Some things don’t change.
Chanukah is coming, pandemic notwithstanding; this year it will begin the evening of Thursday, December 10, and end on sundown on Friday, the 18th.
This year, like every year, parents will want to buy their children presents; as they do every year, many of them will want those gifts to include books. In fact, books might be even more welcome this year than usual. It’s always good to be able to escape immediate reality; this year, when reality for many of us includes staring at the same old walls, the gift of books —which really is the gift of imagination — is even more potent than ever.
So here are three books, all of them Jewish, all of them for children, two of them specifically about Chanukah.
Two of them are by authors from northern New Jersey; the other — because why not? — is from a rabbi in London.
All of them are gifts of another world. — JP
South Orange rabbi and his father — another rabbi — write a Chanukah book together
If you’re a rabbi, the son of a rabbi, and your father is not only a rabbi but also a prolific (and constantly published) writer, it’s not surprising that you’re a storyteller.
Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange loves telling stories.
“We have a preschool, with roughly 100 children, precovid,” he said. The school had eight classes, and its students ranged from 18 months to 4 years old. “One of my favorite activities as a rabbi is celebrating Shabbat with the preschoolers,” the 3- and 4-year-olds. “Every Friday morning I would go from class to class and we’d celebrate Shabbat together.
“I would tell them a story, usually about the Torah portion, or a holiday that was coming up; I’d craft it in an age-appropriate way, with messages that I thought it was appropriate for them to learn.”
They’d look up at him, he’d smile at them, and he’d tell stories.
“The first time our preschool director, Dana Weitz, heard me share one of these stories, she asked, ‘Where did it come from?’ and I said, ‘I made it up.’ And she said that I should write them down and do something with them.’”
So he did. The result is “The Littlest Candle — a Hanukkah Story.”
“I grew up, in South Brunswick and then North Brunswick, with my father writing books my entire life,” Rabbi Olitzky said. His father is Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, who has done pioneering work in Jewish outreach throughout his career. Father and son are similar but different; Jesse is a congregational rabbi, and Kerry’s career has been more organizational. Jesse is a Conservative rabbi, and Kerry’s ordination is Reform. But both rabbis Olitzky write.
“My father has published well over 50 books,” Jesse Olitzky said. “Most of them are for adults. But I’ve always been so impressed by his ability to write, and to write in a way that connects with people.
“I always had a vision of us writing a book together, and he had that vision as well.”
A few years ago, Kerry Olitzky wrote his first children’s book. It’s called “Where is the Potty on this Ark?” The title is straightforwardly descriptive; “it’s a children’s book about Noah’s ark, and it’s a potty training book,” Jesse Olitzky said. “A Jewish potty training book.” It’s published by Kar Ben.
So the father and son decided to write a book together. It was going to be a children’s book, based on a story that Jesse had told in Beth El; it would be a Chanukah book, because there’s a market for Chanukah books every year.
First, he had to figure out how to make the transition from a story he told to a story he wrote down, Rabbi Olitzky said. “It’s a very different thing.
“It’s about reactions,” he continued. “To someone who is used to telling stories, and giving divrei Torah, it’s about cadence and tone and word choice. When I tell a story to children, I act it out, using different voices. When it comes to writing a children’s book, in some cases the fewer words you use the better, depending on the age you’re writing for. You are really depending on the illustrations to help tell the story.”
Through a congregant, he made the connection with a publisher; Lili Rosenstreich, the congregant’s friend, is expanding her publishing house, Endless Mountains Publishing, to include a Jewish children’s imprint, Kalaniot Books. “And we settled on the story because its themes, of being a mensch and helping each other, really resonates.” The book is able to tell a specifically Chanukah story, “about how we don’t take away light. We add light,” and also tell a universal story about humility, service, and generosity of spirit.
The publisher also found the illustrator, Jen Kostman, who “is wonderful,” Rabbi Olitzky said. “This story is so much about imaginary things. It’s about candles in a drawer talking to each other, and the life they live in the cabinet waiting to be lit for Chanukah. You really need powerful illustrations to help a child understand this idea.”
He tested the story on children, he said, but “it’s the illustrations that bring this story to life. They help us tell the story in a way that we were unable to do before.”
He and his father might write more children’s books together, Rabbi Olitzky said, but not right now. “This one was a passion project. But I’m a full-time congregational rabbi. That’s always a full-time job, but especially now, when my time and energy are going to help sustain a mostly virtual community.”
The preschool that he so loves still meets in person, Rabbi Olitzky said. Everyone is very careful, of course; “we have been meeting safely based on state guidelines. Thus far it’s been really positive and in some ways very precious. It’s also very sad to see little 3-year-olds with face masks on all day.
“My rabbinic colleague Rabbi Rachel Marder and I still have been celebrating Shabbat in the classrooms, but we’ve been Zooming in.” The children are very carefully segregated in their school pods, and the rabbis are outsiders there. “That means that we still are having Shabbat with the kids, and they still are getting up and dancing with their stuffed Torah,” but the kids are in the classrooms and the rabbis are not.
“It is certainly a different experience than the experience that I hope and pray we can get back to sooner rather than later,” Rabbi Olitzky said.
London rabbi tells the stories —
with questions and humor
and art — of the weekly Torah readings
Why aren’t there collections of parshiot hashavuah — writings about each one of the Torah portions, divided as they are read from the sefer Torah, the Torah scroll, every week — for 10- to 13-year-olds?
Why don’t people understand that preteens relate to stories more if they can identify characters like themselves in them?
Why does everything have to be so boring?
There is now! They do get it! And no, it doesn’t have to be!
In their new book, “An Angel Called Truth and Other Tales From the Torah,” Rabbi Jeremy Gordon and Emma Parlons have put together short takes on each of the Torah’s parshiot, as well as the Torah portions we read on festivals. Each is written in the first person, each is from the perspective of a young person, and many are seen by girls.
Some of these characters — Leah, say, or Nachson — are in the Bible. Some of them — the daughter of Korach’s sidekick On, among others — are in the midrash. And others — Bezalel’s daughter, or characters from the future, or the girl who sees a rash on her arm — are made up.
Rabbi Gordon heads the New London Synagogue, the shul where he grew up; he was educated at Cambridge and ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. (He’s a Conservative rabbi, but because he works outside North America, he’s called not Conservative but Masorti.)
The children in the age range he’s writing for “spend a lot of time in shul, because they’re preparing for bar or bat mitzvah,” he said. “And I spend a lot of time looking for good material for children their age. I was thinking about what good material would look like, and it occurred to me that just as younger children like protagonists their own age, so do older kids. They’re not going to empathize with 120-year-old Moses the way they would with a 13-year-old — if only you could find a 13-year-old in the biblical narrative.
“The other thing on my mind was gender,” he continued. “There certainly are a lot of men in the Bible, but there are not so many women, so we try to find as many of them as possible.”
Ms. Parlons is a member of New London; she has children of bar and bat mitzvah age, so she was painfully and personally aware of how hard it can be to keep them engaged in shul.
She urged Rabbi Gordon to write the stories, and volunteered to do part of it herself.
So the two hunted for women and children. And when they couldn’t find them, they made them up.
“One of my favorite stories is the one for B’midbar,” Rabbi Gordon said. That’s the parsha where all of Israel is counted — except it’s only the men who count. “Clearly, there would have been women there as well.” So he wrote one in. The story is about a girl, Eliana, who wants to be counted in the census that begins the chapter; Elitzur explains to her that she can’t be counted because she can’t fight. She goes back to her family perhaps unmollified —that’s not clear — but unmystified.
That section, like all the book’s sections, ends with a series of questions. It asks its young readers about whether women should fight in armies, about the truth and value of the concept of different but equal, and about how the changes in technology and understanding over the last 3,000 years might change the answers to those questions.
When he told the story of Jonah, Rabbi Gordon and Ms. Parlons took the sailor who went below deck to tell the runaway prophet about the storm and converted him into the captain’s daughter.
A few parshiot tackle the question of annoying siblings — older ones, like Ishmael, for Isaac, and younger ones, like Judah’s, and the two older sons of Aaron’s, whom God kills for unspecified reasons while the two young ones look on in terror.
The story about the girl with the rash — about the ever-popular parsha called Tazria, in the heart of Leviticus — ends with questions “about how, if you are unsure about something going on in your body, you feel about telling your parents about it. That’s a question that’s likely to have a certain resonance for kids who are at an age when their bodies are changing in ways that they may or may not be ready for.”
The stories use humor, Rabbi Gordon said; he worries that it might prove to be too English, but that fear seems unlikely to prove true.
He is thrilled with the illustrations, which are created by Pete Williamson. He and Ms. Parlons found him through an unconventional method. “We went into a bookstore” — pre-covid, of course — “and started flicking through books. Pete has illustrated some of my absolute favorite books to read to kids.
“We rang him up, and he was up for it. He is a serious player.”
London, like New Jersey and New York, is pretty much locked down right now. “At the moment, we are only allowed into the synagogue to stream a service,” Rabbi Gordon said. “My way of working has been totally transformed by this horrible pandemic.”
He has been talking about his book on Zoom across the United States, in a way that he could not have had the time or the money to do had he had to be present physically. Because he thinks that his book can be useful in schools and shuls, he’s discounting them in bulk, and would love to work on curricula, he said. Information about his book is on the book’s website, anangelcalledtruth.com.
When they were inventing characters for their book, Rabbi Gordon and Ms. Parlons did not have to invent Rebecca. She was there waiting for them, by the well, painfully drawing bucket after bucket after nearly endless bucket of water, Rabbi Gordon said. The story makes clear that “Rebecca was lurking just around the corner when she overheard Eliezer asking for water for his camels. It is clear that she was listening in.”
As his version of the story points out, in a box, Eliezer had 10 camels. Each camel drinks about 200 liters in three minutes. “That’s roughly the weight of six 10-year-old children,” we’re told. “Rebecca was desperate to leave home,” Rabbi Gordon said. “She does not like being there at all. She is so desperate that she was willing to do back-breaking work.
“I have never heard a midrash about it. That is one of the great absences in the rabbinic canon. No one has ever told the story of her getting that water to try to understand what she would have felt.
“So we did.”
A magical origin story for American Jewish gift-giving
Why do American Jews give gifts during Chanukah?
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.”