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
BEST HANUKKAH BOOKS ROUNDUP
Hanukkah arrives early again this year and so it’s time for our annual Hannukah books roundup featuring our faves for you to share with your children. All these books make great gifts, too, so why not give the gift of a wonderful story?
NONNA’S HANUKKAH SURPRISE by Karen Fisman with illustrations by Martha Avilés (Kar-Ben; $17.99 hardcover, $7.99 paperback, Ages 3-8)
This simple, seemingly straightforward Hanukkah story of girl gets Hanukkah Menorah (aka hanukkiyah), girl loses Hanukkah Menorah, girl gets new Hanukkah Menorah has several super, smile-producing twists. For one thing, Rachel’s haukkiyah is made up of 9 female Maccabees instead of males, and this year, Rachel’s Hanukkah celebration will be away from home, with Nonna, her Italian grandma. I love how Fisman’s put a 21st century spin on this charming Hanukkah tale of today’s typical blended family where one parent is Jewish and the other is not. Rachel worries she won’t be celebrating Hanukkah at Nonna’s who celebrates Christmas, but her mom’s made sure to bring everything along including dreidels, candles, and traditional Hanukkah gelt so that the Festival of Lights will be just like at home. But when Rachel leaves her Maccabees menorah on the airplane, it’s Nonna and her sweet surprise that saves the day in this heartwarming tale of acceptance, respect, and a grandma’s love that knows no religion, only devotion to her granddaughter.
IS IT HANUKKAH YET? by Chris Barash with illustrations by Alessandra Psacharopulo
(Albert Whitman & Company; $16.99, Ages 4-8)
Like its predecessor, Is it Passover Yet?, Is it Hanukkah Yet? in under 200 words, successfully creates a holiday mood with its festive artwork and joyous tale. This picture book opens with a snowy scene of nature.
“When frosty winds blow and snow’s all around
And there’s no sign of green on the trees or the ground.
Hanukkah is on its way.”
Barash and Psacharopulo take us from the bucolic outdoors as animals gear up for the long winter to the indoors as a family makes their preparations for the arrival of family, friends and the joyous eight night long celebration of Hanukkah. From stirring, frying and baking traditional Haunkkah foods, to the lighting of colored candles “When the blessings are said and the first candles glow” to the singing of songs and playing dreidel, the small pleasures of the beloved Festival of Lights can be found and enjoyed on every page of this lovely book.
HANUKKAH IS COMING! by Tracy Newman with illustrations by Viviana Garofoli
(Kar-Ben; $5.99, Ages 1-4)
From Hanukkah is coming! to Hurray! Hanukkah is here!, this 12 page board book with its gentle rhyme and repeating phrase, serves as a perfect introduction to the holiday for young children and builds anticipation. A brother, sister and silly dog mention all the special things they love and look forward to about Hanukkah. Whether it’s cooking latkes that “Hiss, sizzle, pop,” or spinning the dreidel with its nun, gimel, hay and shin, Hanukkah is coming and that’s something to get excited about!
SAMMY SPIDER’S FIRST TASTE OF HANUKKAH: A COOKBOOK by Sylvia A. Rouss and Genene Levy Turndorf with illustrations by Katherine Janus Kahn
(Kar-Ben; $16.99 hardcover, $7.99 paperback, Ages 2-8)
Making his 15th appearance, “Sammy Spider dangled from his web as Mr. Shapiro told Josh the story of the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil.” While spiders don’t celebrate the holiday, Sammy could certainly watch as all the cooking began! In this latest installation of the anthropomorphic arachnid, we get a helpful intro, and recipes divided into sections of Simple Snacks, Miracle Meals (LOVE the Maccabee and Cheese), Tasty Treats (check out Melt-in-Your-Mouth Menorahs), Crafty Ideas (salt dough Hanukkah decorations are a personal fave) plus a section on Lighting the Menorah and Hanukkah Blessings. This is a terrific hands-on book for families this holiday season and definitely one to hang onto for years to come.
- Reviewed by Ronna Mandel #Readukkah
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