DREIDELS ON THE BRAIN
By Joel ben Izzy
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)
When I adore a book, and I did adore Joel ben Izzy’s Dreidels on The Brain, I tend to read every last word from the dedication to the acknowledgements. In doing so I happened to find this gem at the bottom of the copyright page:
“This is a work of fiction… and of friction–the kind that filled the author’s childhood. Although much is based upon actual people, places, and events from his life, he has taken great liberties in all these realms–as well as spelling–to recount a story set over the course of the eight days of Hanukkah, 1971.”
There’s more, but you’ll just have to get a copy to read on.
Ben Izzy is a renowned storyteller and Dreidels on The Brain is his first foray into fiction for kids, middle grade readers to be precise, and I hope he writes more. His ability to convincingly convey time, place, character, conflict and voice was not lost on this reader who grew up in that era. Dreidels on The Brain is so much more than a Hanukkah story. It’s a heartwarming coming-of-age novel filled with memorable laugh out loud moments and it seems to have fun with itself and the reader who will quickly catch on to all the zany things Izzy’s included. He’s spelled Hanukkah a ton of different ways and, when he gets the opportunity, does the same with ketchup. On top of this there are lots of jokes, insight into magic tricks, great cultural references, and just the right amount of Yiddish words added to an already winning mix.
As mentioned above, Dreidels on The Brain is set in 1971, Temple City, California, just east of Los Angeles with no temple to be found. The main character’s Jewish family (whose last name shall not be revealed here) actually attends a temple or synagogue in nearby Rosemead. Joel, the self-proclaimed funny-looking main character, is short, has braces, wears glasses, and is the odd man out as the school’s only Jewish student.
Nine chapters take readers through Joel’s eight days and nights of Hanukkah. Ben Izzy has managed to seamlessly weave magic, miracles, matzoh balls, and music from Fiddler on The Roof into an unforgettable story of a boy, on the cusp of adulthood according to the Jewish religion, wanting to be anyone, but himself. This all plays out over the Hanukkah holiday while touching upon faith, family, friends, and one particular female named Amy O’Shea. Readers will find it easy to root for the lovable protagonist and, like him and the message of his dreidel game, wish that a great miracle could happen there.
Joel, a tween with soon-to-be teen angst, is questioning his belief in God as he navigates his role as school dork, token Jew, and the youngest son in his family of five including two older brothers. His parents are struggling financially, but his mom never gives up hope for better times ahead. His dad, unemployed, is always on the verge of creating the next must-have invention, all while coping with his debilitating arthritis. Although it’s clear there’s much love in Joel’s family, as seen through the eyes of this twelve-year-old boy, there’s not much to be desired about his life. For example, he never gets a Hanukkah present as it’s simply not affordable. Joel does manage to make some spending money by performing magic tricks at parties, but when classmate Amy suggests they team up because an assistant will add to a magic show’s appeal, Joel finds himself falling for this girl he considers to be way out of his league.
The plot lines center around Joel having to perform a magic show at his grandma’s nursing home, his dad needing surgery over Hanukkah, and an invitation from the principal to present the Hanukkah story to the entire school at a special assembly. Will everything go according to plan convincing Joel that miracles can happen? “All I can do is answer the way Jews always do–with another question. Why not?”
- Reviewed by Ronna Mandel for #Readukkah
Hanukkah in Alaska, by Barbara Brown with illustrations by Stacey Schuett (Henry Holt and Company, $16.99, also available in ebook, ages 4-8 ), is reviewed by Ronna Mandel.
Hanukkah in Alaska by Barbara Brown with illustrations by Stacey Schuett, Henry Holt and Company, 2013.
Living in warm and sunny southern California, I was curious to find out if celebrating Hanukkah is any different in our 49th state. What I learned after reading Hanukkah in Alaska was so interesting that I’m certain your children will feel the same. Illustrator Schuett’s muted tones in her acrylic and gouache artwork set the scene of a freezing, snowy winter where a little girl is peeking outside, “making sure there are no moose around.” That could not be any more different from out here in L.A. where residents’ vigilance is devoted to looking both ways for the ever present automobile. We understand about the snow and the sub-zero temperatures, but with author Brown highlighting the presence of moose from the onset, readers can immediately tell they’re about to read something very unique.
The story unfolds during Hanukkah and centers around a little girl’s concern over the moose who’s taken a liking to her backyard. “He sleeps in our yard and eats our trees.” No matter what she does to try to get him to leave, the big antlered moose continues to inhabit the yard posing a threat to the girl’s blue swing. Why the swing? Because it’s attached to the tree he likes to nibble on. As the little girl narrates the tale, we learn that children in Alaska are taught to be wary of moose in certain situations. When playing outside in winter, if a moose comes along, “we have to hug a tree.” These big powerful creatures can cause tremendous damage with their antlers and their kicks so a child can never be too young to learn. I also learned that people who don’t live in Alaska live “Outside.” And because of its northern location, Alaska has very little daylight in winter making it an ideal environment for moose, but no for worried little girls.
So where does Hanukkah fit into this cold climate? When lighting the menorah every evening, it’s hard for our narrator to ignore the moose outside her window. One night her dad suggests they head outside to look at the night sky. There, spread out before their eyes, the family witnesses an amazing array of colors, “swirling and shining and glowing.” The northern lights or aurora borealis happen “only when the sky is just right.” The dad tells his daughter that they have their very own Hanukkah Festival of Lights. But despite the beautiful distraction, reality clicks in when the moose begins yanking on the swing. Everyone looks on horrified, but suddenly the little girl is struck by a delicious, Hanukkah themed idea for how to get the moose out of the backyard.
The satisfying (in more ways than one) ending to this charming Hanukkah story proves that miracles (like the miracle of Hanukkah itself) come in all shapes and sizes, some even edible!! An end page featuring an Author’s Note explains the phenomena of the northern lights and the history of Hanukkah so that the picture book is both accessible and enjoyable for both Jewish and non-Jewish readers.
What happens when your dad, who grew up celebrating Christmas, and your mom, who grew up celebrating Hanukkah, get married and raise a family? They celebrate both holidays, that’s what!
In the 21st century when more and more families are interfaith ones, it’s common to find beautifully decorated Christmas trees alongside brightly glowing Hanukkias (the special Hanukkah Menorah with places for 9 candles).
Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama written and illustrated by Selina Alko ($16.99, Knopf Books for Young Readers, ages 5 and up) brings the right mix of both family traditions in an easy to understand, thoughtfully illustrated picture book. I think it’s fantastic how the family featured in the story embrace both holidays. Together they prepare a meal for the last night of Hanukkah including turkey stuffed with cranberry kugel dressing while Mama makes “jelly donuts and fruitcake for dessert.” Throughout the home readers will see festive decorations of Mogen David (Jewish stars), candy canes, mistletoe and poinsettias.
And while there are indeed gifts galore for the two holidays celebrated, it’s really not about the gifts, but about families being together. The story of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight nights is shared for all to enjoy. Soon after presents are unwrapped from under the Christmas tree, the family relaxes and soaks up the last vestiges of the blended holiday festivites that will become memories to cherish for a lifetime.
Also included in the end pages is the Cranberry Kugel Dressing Recipe if your family would like to add this delicious food to your seasonal repast repertoire. So get out your dreidels, your Hanukkah gelt, string lights up on your Christmas tree, and celebrate all the positives of being a blended 21st century family.
Emanuel and the Hanukkah Rescue ($17.95, hardcover; $7.95, paperback,Kar-Ben, ages 5-9), a new story about the age old Jewish Festival of Lights written by Heidi Smith Hyde with illustrations by Jamel Akib, is reviewed by Ronna Mandel.
I have read dozens of Hanukkah books and always love getting a hold of one that presents the holiday from an interesting new perspective and this one certainly succeeds. The tale takes place in 18th century New Bedford, Massachusetts, a whaling community where many Jewish families who have emigrated from the religious intolerance of Portugal now live secretly as Jews in America.
Nine-year-old Emanuel Aguilar is one such Jewish boy, son of a merchant whose shop sells whalers all the necessary supplies and food provisions for days and weeks at sea. The thriving whaling industry employs countless fisherman and many hundreds of ships set sail from the New Bedford port seeking their prey whose oil was used in candle making and in lamps.
Emanuel dreams of adventure at sea rather than the mundane life behind a shop counter but his father cautions him, saying a whaler’s life is “lonely and dangerous.” This timid nature of his father was also reflected in his reluctance to express his religious views afters years of persecution overseas. “This isn’t Portugal, Papa. This is America! No one will put us in jail for being who we are,” said Emanuel. Yet despite Emanuel’s repeated pleas for his father to light and display the Hanukkiah or Shabbat candle, Mr. Aguilar continues to live in fear and practices his faith behind drawn curtains.
It is only when Emanuel stows away on a whaling ship on the last night of Hanukkah that things change in New Bedford. The ship encounters a fierce storm and the ship’s main mast is damaged forcing the captain to return to port. Heavy waves and wind have caused the whaling ship to lose its bearings but with not stars to guide the crew and the lighthouse perhaps struck by lighting, darkness appears endless and finding New Bedford impossible.
But like the miracle oil that burned for eight nights when the Jews returned to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, out at sea a miracle occurred, too! The shoreline of New Bedford shone brightly against the night sky. “In the window of every Jewish home, including Emanuel’s, flames were glowing, proclaiming the last night of Hanukkah.”
When son and father are reunited both are thankful for the lessons learned as are we the readers. This moving Hanukkah tale is marvelously illustrated with chalk pastels that seem to effortlessly flow with story’s mood and setting. This is a picture book you will definitely want to share with the family and discuss because the topic of religious freedom is as relevant today as it was three centuries ago.
Wishing everyone a joy-filled Hanukkah!
With six more nights of Hanukkah and just three more days until Christmas, you might be taking a break from books. Maybe your children are already on school vacation and you’re looking for some new ways to keep them busy. Try a little togetherness and a you’ll provide healthy distraction from computer games and other electronics. Perfect for the whole family, here are some simple and fun ideas from Pottery Barn Kids for hands-on holiday activities that keep you, and the kids happily engaged and entertained.
Check out these tips for planning a Christmas Cookie Exchange, including recipes, invitations and “how to” videos.
- Share the joy of Hanukkah! This crafty Menorah is easy to assemble – and best of all, kids can “light” the candles on their own to celebrate each night of Hanukkah. Bring a little sparkle to Hanukkah celebrations with these creative Glittery Dreidel Place Cards. They’re simple for kids to make and add a fun element of festivity to the table – plus, they make great party favors!Plan your own Hanukkah festivities with tips and recipes from Pottery Barn Kids.
For more holiday ideas or for inspiration and advice year-round, visit the Pottery Barn Kids Design Studio.