited the Pequeños from Sephardic Shearith Israel, the more Americanized Littles from Temple Emanu-El, and the Katans all the way from Jerusalem. The last chapter of The Stone Lamp imagines a much more subdued Hanukkah celebration, as an Israeli family observes the festival in the aftermath of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. A little girl watches the candles burn, “her skinny arms spread out, half in balance, half in wonder.” Her brother questions if Hanukkah continues to have meaning after this national tragedy. Both books, through poetic language and evocative pictures, immerse readers in the complexities of Jewish history. Hanukkah need not be reduced to one primary message for children. Resistance to oppression and resilience in the face of adversity are important, along with happiness at the yearly opportunity to reenact and reevaluate the Maccabees’ sacrifice in the context of their own lives. Learning about Hanukkah leads to themes of balance, wonder, and contemplating hard questions about resistance to seemingly immovable forces. As Mindy’s Mama thoughtfully concludes, “Heroes come in all sizes…Some lived long ago. Some live today.”
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.