Light the literary flame this Hanukkah with these titles from 2012


BY ELAINE K. ALEXANDER, Special to the Jewish Light

Hanukkah, when we commemorate the re-dedication of the Second Temple and “the great miracle that happened there” (a ragged band of Jews defeated a mighty army), has at its core little, if anything, to do with gift giving. However, if we are to give a gift to a child, maybe the best is a book to be shared after chanting the blessings and kindling the lights. Because, when, without distractions, families sit close meandering through a book, they give each other the most precious holiday gift of all: the gift of time.

So with that portrait in mind—the flickering candles and the simple, shared pleasure of a book—here is a list of 2012 titles for gifting youngest to oldest children.

“The Torah Book of Opposites,” Nechamy Segal, illustrated by Marc Lumer (Hachai Publishing, 12 pp., board book: $7.95). Ages: 1-3. The Torah as a source of values, laws, mores and central mythology has united Judea, though scattered around the globe, into a single, enduring faith community. Here, the rituals of Torah—taking it from the ark for a hakafa / circuit around the synagogue, undressing it, unrolling it, reading it with yad / pointer in hand—becomes a vehicle with youngest readers for talking about in-out, white-black, big-small, open-closed and conveying our affection for the treasure of the Jewish people.

“The Shema in the Mezuzah: Listening to Each Other,” Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, illustrated by Joani Keller Rothenberg (Jewish Lights, hardcover: 32 pp., $18.99). Ages: 3-6. In 1974, Sasso was the second American woman ever to be ordained as a rabbi. Her book “God’s Paintbrush,” which gave parents and their young children a starting point from which to explore their separate understandings of God, has been translated around the world and has already celebrated its 10th anniversary in print. This new book, a colorful story about how the townsfolk solved the question of how to hang the mezuzah case on a doorpost, reflects an old Talmudic debate and teaches that collaboration and compromise is to be valued more than certainty about right and wrong.

“A Hen for Izzy Pippik,” Aubrey Davis, illustrated by Marie LaFrance (Kids Can Press, hardcover, $16.95). Ages: 4-8. A veteran educator and storyteller (see also “Bones for Borscht”) uses a Talmudic and Yiddish backscape for a story set in an Old World village that has fallen on hard times. When a small girl finds a resplendent hen with emerald green feathers, it could be a case of “finders: keepers.” But because the upstanding girl won’t hear of it when people begin to smack their lips and talk of chicken in soup, fricasseed, boiled and baked, there are dividends for the whole town.

“Speak Up Tommy,” Jacqueline Dembar Greene, illustrated by Deborah Melmon (Kar-Ben Publishing, hardcover: 32 pp., $13.46). Ages: 5-8. When Tomer / Tommy comes from Israel, he is a school laughingstock because of his thick accent and his lack of basic knowledge about the “American” alphabet. But Tommy becomes the class hero when he teaches Officer Sweeney Hebrew commands to communicate with his service dog. Inspired by the true story of an Israeli canine, which was relocated to the States for his training in sniffing out explosives. A teachable moment for a lesson in tolerance, diversity and bullying.

“Maurice Sendak: Author Biographies,” Charlotte Guillain (Heinemann, 24 pp., paperback: $6.49). Ages: 5-8. A photo-illustrated biography released just a few months before Sendak’s passing in May 2012, when he had already long been a legend in his own time. Empower young readers—who may have already enjoyed Sendak titles such as “In the Night Kitchen,” “Outside Over There,” and the iconic Caldecott winner “Where The Wild things Are”—by showing them that a book springs from the mind of a person with a story to tell.

“Hannah’s Way,” Linda Glaser, illustrations by Adam Gustavson (Kar-Ben Publishing, paperback: 32 pp., $ 7.95). Ages: 6-9. Inspired by a museum exhibit about Jewish women in the Upper Midwest. Set in the 1930s, Hannah is the only Jewish child in town at a new school. A conflict about making new friends while being true to her religious traditions is solved by the unexpected, unanimous kindness, in a northern Minnesota classroom, of her Christian classmates.

“The Secret of the Village Fool,” Rebecca Upjohn, illustrated by Renné Benoit (Second Story Press, hardcover: 36 pages, $18.95). Ages: 8-10. A story of Shoah rescue simply told. (Discretion advised for younger and sensitive children.) Soft colors in the illustrations evoke the mists of time. Based on the true story of the “sleepy Polish village,” where, with no hope of compensation, a brave and gentle man risked his own life to save the Zeigers, two young brothers and their parents, by hiding and feeding them in a room dug in the earth under his home. Includes end photos of the real Anton Suchinski at Yad Vashem where he was honored as a Righteous Gentile.

“Looking for Me,” Betsy R. Rosenthal (Houghton Mifflin, hardcover: 172 pp., $15.99). Ages: 8-12. The author’s mother who grew up in Jewish Baltimore during the 1930s, was the inspiration for this novel written in verse and in the first person about a year in the life of Edith, 11 years old and number four of 12 children. There are ups and “hand-me-down/down/down/downs,” special alliances, injustices, and one real tragedy. Edith cares for the babies, works very late into the night at the family’s diner and feels lost in the shuffle. Spiced with Yiddish phrases, Jewish holiday celebrations and vintage black and white photos of the real Edith—who realized her elementary school dream and became the only girl in her family to go to college.

“Israel Matters,” Mitchell Bard (Behrman House, 216 pp., paperback: $22.50). Ages: 13 and up. As an authority on U.S. policy in the Middle East, Mitchell G. Bard has been a guest of Al-Jazeera, NBC, MSNBC, Fox News, and other media organizations. Using informal magazine graphics and format, the author recounts the history of the Jewish state and the issues that threaten its future. Sidebars raise questions for reflection and discussion, give thumbnail biographies and sidelights of a larger story. Includes black-and-white and color photos, maps, graphs, a glossary and index. The book lends itself well to short reads, diving in somewhere in the middle or sharing segments aloud.

“The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible,” Matti Friedman (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 320 pp. $15). Ages: 16 and up. “A Holy Whodunit” (as described by the New York Times) about a true hunt for a real treasure: the oldest known and “most perfect” copy of the Hebrew Bible, a parchment manuscript written and annotated by two scholar scribes about 930 C.E. and consulted by Maimonides, near the end of the 12th century when he wrote the definitive book of laws, the Mishnah Torah. For a decade after Arab rioters set fire to the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, Syria in 1947, and to safeguard the codex, also known as the “Crown of Aleppo,” the Aleppo Jews maintained that it had been destroyed in the fire. Finally it was smuggled through Turkey into Israel, where eventually it became a matter of public inquiry that one of the crown jewels of the Jewish people had lost 200 of its 500 pages including those from Genesis through part of Deuteronomy. But how? When? And by whose hand? 


Editor’s note: This story has been changed from the original version in the printed Jewish Light.