In my experience, Hanukkah books are schmaltzy. Like the holiday, they can try too hard to fit in, coopting mainstream Christmas traditions like elves and reindeer. Or else they overflow with American Yiddish stereotypes, fretting bubbes and Moishes on every corner. It’s a shame, because traditional Yiddish literature is a sly treat, simultaneously bitingly funny and mournful — grieving the near-constant loss of the people and conventions it’s satirizing. That’s a tall order for a kids’ book celebrating Hanukkah, but when I look for books to share with my interfaith children, I seek just a thread of that poignancy, a point of access to the tension between stubborn joy and angst that defines Jewish literature across time and cultures.
Not all of the eight books on this list quite check that box. But the ones that aren’t based on Eastern European history and folklore each have something else wonderfully appealing — a nod to the multicultural families who celebrate Hanukkah; a lively history of the holiday; a chewable introduction to the symbols and activities that mark the eight nights — all with nary a goyishe reindeer in sight.
Several years ago, my youngest brother decided to memorialize our family’s favorite Hanukkah book with a film starring, who else, our family. It’s… dorky, but Kimmel’s award-winning story of Hershel of Ostropol’s success in outwitting the goblins ruining Hanukkah is exciting and cinematic, building to a confrontation with the terrible Goblin King (played with vigor by my husband in the screen version). The vibrant illustrations are a bit creepy for preschoolers, but nothing the bright lights of the menorah and an extra piece of chocolate gelt can’t set right.
A beautifully illustrated and moving picture book, Oskar and the Eight Blessings follows a small boy as he walks 100 blocks in New York City, to the doorstep of an aunt he’s never met. It’s the seventh night of Hanukkah, and Oskar is fleeing Europe alone in the wake of Kristallnacht; but the somberness of the context is tempered by the eight special New Yorkers he meets along the way, including famous musicians and politicians.
The majority of American Jews intermarry, and while that’s long raised concerns for some in the community, I’ve always loved learning — and experiencing — how families fold different cultural traditions into the Jewish holidays. Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas is an especially winning exploration of how a Jewish Indian household celebrates Hanukkah by frying dosas to share with their friends. Sadie’s older brother helps their mother and grandmother shop and prepare the dosas, while simultaneously trying to prevent intrepid Sadie (dressed adorably like a dreidel) from climbing on everything in sight (families with toddlers can relate). But when everyone gets locked out of the house just before the meal, Sadie’s climbing skills come in handy!
Another delightfully spooky Hanukkah story from Eric Kimmel, Zigazak! is firmly rooted in the Jewish canon of tales about tricky devils, foolish villagers, and the wise rabbi who saves the day. When two devils waltz into town, making latkes fly and dreidels dance, the good rabbi of Brisk not only outwits his foes, but teaches the villagers to find the good and the joy in all things, even mischief-makers.
Help your baby savor the holiday with the Indestructible series’ rip-proof, chew-proof, washable guide to Hanukkah symbols and traditions. The colorful, textless drawings allow you to create a Hannukah story unique to your family’s celebration.
A Hanukkah title list wouldn’t be complete without a book that explains the holiday’s origins. Young readers can easily follow Adler’s retelling of the triumphant Maccabees and the miracle of the oil burning for eight days. Complete with a latke recipe and dreidel-playing instructions, The Story of Hanukkah is a great family guide to the holiday.
Chelm is a real city in eastern Poland, but it’s also a fixture in the Eastern European Jewish literary landscape. Chelm and its delightfully foolish residents have charmed and irritated readers for almost two centuries, and in Ungar’s funny picture book, they’re put to the test again, this time to come up with a gift suitable for the Mayor of Lublin. The Mayor has given Chelm a gorgeous menorah, but all of their thank-you gifts go awry. Are they wise enough to listen to little Yitzi?
This is a bit of a cheat because it’s not a Hanukkah story. Instead, it’s a classic story collection that I received for Hanukkah probably 30 years ago and have been waiting to read to my daughters. Like Yitzi, the stories in Zlateh are set in Chelm and revolve around the townspeople’s antics. There are the four sisters who share a bed and get their legs impossibly tangled (my childhood favorite); the fool who can’t stop eating jam; a heroic goat; and other, even sillier tales featuring devils and ghosts. Sendek’s trademark woodcarving illustrations are rustic and gorgeous, and Singer manages the perfect balance of incredulity at the characters’ stupidity and deep-seated love for their underlying goodness. With seven tales to read out loud, Zlateh will last you through Hanukkah, with a spare night for a lively game of dreidel.