A classic Hanukkah tale with a fantasy twist tells the story of a dreidel that spins backward in time, leading children to the time of Judah the Maccabee in ancient Israel. Many versions of this story have been told over the years, both in Hebrew and in English, entertaining generations of children with different interpretations on Jewish history.
Marcia Berneger’s new picture book uses the basic elements of the story but adds another layer. In addition to learning about the holiday and a bit of Jewish history, the story presents a gentle moral lesson — that Hanukkah is not entirely about receiving presents. Taking a moral stand and putting oneself on the line when confronting issues of right and wrong is more important than ripping wrapping paper off gifts for eight nights in a row.
Devorah and Benjamin see Hanukkah as a gift-giving extravaganza. They are interested only in what they will get next from family members who want them to enjoy the holiday. But when Bubbe and Zayde arrive with a gift for them to share, they are disappointed to find an old, ugly, used dreidel in the package. The disappointed feeling doesn’t last long; the children are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime!
Over several spins, the dreidel mysteriously hurtles them into the past where they become an integral part of the Hanukkah story, and meet a series of characters they have only previously encountered in their Hebrew school classes. They see King Antiochus who is determined to destroy the Temple and prevail over the Jews, as well as Judah Maccabee and his cohorts, who bravely oppose him and his powerful armies. The children are surprised by this turn of events and endeavor to be helpful, using their knowledge of history to make sure the Jews win the battle. Although Devorah and Benjamin try to tell Judah what is about to occur so he can be prepared to fight effectively, he refuses to listen and simply will not understand. The children persevere and find a way to help, resulting in the rededication of the Temple and the familiar search for enough oil to light the menorah.
This enchanting book is illustrated in a cheerful, bright style which adds to the fun. Children of today will learn that Hanukkah is less about gifts and more about identity, bravery, and determination.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.