Tuesday, December 04, 2007

review: A Confused Hanukkah

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah. Have you hung your dreidels by the chimney with care?

A Confused Hanukkah by Jon Koons. Illustrated by S.D. Schindler. Dutton, 2004 (0-525-46969-9)$16.99

I'm thrilled to be seeing some children's literature backlash against the Christmasfication of Hanukkah in books like The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming. This "original folktale" makes similar points, with gentler irony and perhaps more accessibility to younger readers.

Set in the traditional Jewish town-of-fools, Chelm, the story begins with the villagers unable to remember how to celebrate Hanukkah while their Rabbi is away. A man named Yossel sets out for a nearby town "to find out what must be done," but naturally, being from Chelm, he goes the wrong way and winds up in the Big City, where he gets some very odd information about "the coming holiday." His fellow villagers are a bit surprised--"Trees? Fat men? I don't remember any of that!"--but conclude these must be the latest modern customs, so they proceed to chop down a tree, decorate it with matzo balls, wooden dreidels and shiny menorahs, and dress the fattest man in town in a fancy suit, calling him "Hanukkah Hershel."

Yet somehow, nothing seems right. "They had never seen Hanukkah Hershel before. And surely, if they had decorated a tree like this in the past, someone would have remembered. But Yossel had told them that other people did these things. And why shouldn't they celebrate the way others did? Still, now it seemed like this wasn't Hanukkah at all."

Luckily, just then the Rabbi arrives home, to tell them the story of Hanukkah and remind them of their true traditions. And "From that day forward it was said that the people of Chelm always remembered how to keep Hanukkah."

Koons doesn't hit us in the face with his point, leaving the silliness of the story to speak for itself about the ridiculousness of mixing up two things that have very little relationship to each other. I would like to have seen a note on the history of Chelm in Jewish folklore and humor, and it would also have strengthened the the book to say more about the significance of the Hanukkah customs--eating foods fried in oil in memory of the oil lamp, for example.

This should go over well at storytimes, especially with a reader who's good with dialogue, which is lively and plentiful. Pen & ink and watercolor illustrations in a slightly caricatured style highlight both the foolishness and the generally goodhearted nature of the people of Chelm, adding to the humor and warmth of the story. (4 & up)

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