The factual answer was laid out in detail in “Hanukkah in America: A History” by Rowan University professor Dr. Dianne Ashton, but anyone who has ever had a toddler who pitched a fit because their sibling got a birthday present and they didn’t can guess the general thrust of how Christmas presents made their way to the Jewish holiday calendar.
But the dark nights of winter are times for myth, not fact — miraculous Temple menorahs, anyone? — and who better than a Jewish author to invent a wintertime myth?
And which Jewish author would be a better myth maker than Arthur A. Levine of Montclair, the legendary children’s editor and author who’s most famous as the Scholastic editor who brought Harry Potter to America?
So welcome to “The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol” by Arthur Levine, with illustrations by Kevin Hawkes.
We meet Nate on the book’s cover, flying past the snow-covered roofs of city apartments, dressed in a blue waistcoat that wouldn’t be out of place in a production of “Hamilton,” with magical sparkling gold flowing from his hands. “Nate Gadol,” the opening pages tell us, “was a great big spirit who had eyes as shiny as golden coins and a smile that was lantern-bright. In answer to people’s prayers, he made things last as long they needed to.
“Sometimes the task was huge, like when he got the call from above to make a tiny bit of oil last eight days and nights in the far-off long ago. And sometimes it was a smaller thing, like keeping a flower fresh long after it should have been faded, to keep up the spirits of someone sick in bed.”
Next we meet “the Glazer family, who took a boat over from Europe during what should have been the Purim holiday.” That gives Nate the opportunity for a bit of magic — make a small piece of chocolate last for the family’s Purim celebration. (And how nice to have a Chanukah book recognize that Chanukah is not the only Jewish holiday on the calendar!)
When the Glazers settle in America, they befriend their new neighbors, the O’Malleys. Cue up poverty and disease and goodwill. And then, just when Nate is trying to figure out how to meet the need for some Chanukah chocolate, who does he meet on the Manhattan rooftop? His old friend (“from way back”) Santa Claus.
With help from Santa, Nate was able to give the O’Malleys and the Glazers chocolate — and boxes with fancy wrapping paper.
“After that, the idea of Hanukkah presents really caught on — I mean, what could be bad about presents?” Mr. Levine writes.
In fact, as opposed to myth, Chanukah presents weren’t an 1881 invention, as Mr. Levine well knows.
“My mother used to tell us stories, that when she was very little they would get a nickel or some gelt for Chanukah,” Mr. Levine said. Not fancy gifts.
“I wondered when did we start giving each other Chanukah presents? I was reading this wonderful book, ‘Hanukkah in America,’ how it was a celebration in part invented by merchants,” Mr. Levine said. “I didn’t think that was a particularly warm and lovely story for the holiday.”
At the same time, Mr. Levine often had thought about the fact that Chanukah lacks the sort of mythical characters and figures that are part of the Christmas celebration, from jolly Santa Claus to Frosty the Snowman to Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer (the latter invented by a Jewish copywriter working for the Montgomery Ward department store, which wanted to publish a Christmas-themed giveaway coloring book for children).
“The Jews have ironically contributed hugely to Christmas myth,” Mr. Levine said. “We wrote all the great Christmas songs. I thought, that’s not right. Let’s see if we can invent something. Latke Larry — have you ever seen that doll? That’s not really it. I was never an enthusiast for the Chanukah bush.
“I wanted a Jewish character so I invented Nate Gadol,” named, of course, after the dreidel motto of nes gadol hayah sham, a great miracle happened there.
“I wrote it over several years. It took a while for it to jell and the different parts to come together,” Mr. Levine said.
He doesn’t rule out a sequel. “I certainly think that Nate Gadol could show up under other circumstances,” he said.
Nate Gadol is published by Candlewick press. Mr. Levine’s own company, Levine Querido, has its own fascinating backstory. It’s a partnership with the Dutch Querido publishing company. “Emanuel Querido was a Dutch Jew of Portuguese descent who started a publishing company around the same time that Alfred Knopf was starting his company in the United States,” Mr. Levine said. “They were similar kinds of publishing companies. Literary, publishing great translations. Querido was one of the first to do really beautiful paperbacks.
“Querido started this company in 1915, and then of course in the 30s the Nazis came to power. They banned Jews and dissidents from publishing. Querido established an arm of his Dutch company named Querido Verlag, that published Jews and dissidents in German from the Netherlands, which was incredibly brave and wonderful of him.”
Shortly after the Nazi invaded Amsterdam, the Gestapo took over the company and Emanuel and his wife fled to the Dutch countryside. They were betrayed in 1943 and sent to the Sobibor extermination camp, where they were murdered.
“There’s a Jewish saying, ‘A person isn’t dead until the last soul on earth doesn’t know their name,’” Mr. Levine said. “I want to keep the name of Querido alive, as well as the spirit, and spread it to English speaking countries. The Arthur A. Levine list is for books written in English. Querito is the list I use for translated works.”
Mr. Levine said that his company’s focus is “on finding and supporting authors who are from previously marginalized backgrounds — people of color, LGBTQ folks, minority religions (that includes Jews), people with disabilities. It’s somewhat of a challenge to publish a Jewish book in mainstream publishing. We have some lovely Judaica on future lists.”
Mr. Levine’s first book, ”All the Lights in the Night,” came out nearly 30 years ago. “It was really the story of my grandfather’s fleeing from Belarus to the United States via Palestine,” he said. It is also a Chanukah book, and it won a Sydney Taylor Book Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries.”
“The book before this new one was was called ‘What a Beautiful Morning,’” Mr. Levine said. “It’s about a child whose grandfather is losing his memory and who discovers that even when his grandfather can’t communicate as well in conversation he can still sing with his grandchild.
“Is that not a Jewish book? Are we only Jewish on our holidays? What makes a book a Jewish book is something we can have a long conversation about.”