Each year parents and grandparents scurry about in search of Chanukah gifts. Oftentimes, the latest fad or the newest electronic device is at the top of the list. The lasting value of such purchases is fleeting. The child’s interest usually remains only as long as the item is considered popular. Gifts associated with special interests or hobbies tend to garner more use. Finding age appropriate presents that have prolonged meaning can be challenging.
The electronic age has diminished the opportunity to share a book with a child. The time spent reading to a child cannot be matched by any other activity. The natural interactions associated with such experiences create lasting memories. Few activities can equal the advantages of reading aloud to children.
The selection of available picture books increases every year. Some picture books have withstood the test of multiple generations of kids and continue to be reprinted. Newer books may not have developed an audience, but may be equally as engaging. Books that contain Jewish content cover a wide variety of genres. Chanukah is a perfect time to introduce children to Jewish culture and history.
I hope you’ll consider this list of Jewish children’s books. There’s a good chance you’ll find something that you would like to share with your children or grandchildren.
1. Jews and Thanksgiving
- Rivka’s First Thanksgiving. Written by Elsa Okon Rael and Illustrated by Maryann Kovalski. (2001) A Sidney Taylor Book Award Winner. Elsa and Maryann take readers back to the Lower East Side during the beginning of the 20th century. The reader immediately encounters an immigrant Jewish family who was unfamiliar with the American traditions associated with Thanksgiving. The parents question whether it is permissible for Jews to celebrate these unusual customs. The grandmother and her young granddaughter, Rivka, approached the local rabbi. The rabbi decided that it was not permissible for Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving. Rivka disagreed with the ruling. She masterfully convinced a group of rabbis that the Pilgrims and the Jews have one thing in common. Both came to America to escape religious intolerance. In America, immigrants were thankful for their new lives and wanted to express their thankfulness by celebrating Thanksgiving. The book includes a glossary of Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, and Russian terms. These terms along with the historical content makes this book better suited for upper elementary or middle school students.
- Molly’s Pilgrim. Written by Barbara Cohen z”l (1932-1992) and Illustrated by Daniel Mark Duffy. (Originally published in 1985, revised edition 2005) Barbara Cohen received the Sydney Taylor Body of Work Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries in 1980. This short paperback book (32 pages) has a powerful message that is still relevant decades after its initial publication. By immigrating to America, Molly and her family escaped the Russian Pogroms at the turn of the 20th century. Her family settled in a town where few Jews lived. Molly was ostracized and teased at school. Her fellow students were unwilling to accept her unfamiliar ways. Prior to Thanksgiving, the students in Molly’s class were asked to make a Pilgrim doll. Molly’s mom designed a doll that resembled her. Molly was embarrassed and feared that she would stand out again. Fortunately, Molly’s teacher was able to appreciate the symbolism associated with being a Pilgrim. Anyone seeking religious freedom could be considered a Pilgrim. The teacher also informed the class about the origin of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims borrowed the idea from the Bible. Each fall, Jews celebrate the harvest festival of Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles.
2. Two Newly Revised Chanukah Books
- Hanukkah in Alaska. By Barbara Brown and Illustrated by Stacey Schuett (2013). An earlier version of this text was published (1998) in the anthology, A Hanukkah Treasury by Eric A. Kimmel. Barbara uses the voice of a young girl to educate the reader about the day-to-day concerns of living in Alaska during the winter. The engaging and descriptive narrative includes an assortment of facts that helps children understand a climate that is different from theirs. Stacey’s illustrations go hand-in-hand with the text. The reoccurring images of the moose help to move the story along. An array of colors captures the magnificence of the Aurora Borealis. The narrator compares this natural phenomenon to the melted wax from many Chanukah menorah candles. A moose continually fascinates the girl. It walks freely through the snow-covered streets and meanders in her yard. Sometimes its head got caught in her swing. Using a batch of latkes (potato pancakes that are traditionally eaten during Chanukah), she is able to free the moose and create an incentive for the moose to leave her yard. Sprinkled throughout the text are references to Chanukah. An author’s note provides additional information about Alaska and Chanukah.
- Hanukkah Bear. By Eric A. Kimmel and Illustrated by Mike Wohnoutka (2013) The first version of this story was published in the children’s magazine, Cricket in 1988. Two years later the text appeared in The Chanukkah Guest with illustrations by Giora Carmi. Eric once again authors a delightful tale that captures children’s imaginations. Children love to read about animals with human characteristics. In this case, a hungry bear is able to mislead an elderly woman, Bubba Brayna. Even though the illustrations show an energetic woman who is busy dusting and sweeping, Bubba Brayna is labeled as a ninety-seven year old who has lost the use of her senses. When there is a knock at the door, she assumes that her invited guest, the local rabbi, has arrived. Instead, a lumbering bear takes part in her Chanukah celebrations. They light the menorah together, play dreidel, and eat many latkes. Bubba Brayna even ties a red scarf around the bear’s neck. Bubba Brayna realizes her mistake when neighbors stop by after the impostor leaves. The children see the animal’s tracks. The bear’s cleverness outwitted this feeble woman. Eric includes a traditional recipe for latkes and an author’s note that provides basic information about Chanukah. Jews whose ancestors came from Eastern Europe have enjoyed latkes for centuries. Now storybook animals are also indulging. This year, Jews and Gentiles should try a sweet potato latke recipe on Thanksgiving. Yes, this is a rare year when both holidays are celebrated on the same day.
3. Appreciating Differences
- The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story By Lemony Snickett and illustrated by Lisa Brown (2007). Reminiscent of the Ginger Bread story, Snickett’s latke scampers out of the kitchen and encounters several Christmas icons. The dialogue between the latke and symbols expresses the differences between the rituals and the importance that one’s identity be accepted.
- The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate By Janice Cohn and illustrated by Bill Farnsworth (1995). Cohn’s story is based on events that occurred in Billings Montana in 1993. Families of different backgrounds and faith united against anti-Semitic attacks. The book provides multiple avenues for discussing the importance of standing up for one’s beliefs.
- Elijah’s Angel By Michale J. Rosen and illustrated by Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson. (1992). A renowned African American Christian woodcutter and a young Jewish boy create a memorable relationship that illustrates the importance of respecting religious differences. This book can be a starting point for understanding the fundamental differences between Judaism and Christianity.
4. Chanukah Poetry
- Hanukkah Lights: Holiday Poetry Selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins and pictures by Melanie Hall (2004). This small collection of poetry is found in An I Can Read Book Level 2 book.
- Hanukkah Haiku By Harriett Ziefert and Illustrated by Karla Gudeon (2008). This is a very short book designed for preschoolers. However, it provides good examples of how haiku can describe simple aspects of Chanukah
5. Holocaust and Chanukah
- One Candle by Eve Bunting and illustrated by K. Wendy Popp (2002). Through the eyes of a child, readers will learn about how Jews celebrate Chanukah as well as hear a retelling of how some Holocaust survivors cherished the celebration of Chanukah in Buchenwald. Passing the story from one generation to the next reaffirms the importance of following traditions.
- Nine Spoons: A Chanukah Story By Marci Stillerman and illustrated by Pesach Gerber (1998). Life in the concentration camps was harsh and cruel. Clinging to traditions and memories provided hope for many. Working together to gather nine spoons, allowed one woman the wherewithal to create a menorah made from the spoons. Without going into details, the story illustrates some of the stark realities of life in the concentration camps and the importance of Jewish holidays.
6. Historical Fiction
- Emanuel and the Hanukkah Rescue By Heidi Smith Hyde and Illustrated by Jamel Akib (2012). Readers will get a glimpse of 18th century American Jewish history in Massachusetts. Jewish immigrants from Portugal were afraid to reveal their Jewish identity. The use of their menorah becomes a lifesaver.
- Hanukkah at Valley Forge By Stephen Krensky and Illustrated by Greg Harlin (2006). This book takes Chanukah back to the time of the Revolutionary War. George Washington comes upon a soldier who is lighting Chanukah candles. The dialogue provides information about Chanukah and the significance of fighting for freedom.
7. Folk Tales
- Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins By Eric Kimmel and Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (1985). Hershel comes to the rescue when a town is besieged by goblins who prevent them from celebrating Chanukah. While fighting off the goblins readers learn various things about Chanukah. Good overcomes evil when Hershel is able to outsmart the group of scary goblins.
- The Magic Dreidels: A Hanukkah Story By Eric A Kimmel and Illustrated by Katya Krenina (1996). Story teller Kimmel retells the tale of “The Tablecloth, the Donkey and the Stick” in a Chanukah setting . A goblin outwits a trickster woman who is trying to take advantage of a young Jewish boy. Everyone benefits from the goblin’s goodness.
8. History and Celebration
- On Hanukkah By Cathy Goldberg Fishman and Illustrated by Melanie W. Hall (1998). This is a beautifully illustrated book that provides an overview of the holiday as seen through the eyes of a young girl. The narrative includes a brief history as well as information on how the holiday is celebrated.
9. Celebrating Holidays Without Love Ones (for the Shamash!)
- Papa’s Latkes By Michelle Edwards and Illustrated by Stacey Schuett (2004). Coping with the loss of a parent during a holiday time can be challenging for children. Edwards tenderly addresses the effect on two sisters who work together with their dad to celebrate their first Chanukah without their mom.
Do you have a favorite that I haven’t included in this list? Best wishes for a joyous Chanukah.
If you are interested in learning more about Jewish children’s books, you can check out my blog. I periodically review multicultural children’s books and give special attention to Jewish themes.