Chai Lights–February 8, 2016




Shalom (that’s “hello” in Hebrew) and welcome to YABC’s newest column, Chai­Lights! In this column, we’ll explore the best of contemporary Jewish­themed books for young children, middle graders, and teens.


The name of this column infuses the word “highlights” with a uniquely Jewish pun. Chai is the Hebrew word for “life.” You might recognize it if you’ve been to a wedding where the couple has been toasted with a rousing “L’chaim!” (“to life!”), or if you know the music from Fiddler on the Roof.


The logo, a tree draped in blue candles, is a pastiche of Jewish symbolism. As is the case in many traditions, a tree stands for life, growth, and branching out from one’s roots. In Judaism it also represents the sacred books of the Torah (described in the book of Proverbs as “a tree of life”), and the ongoing study of those books. This makes it a particularly fitting choice for a column about literature! Candles are used to consecrate time in many Jewish rituals, and sapphire­blue is a color repeatedly associated with Jewish conceptions of the Divine.


I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank my friend Lesley Reuter for the great title idea, and YABC’s awesome designer Kayla King for the cool logo. And of course site manager C.J. Redwine for welcoming me to the YABC team. Thank you!




Why a Jewish book column? In a classic 1990 essay, educational theorist Rudine Sims Bishop writes that stories can be thought of as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. For Jewish readers, these stories can reflect—and validate—their true, lived experiences. For non­Jewish readers, reading about Jewish traditions can be a window on others’ cultural practices. (Sims Bishop describes sliding glass doors as portals that readers can “walk through in imagination.”) Religious and cultural diversity, especially as recently articulated by the We Need Diverse Booksmovement, enriches and enhances everyone’s experiences with literature for young readers.



Two important points are worth mentioning. First, many people consider Judaism to be as much of an ethnic identity as a religious one. A good way to explain this is to borrow a term from the Reconstructionist movement, the innovative, inclusive movement (or denomination) of Judaism with which I’m affiliated. Reconstructionism describes Judaism as a civilization. Like any civilization, it has religious beliefs and practices . . . but it also has art, music, language(s), food, holidays, and general outlooks on how to relate to the world. It has local variants, and it evolves over time. Reconstructionist Jews often think of themselves as living simultaneously in two civilizations: a Jewish civilization and the civilization of the surrounding secular culture. (This is similar to the idea of intersectionality, a hot buzzword in children’s lit circles these days: it means that a person’s identity can come from multiple overlapping components, like their gender, religion, (dis)ability status, socioeconomic circumstances, career interests, etc.)


Second, there is no one way to be Jewish. Some Jewish people attend religious services and study religious texts every week, or even every day. Others love to eat bagels and lox, and vaguely remember that they have a Hanukkah menorah (candelabra) stashed somewhere. All of these—at least from a Reconstructionist viewpoint—are completely valid and totally authentic.


My goal in this column is to highlight (chai­light?) children’s and young adult books that show what’s beautiful, meaningful, and worth celebrating about Jewish identity. I want to focus on stories where characters draw on their Jewish values to make decisions, infuse their lives with Jewish practices (anything from attending afterschool Hebrew school to participating in social justice causes), and balance their Judaism with other aspects of who they are. I want to look at contemporary realistic fiction, historical fiction, science fiction (yes really!), mysteries, and romances. I’m hoping to review holiday books, folktales, poetry, biographies, graphic novels, and retellings of stories from the Hebrew Bible and other traditional literature. I’d love to look at works of original historical research designed specifically for young readers. Although I might review a Holocaust book here and there, I agree with writer Marjorie Ingall that “the amount of real estate, both physical and emotional, that [Holocaust] stories hold on our bookshelves is proportionally just too high . . . We are more than just our suffering.”






To get us started, here’s one of many great Jewish books that stood out for me in 2015:



Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise by Karen Fisman, illus. Martha Avilés Kar­Ben, 2015
Preschool to grade 3



Rachel can’t wait to celebrate Hanukkah with the Christian side of her family, especially her beloved Nonna (grandmother). But when she accidentally leaves her new menorah on the plane, how will she light Hanukkah candles? Nonna solves the Hanukkah dilemma by drawing on her unique interests: her collection of perfume bottles turns out to make a great candelabra.



Fisman takes the notion of interfaith families as a given, not as an issue in itself, while Avilés’ illustrations use warm colors and soft shapes to denote the comfort and happiness of family holiday gatherings. And Nonna’s enterprising menorah solution echoes the message of resourcefulness that some scholars see as a primary message of Hanukkah.



(In a rabbinic story, a jar of oil that should have only burned for a day miraculously lasted for eight; in some interpretations of this story, the real miracle was the oil­lighters’ decision to use what they had instead of bemoaning what they didn’t.)



Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise, a picturebook about an interfaith family’s creative problem­ solving, makes a great readaloud during Hanukkah or year­round.



I’m always on the lookout for great Jewish reads (and great guest columnists!), so if you have any favorites, feel free to drop me a line at [email protected] I look forward to reading and exploring with you! 


Jill Ratzan is a librarian: a sharer of stories and organizer of information. She reviews Jewish and secular children’s and young adult books. Jill is delighted to be a Staff Reviewer here at YABC!