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Move Over, Shmelf…There Are Other Books on the Shelf

This past fall I posted a critical review of picture book Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, GoodReads, and Facebook. This caused quite a brouhaha. My review was quoted in the Tablet magazine article, “Stay in Your Lane, Elf,” by Marjorie Ingall, and I was interviewed (along with my colleague Kathy Bloomfield) by Heidi Rabinowitz for the Book of Life Podcast.

In a nutshell: the story is about Shmelf, one of Santa’s “army of elves,” who takes pity on those Jewish children not on Santa’s nice list and, after learning that Hanukkah is “awesome” in its own right, becomes a sort of ambassador (from Santa) for Hanukkah-celebrators. Supporters claim that the book builds a bridge between Hanukkah and Christmas and emphasizes the shared values of both holidays, but I feel that it sends absolutely the wrong message to any child, regardless of whether he or she celebrates Hanukkah or Christmas, both or neither one.

Why waste your time with Shmelf when there are many excellent books that introduce the story and customs of Hanukkah; that help Jewish children deal with Christmas envy; and that authentically and sensitively depict interfaith or multi-faith families? Some of my favorites are below.

rosen_chanukahlightsOur Eight Nights of Hanukkah and Chanukah Lights Everywhere (both by Michael J. Rosen) portray Jewish families living rich Jewish lives in a non-predominantly-Jewish world and act as joyful tributes to religions living alongside one another. In Toby Belfer Never Had a Christmas Tree, Toby’s family is the only Jewish family in their small, southern Louisiana town. She enjoys visiting her friends’ houses to help trim their Christmas trees and sing Christmas carols, but she also invites her friends to celebrate with her family. “Toby Belfer never had a Christmas tree. She never wondered why. She knew that she was Jewish, and that was reason enough.”

Not all Jewish children are as secure and confident in their Jewish identity as Toby Belfer. Christmas envy is bound to creep in. At some point, many Jewish children long for a Christmas tree, wish that Santa would visit, and yearn to celebrate this magical holiday. We need holiday books that both validate this desire and show children how they can honor, respect, and celebrate other traditions while still remaining true to their own. There’s No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein might have been the first to address Christmas envy, and thirty-plus years later it still resonates with readers. “It isn’t easy being Jewish at Christmas time,” declares Robin, who doesn’t understand how her family can attend a Christmas party if they don’t partake. Grandpa wisely explains: “There is a difference between celebrating something because you believe in it, and helping friends celebrate something because they believe in it.”

polacco_treesOther inspiring stories that show Jewish families helping their friends and neighbors celebrate Christmas are A Chanukah Noel and Patricia Polacco’s The Trees of the Dancing Goats, based on a long cherished childhood memory of her Jewish family. Another example of how people of different religions and backgrounds can share their family traditions is Jackie’s Gift about Brooklyn Dodgers great Jackie Robinson’s gift of a Christmas tree to his (Jewish) neighbors, and the young son’s (and Dodgers fan) argument “to accept gifts in the spirit that they’re given.” In her author’s note, Sharon Robinson, Jackie’s daughter, explains that she hopes this true story will inspire families “to look beyond race and religion and into people’s hearts.” This message can also be found in Elijah’s Angel: A Story for Chanukah and Christmas by Michael J. Rosen.

snicket_latkeProbably the best bibliotherapy for readers feeling inundated by Christmas is Lemony Snicket’s irreverent, tongue-in-cheek The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming. “It is very frustrating not to be understood in this world,” says a latke, whom everyone assumes is somehow related to Christmas. “I’m something completely different…I’m not part of Christmas…Christmas and Hanukkah are completely different things,” it screams, until being discovered by “a home full of people who understood what a latke is, and how it fits into its particular holiday.” Of course, the latke is then eaten, as it should be!

Just like Lemony Snicket’s frustrated, misunderstood latke, children who celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas also want to be understood, and they deserve to see themselves in children’s books, too. Three books that depict interfaith families observing Hanukkah and Christmas as separate celebrations are: Eight Candles and a Tree; My Two Holidays: A Hanukkah and Christmas Story; and Light the Lights! A Story about Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas. With a slightly different take, Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama depicts a family celebrating both holidays together. “Daddy makes latkes to leave on the mantel with milk” for Santa. As Selina Alko explains in an author’s note, she and her husband made a conscious decision to integrate traditions from each of their religious backgrounds into their home. While this blending approach might not work for everyone, it is beautifully and joyously depicted in this picture book that meets the needs of many multi-faith families.

There are also wonderful books about children who have grandparents of different faiths, for example, Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise and My Two Grandmothers. Papa Jethro doesn’t address the December dilemma specifically, but it sensitively looks at the issue of interfaith families through the loving relationship between a Jewish child and her non-Jewish grandfather.

boris and stellaAnd finally, for those who do like to infuse a bit of Christmas spirit into their Hanukkah celebrations, there are two books by Lesléa Newman: The Eight Nights of Chanukah can be sung to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” while Runaway Dreidel! is in the style of “The Night Before Christmas.” Esmé Raji Codell, in Hanukkah, Shmanukkah!, turns Dickens’s classic “A Christmas Carol” into a Hanukkah story that takes place on the Lower East Side of New York in the early 1900s. And Boris and Stella and the Perfect Gift is a charming interfaith adaptation of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi featuring a bear couple.

As you can see, there are lots of good choices out there that don’t resort to leaving a latke and kosher pickle out for one of Santa’s Hanukkah elves. (I’m looking at you, Shmelf!)

Recommended Titles

Alko, Selina. Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama (Knopf, 2012)

Codell, Esmé Raji. Hanukkah, Shmanukkah!, illus. by LeUyen Pham (Hyperion, 2005)

Cohen, Deborah Bodin. Papa Jethro, illus. by Jane Dippold (Kar-Ben, 2007)

Fisman, Karen Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise, illus. by Martha Avilés (Kar-Ben, 2015)

Goldman, Dara. Boris and Stella and the Perfect Gift (Sleeping Bear, 2013)

Jennings, Sharon. A Chanukah Noel, illus. by Gillian Newland (Second Story Press, 2010)

Moorman, Margaret. Light the Lights! A Story about Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas (Scholastic, 1994)

Nathan, Simone Bloom. Eight Candles and a Tree, illus. by Brian Barber (Beaver’s Pond Press, 2014)

Newman, Lesléa. The Eight Nights of Chanukah, illus. by Elivia Savadier (Abrams, 2005)

Newman, Lesléa. Runaway Dreidel!, illus. by Krysten Brooker (Holt, 2002)

Novack, Danielle My Two Holidays: A Hanukkah and Christmas Story, illus. by Phyllis Harris (Scholastic, 2010)

Older, Effin My Two Grandmothers, illus. by Nancy Hayashi (Harcourt, 2000)

Polacco, Patricia The Trees of the Dancing Goats (Simon & Schuster, 1996)

Pushker, Gloria Teles. Toby Belfer Never Had a Christmas Tree, illus. by Judith Hierstein (Pelican Publishing, 1991)

Robinson, Sharon. Jackie’s Gift, illus. by E. B. Lewis (Viking, 2010)

Rosen, Michael J. Chanukah Lights Everywhere, illus. by Melissa Iwai (Harcourt, 2001)

Rosen, Michael J. Elijah’s Angel: A Story for Chanukah and Christmas, illus. by Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson (Harcourt, 1992)

Rosen, Michael J. Our Eight Nights of Hanukkah, illus. by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan (Holiday House, 2000)

Snicket, Lemony. The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story, illus. by Lisa Brown (McSweeney’s Books, 2007)

Sussman, Susan. There’s No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein, illus. by Charles Robinson (Albert Whitman, 1983)

Rachel Kamin About Rachel Kamin

Rachel Kamin has been a synagogue librarian for over nineteen years and is currently director of the Cultural & Learning Center at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, IL. She writes articles and book reviews for School Library Journal, BookLinks, Judaica Librarianship, Library Journal, and Jewish Book World, and serves as the children and teen book review editor for the Association of Jewish Libraries.



  1. Lisa Silverman says:

    Thanks, Rachel–this list is very useful!

  2. Linda Silver says:

    Iff you want to know anything about children’s books of Jewish content, Rachel Kamin is your go-to source. She actually works with Jewish children and books, and she really appreciates writing that is not only fun but that also has literary or artistic merit. So much writing about children’s literature undermines it, whether intentionally or not, by treating it with flippancy or cuteness or by generalizing about it from a position of very little knowledge. Rachel never succombs to these traits which is why she’s such a gem!

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