I loved spending time at the house of one of my best childhood friends, Linda Diamond.
Linda lived three doors away, and come mid-December, her family’s two-family brick home would be resplendent with twinkling colored lights, metallic garlands, and holiday hoopla. As if the razzle-dazzle outside wasn’t enough, inside there was a delicately decorated tree, stockings to be filled with gifts, and — my favorite — a three- and-a-half-foot cardboard “chimney” with an overstuffed Santa propped atop it to greet you. (And in case you’re wondering, yes, her father was Jewish — but her mother was Catholic, and so was she.)
At the same time in December, my house — in fact most of the houses on my Brooklyn block — had a white plastic menorah with glowing orange bulbs peeking out of their windows. We did enjoy our Chanukah, and today, as an adult, I especially embrace it with a bear hug. But as a kid growing up with the “Christmas-Chanukah conundrum,” I kind of know how young Rachel, the Jewish protagonist of the new children’s Chanukah-themed book, “Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein” (Doubleday), written by actress Amanda Peet and Andrea Troyer, feels.
For Rachel, who celebrates Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Passover, and Chanukah with her family, the twinkly lights, the “gi-normous tree,” and the “store windows crowded with Santas, elves, candy canes, glittery tinsel, and piles and piles of presents” are the longing of the young girl’s heart. Rachel goes to great lengths, including smashing a few chocolate chips into the latkes to make them look like cookies, to try to get Santa Claus to stop at her house. But at the end of the day, she realizes that she may have been focused on the wrong things after all.
Ms. Peet and Ms. Troyer are scheduled to have a book signing and reading at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan on December 6 during the museum’s daylong family Chanukah Day celebration.
The premise for the picture book was born last summer in an unlikely place — Belfast, Northern Ireland, where Ms. Peet and her friend, Ms. Troyer, a writer, are living while their husbands, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, co-creators of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” work on the show.
The book’s premise is drawn in part from Ms. Peet’s real life.
“We were shopping for Chanukah presents for our kids, as we sometimes do during the summer, and we thought about our anxiety about telling our kids why they can’t celebrate Christmas,” said Ms. Peet, who grew up in New York City as a self-described secular Jew who celebrated both Christmas with a tree, and a “bare minimum” of Chanukah.
“But David, who is Jewish, and I had made the decision not have Christmas, so Andrea was helping me about how to tell my kids, and we thought, ‘wow, there should be a book to help us with this issue,’ said Ms. Peet, the mother of three, daughters Frankie, 8, and Molly, 5, and a son, Henry, 1.
Ms. Troyer, who grew up Catholic but is raising her two sons, Leo, 7, and Hugo, 5, Jewish, with her husband, said, “We kind of scoured the Internet so see if we could find a book like that, and there seems to be that gap in the market. So we got excited to try to write a book that would be for our kids, and that people would find helpful, useful.”
Ms. Peet said that her children started longing for Christmas as well.
“We live really near a Christmas tree yard, and my children started asking us, ‘Why don’t we have a tree?’ ‘Why don’t we have decorations?’ Then Molly started asking about Santa. ‘Is Santa coming?’ and talking about Santa as if he’s a real person, and I found myself having really juvenile feelings of inferiority about Chanukah. Initially, Andrea and I tried to write a book about how great Chanukah is compared to Christmas, and we couldn’t do it.”
Ms. Troyer said, “In the process of writing that version, we realized this is not so much a story about pumping up Chanukah. It is really more a story about feeling left out and longing to be part of something that everyone else seems to be participating in. I spoke to my Jewish mother-in-law, who loved Christmas growing up. They did not celebrate it in her Jewish household, but she would go to her neighbors every year and make Christmas ornaments, and that was her way of taking part. We just kind of wanted to write more about that, and we realized that was what the story was about, and it just kind of evolved over time.”
In addition to giving permission to kids to experience the feeling of being left out, the women are donating part of the proceeds from the sales to Seeds of Peace, an organization that brings youngsters from conflicted areas together in a summer camp in Maine.
So far, the reaction to the book has been mainly positive.
“A lot of Jewish parents seem very relieved and excited, and then I think that a lot of people from our parents’ generation are also kind of tickled by it, because they remember feeling that way on their blocks growing up,” Ms. Peet said. “All the kids were celebrating except for them, and I know my mother-in-law felt really touched by it, because that’s how she felt in her town where she grew up.
“Hopefully people will just think it’s fun, and can relate to it a little bit,” she said.
Amanda Peet and Andrea Troyer will talk about their new book, “Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein”
Where: At the Jewish Museum, 1109 5th Avenue at 92nd Street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side
When: On Sunday, December 6, during the museum’s Hanukkah Family Day. from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Ms. Peet and Ms. Troyer will sign books in the museum’s shop, off the main lobby. At 1 they will read the book in the auditorium, and after the reading they will greet visitors and sign more books until 1:45.
For more information: Call 212-423-3200 or go to thejewishmuseum.org
Where: At Barnes and Noble on 2289 Broadway at 82nd Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side
When: Friday, December 4, at 4 p.m.
For more information: Call 212-362-8835 or go to stores.barnesandnoble.com/store/1979