Rosh Hashanah ushers in the New Year. Yom Kippur is time to atone. We celebrate the harvest during Sukkot and commemorate receiving the Torah at Shavuot.
And Chanukah is for — presents.
This year, teach the kids what the Festival of Lights is really all about with a selection of new and classic Chanukah books that explain why we celebrate the holiday, and weave in some timeless Jewish values along the way.
And what’s a bigger Jewish value than food? Mama Doni, aka Akiba Hebrew Academy graduate Doni Zasloff Thomas, has just come out with Get Cooking! A Jewish American Family Cookbook & Rockin’ Mama Doni Celebration with co-author Rachel Harkham (“Recipe Rachel”).
The book includes holiday-themed recipes, jokes, and activities and comes with a companion CD by children’s musician Mama Doni, including the songs "Chanukah Fever" and "A Land Called Sufganiyot."
“Gone are the days of mom and grandma in the kitchen making the holiday meal for the rest of the family. This is about bringing everybody into the kitchen and getting creative,” says Vicki Weber of Behrman House, the cookbook’s publisher.
In the Chanukah section, families can get creative with “Fill-in-the-Blank Latkes,” a recipe that “encourages crazy experimentation with food and fun and celebrating the holiday,” Weber says. Behrman House also released a free iPad app of the Chanukah chapter, including recipes, places to jot notes about latke attempts that were a hit at the table (and those that should be avoided like the 10 Plagues), and links to videos about the holiday.
Keeping with the high-tech theme, Behrman House also offers Too Many Latkes, by Richard Codor, available as both a paperback and an interactive e-book. It’s a Chanukah fable about a father who doesn’t have money to celebrate the holiday, until he “winds up with a magic potato and chaos ensues,” Weber says. “It’s very sweet — there’s no distress, just a lot of latkes.”
The e-book version has games, including a Spin the Dreidel challenge, and animated illustrations.
Another cookbook option to get kids in the Chanukah spirit is the classic The Children’s Jewish Holiday Kitchen, suggests Amy Schwartz, local director of the PJ Library, an organization that sends a Jewish book every month to children up to age 8 who enroll in the free program. The cookbook, written by Joan Nathan, is filled with recipes and stories that teach about traditional foods and celebrations.
Each book the PJ Library sends out features definitions of any Jewish words or concepts that might be new. For example, in Chanukah in Chelm, written by David Adler and illustrated by Kevin O’Malley, the PJ Library version includes an explanation of the folktales of Chelm, for those who aren’t familiar with that foolish lot.
The book, geared toward 6- and 7-year-olds, centers on synagogue caretaker Mendel, whose bumbling Chanukah adventures end happily when he puts in the hard work necessary to locate a table for the menorah (a table that was, Chelm-style, in front of him the whole time).
The underlying value is “malacha,” or work ethic, Schwartz explains.
For slightly older readers, Schwartz recommends Hanukkah at Valley Forge, written by Stephen Krensky and illustrated by Greg Harlin. It’s a fact-based story of the Revolutionary War that incorporates the values of hospitality and generosity. In the book, a Jewish soldier lights the menorah and relates the tale of the Maccabees to his superior officer, Gen. George Washington.
The Chanukkah Guest, for kids age 4 to 5, espouses the same morals. Written by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Giora Carmi, the book tells the story of a bear awakened from hibernation by the smell of latkes coming from Bubba Brayna’s cottage.
Bubba, mistaking the bear for her rabbi in a fur coat, welcomes him in and plies him with piles of latkes.
For the tots, try the board book Hanukkah Lights, written by David Martin — who also authored We’ve All Got Bellybuttons! — and illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Hanukkah Lights explains the basics of the holiday with simple, kid-friendly language and pictures. “It’s about familiarizing the little ones with the traditional symbols of the holiday,” Schwartz says, “and about celebrating together.”
This story was originally written for the Chanukah Gift Guide, a special section of the Exponent. Rachel Vigoda is an award-winning writer and editor in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in several online and print publications.