We celebrate Christmas at our house, but we live in a community in which many celebrate Hanukkah. As we light our Advent candles and string our Christmas lights, our Jewish friends and neighbors light the candles on their Hanukkah menorah and fry delicious potato latkes. Dear friends invite us to join them for one of the Hanukkah nights each year and we are blessed to have the flavors of fried potatoes, jelly donuts, sour cream, and applesauce mingle with our cinnamon, cardamom, Christmas gingerbread flavors.
When my kids were little, we always checked out Hanukkah picture books from the library so they’d have some concept of the holiday before stuffing themselves with latkes. There were always many to choose from, though many of them were older well-loved books. One of those has recently been redone. The Chanukkah Guest by Eric Kimmel was originally published by Cricket Magazine and then later made into a picture book with Giora Carmi as illustrator. Last year, a new version appeared on the shelves—Hanukkah Bear. The story is the same (and still written by Eric Kimmel), but the text is tighter and the illustrations are new. Illustrator Mike Wohnoutka turns out to be an inspired match for Kimmel’s storytelling. This delightful story is enjoying a revival now — and the author and illustrator are still kvelling over receiving the National Jewish Book Award.
This is the story: Bubba Brayna (97 years young) can’t hear and see as well as she used to, but she can still make the best potato latkes in the village. When the story opens, she is busy making a double batch for the rabbi who will visit that night. Just as she’s finishing her preparations, there is a knock at the door. She opens it to a big burly guest — the rabbi is early! Bubba Brayna is nothing if not hospitable, so she welcomes her lumbering rabbi, wishes him a Happy Hanukkah, and tries to take his fur coat. The rabbi roars his protest. “Grrrowwww!”
Now, the reader understands through Mike Wohnoutka’s illustrations that the rabbi is not the rabbi at all — it is Old Bear! But Bubba Brayna does not see or hear well, so she interprets the size and shape of her guest, as well as his growls and grumbles, to be that of her dear rabbi. They light the candles on the menorah, Old Bear grumbles and mutters the blessing, they play dreidel games, and eat latkes. Eventually, the mix-up is revealed — the village and the real rabbi (looking very much like Old Bear) arrive. Bubba Brayna has a good laugh and all her friends help make more latkes. Light, love, and laughter finish off the book.
This book has the honor of being a PJ Library book (think Reading Rainbow for Jewish children and their families), but I think it works exceptionally well for non-Jewish children, too. The party at Bubba Brayna’s is very like the one we attend each year, and both a recipe and a Hanukkah explanation are included in the end papers. It’s the perfect book for sharing in a storytime about the different holidays this time of year.