When Hanukkah’s Lights Were the Heroes
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!