Take a literary approach to Hanukkah


In one of the best "Saturday Night Live" sketches of all time, Hanukkah Harry fills in for a flu-stricken Santa Claus one Christmas Eve.

The gentile kids waiting in front of the fireplace for Santa are disappointed when Hanukkah Harry drops in with a sackful of practical presents -- slacks, pajamas and the like -- instead of toys.

He slaves all night, and this is the gratitude he gets? In honor of Harry, here are some Hanukkah gift ideas. After all, what could be more sensible than a book?

* A fine introduction to the holiday is "A Great Miracle Happened There: A Chanukah Story" by Karla Kuskin, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker (Willa Perlman Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, $15, 32 pages, ages 5-8).

Ms. Kuskin, whose work includes "Jerusalem, Shining Still" and plenty of other prose and poetry award-winners, opens with a family about to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah. The narrator has invited his gentile friend Henry over for the celebration.

After the narrator's mother lights the first candle with the shamas, she tells the story of the evil king Antiochus and the Jewish priest Mattathias, whose sons eventually led the Maccabees to victory against the Syrian tyrant.

When she finishes telling about the miracle of the lamp in the Temple, which burned for eight days on one day's worth of oil, the family exchanges small gifts and then sits down to a feast of potato pancakes, roast chicken and doughnuts for dessert.

Ms. Kuskin's style is direct, yet she never talks down to the reader. And the watercolors by Mr. Parker (Caldecott Honor for "Pop Corn and Ma Goodness") heighten the drama.

* "A Family Hanukkah" by Bobbi Katz, illustrated by Caryl Herzfeld (Random House, $7.99, 32 pages, ages 3-8) follows a similar format but puts more emphasis on the family's gathering and less on the history lesson.

In the days leading up to Hanukkah, Rachel and Jonathan buy or make small presents for their relatives. "It's like a game to think of something little and nice -- something each person will like," Jonathan says.

There's an emphasis on simple pleasures -- spinning the dreidel and unwrapping the chocolate gelt -- that helps temper the commercialism that keeps creeping into the holiday.

* Kids who like to read on their own might appreciate "The Glass Menorah and Other Stories for Jewish Holidays" by Maida Silverman, illustrated by Marge Levine (Four Winds Press, $14.95, 64 pages, ages 6-9).

These are modern-day tales of the Berg family -- Abby is 10, Ben is 8 and Molly is 6 -- that relate to different holidays. The Rosh Hashana story focuses on Ben, who is upset because Abby's friend Debbie made disparaging remarks about his ears the last time she visited. Now Debbie is back, trying to make amends. Ben does his best to make her life miserable until Dad reminds him that it's Rosh Hashana, time for a fresh start. Consider it a cross between "Father Knows Best" and "The Goldbergs."

* Last year Nina Jaffe gave us "In the Month of Kislev: A Story for Hanukkah." This year she tops that with "The Uninvited Guest and Other Jewish Holiday Tales" illustrated by Elivia (Scholastic, $15.95, 72 pages, ages 8-12).

Ms. Jaffe, a professional storyteller, has collected a folk tale for each of the following holidays: Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Purim, Passover and Hanukkah, as well as the Shabbat. Preceding each story is an explanation of the holiday's history and traditions.

And what stories! "The Never-Ending Song," for Rosh Hashana, is adapted from the Midrash. "Miracles on the Sea," for Yom Kippur, is a version of a tale written in Yiddish by I. L. Peretz.

Each is accompanied by a gorgeous full-page illustration.

My favorite story is an original by Ms. Jaffe. It tells of an evil magician who casts a spell of forgetfulness over an entire village, wiping out all memories of the Sukkot celebration. The town's children escape the spell because when the magician came, they were all out in the fields collecting branches to cover the roof of the sukkah. It's up to them to keep the holiday alive, and they succeed wonderfully.

* Although it doesn't have a holiday theme, "Golden Windows and Other Stories of Jerusalem" by Adele Geras (Willa Perlman Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, $14, 148 pages, ages 8-12) makes a great gift. It is as engaging as Ms. Geras' 1990 book, "My Grandmother's Stories: A Collection of Jewish Folk Tales."

"Golden Windows" is a collection of five short stories about one Jewish family in Jerusalem, the Genzels, followed through three generations. The first story is set in 1910 and the rest follow in chronological order, including one set during the war in 1948. The last, dated 1954, is called "Cardboard Boxes Full of America." Ms. Geras, who was born in Jerusalem, captures the city in loving detail: "The wide roads winding down the hill, the buildings made of yellow stones that glittered in the sun, and the narrow streets where tall houses with shuttered windows cast deep, cool shadows even when the sun was at its fiercest."

* No matter what the occasion, here are two fine sources of mail-order books to give as gifts. The first is Chinaberry Book Service, whose 122-page catalog is packed with reviews and recommendations for kids of all interests and age groups. Many are books with multiracial and special-needs themes that can be hard to find at chain stores. For a free catalog, call (800) 776-2242 . On a smaller scale, check out CornerStones Catalog for Young Readers, a division of the Corner Book Store in Ithaca, N.Y. The first, 30-page issue includes tips for getting kids interested in reading along with the book reviews. To order a free copy, call (800) 322-6440 .

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