Top 10 Chanukah Books by Stacey Shubitz
My parents stopped buying me Chanukah presents a few months after I became at Bat Mitzvah. My parents didn’t think I needed eight nights of presents at the age of 13. Even though I knew they were right, at the time I felt as though I was being mightily wronged. After all, my Jewish friends who were 13 years-old were still getting Chanukah presents! Despite the perceived injustice I felt that year, I knew my parents were trying to show me Chanukah was about more than gifts.
I came to realize Chanukah wasn’t a “major” holiday when I was in college. I learned that Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot were biblical, as where Chanukah was not. While I probably learned this as a kid in Hebrew School, American society did little to remind me of the fact that Chanukah wasn’t the big Jewish holiday. Chanukah, which begins in late-November or December*, is the kind of holiday where you can go into mass-market retailers and find a variety of wrapping papers, greeting cards, and plush toys that sing to commemorate the holiday. I believe its Chanukah’s close proximity to Christmas that makes it a stand-out amongst the Jewish holidays.
Even though Chanukah is a minor holiday in terms of the Jewish calendar, it is incredibly significant. A small army of Jews led by Judah the Maccabee rose up against King Antiochus IV who banned the practice of Judaism because he wanted the people in his empire to have the same culture. Those who fought with Judah the Maccabee would have rather died than practice any religion other than Judaism. Chanukah celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in the second century B.C.E. following its destruction and a three year war with the Syrian Greeks. The Temple was rededicated using a small amount of oil to light the menorah. However, that bit of oil lasted for eight days, which was considered to be a miracle.
I’m on a quest to make Chanukah about more than presents for my daughter who is approaching her third birthday. I want her to come to understand that Chanukah is a holiday where Jews stood up for their religion freedom. I’m always searching for stories that reflect the meaning of Chanukah and what it means to be Jewish. It’s easy to come by books that make Chanukah look like a holiday that’s about gift-giving and eating. In the list that follows you’ll find ten picture books that will teach young readers about Chanukah while providing them with lessons about faith, giving, miracles, and remembrance.
A Chanukah Noel written by Sharon Jennings and illustrated by Gillian Newland (Second Story Press, 2010)
In A Christmas Noel, young Charlotte and her family are new to France and its customs. Charlotte’s family is Jewish, so they won’t be celebrating Christmas since it’s a Christian holiday, not a French holiday. But Charlotte is enamored by everything from Christmas carols to the garlands that adorn the trees to the marchés de Noël. She sulks about not being able to celebrate Christmas until she learns that her classmate Colette, who has been anything but welcoming to her, cannot afford to celebrate Christmas. Charlotte encourages her parents to help Colette’s family afford to celebrate Christmas in a way that will help Charlotte enjoy the season while still respecting her family’s religious tradition. Teaching young children about generosity can be taught by leading by example, but having excellent literature also helps. A Chanukah Noel teaches children about the concept of tzedakah, which is the Hebrew word for righteousness or charity.
Celebrate Hanukkah with Light, Latkes, and Dreidels by Deobrah Heiligman (National Geographic, 2006)
Celebrate Hanukkah is the ideal book to teach children about the basics of Chanukah. This informational text teaches about the history of the holiday, its symbols, traditional foods, and the details about how the holiday is celebrated. The book includes full-color photographs that enhance the meaning of the text. There’s an extensive appendix, which includes the rules for the dreidel game, a glossary, an even a recipe for latkes, which are potato pancakes fried in oil. One of my favorite uses for this book is for the public school classroom. I used to include it in my fourth graders’ study about the “December holidays.”
Chanukah Lights written by Michael J. Rosen and illustrated by Robert Sabuda (Candlewick Press, 2011)
Chanukah Lights is the most stunning pop-up book I’ve ever seen. The book depicts eight scenes of places in the world where Jews live and celebrate the holiday of Chanukah through a series of paper cut-outs. Chanukah Lights takes readers through 2,000 years of history while teaching that Jews have struggled to become a free people. The message is that Jews cannot take their religious freedom or Chanukah for granted. Chanukah Lights is the kind of book that will become a family heirloom for anyone who loves the holiday of Chanukah and treasures beautiful works of art, which is exactly what this book is.
Hanukah Haiku written by Harriet Zeifert and illustrated by Karla Gudeon (Blue Apple Books, 2008)
Hanukah Haiku is a book that will delight the ears and eyes of young children. This book teaches about the basics of the holidays through eight haikus. This book can be used when families light their menorahs since there’s one haiku for each night of the holiday. Hanukah Haiku also includes an explanation of how to light a menorah, as well as the blessings in transliterated Hebrew and in English.
Hanukah in Alaska written by Barbara Brown and illustrated by Stacey Schuett (Henry Holt, 2013)
Hanukah in Alaska isn’t only about the Festival of Lights. It also teaches readers about wintertime in Alaska and the Northern Lights. The story is about a little girl whose Chanukah is almost ruined by a moose that lives in her backyard and won’t leave. The ending, which I won’t give away, is adorable and will put a smile on your face. It’s also a great reminder that “miracles can happen in a lot of different ways.”
Letter on the Wind: A Chanukah Tale written by Sarah Marwil Lamstein and illustrated by Neil Waldman (Boyds Mills Press, 2007)
Letter on the Wind is the story of Hayim, a man from a far-off village. The village is suffering from a drought, which has left the olives withered on the trees. Hayim realizes the villagers won’t be able to make olive oil to burn their menorahs so he asks the Almighty for assistance. He’s deemed foolish until oil, food, and a silver menorah mysteriously appear outside of Hayim’s hut. While the villagers were initially delighted by the supplies, they think Hayim may have stolen the goods. The resolution to the folktale seems almost as unlikely as the initial arrival of the supplies. Letter on the Wind is an excellent text for teaching children about tzedakah, trust, gratitude, and most of all, faith.
Moishe’s Miracle: A Hanukkah Story written by Laura Krauss Melmed and illustrated by David Slonim (Chronicle Books, 2000)
Moishe’s Miracle is a folktale about a magical frying pan will make latkes to feed whoever is hungry as a way to repay Moishe for his generosity to others. The frying pan comes with a warning, “To Moishe this gift was given, and only Moishe must use it.” Moishe feeds him and his wife, Baila, and the villagers of Wishniak. Baila, who is selfish and unkind, wishes to profit off of this magical frying pan. She uses it, at the risk of own peril, and learns a valuable lesson as a result. This book provides a lesson to young readers that kindness is rewarded. Moishe’s Miracle also contains a glossary of the Yiddish terms peppered throughout the text.
One Candle written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by K. Wendy Popp (HarperCollins, 2004)
In classic Eve Bunting fashion, One Candle is a beautiful story of a family who celebrates Chanukah together by enjoying a traditional Chanukah meal while remembering a dark time from years gone by. Every year Grandma and Great-Aunt Rose retell the story of their imprisonment at Buchenwald. During the war, they took the risk to scrounge together the makings of a small Chanukah celebration for the girls in their barracks in order to brighten their spirits during a very dark time. One Candle teaches young readers about the importance of remembering of one’s past and the passing on family stories.
Papa’s Latkes by Michelle Edwards and Stacey Schuett (Candlewick Press, 2004)
Papa’s Latkes is for any family who is facing an empty seat at their holiday table. This is the story Selma, Dora, and their father who are spending their first Chanukah without mom. The girls’ father comes home the ingredients to make latkes, but his latkes don’t taste the same as mama’s did. Papa jokes, “Papa’s latkes are like Papa, a little too heavy maybe around the middle,” but his oldest daughter Selma cries. In an effort to hold his family together, Papa reminds his daughters they can remember their mother by making latkes and celebrating Chanukah together and that’s what they do. The book ends with the family of three sitting in front of the glowing menorah, embracing.
The Tie Man’s Miracle: A Chanukah Tale written by Steven Schnur and illustrated by Stephen T. Johnson (HarperCollins, 1995)
The importance of remembrance is front and center in The Tie Man’s Miracle. It’s the story of a young family and a tie salesman, Mr. Hoffman, who comes to the family’s home on the eighth night of Chanukah. They invite him to join them as they light the menorah. Mr. Hoffman doesn’t want to be an imposition, but the family convinces him to celebrate the holiday with them. He tells the family two tales: one of his entire family he lost in the war and one of a legend from his childhood that if all nine candles “went out at exactly the same instance, those nine little columns of smoke would rise as one up to heaven, carrying our wishes straight to the ear of God.” What happens next is a Chanukah miracle in and of itself.
*A NOTE ABOUT TIMING: The Temple was rededicated on the 25th of Kislev 164 B.C.E. Chanukah always begins on the 25th of Kislev. The start of Chanukah fluctuates since the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle. This year Chanukah begins on Wednesday, November 27th, the night before Thanksgiving, which is considered very early. The last time the first full day of Chanukah and Thanksgiving converged was in 1888. The first night of Chanukah and Thanksgiving won’t meet again until 2070. (Though other calculations state the two holidays won’t come together again for another 70,000 years.) Regardless, Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Chanukah!
Stacey Shubitz is a Pennsylvania-based literacy consultant and a former elementary school teacher. She is the co-author of Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice (Stenhouse, 2010). She blogs at Two Writing Teachers and at Raising a Literate Human. She can be found on Twitter at @raisealithuman.