Drei­dels on the Brain

  • Review
By – May 16, 2016

A rec­og­niz­able mid­dle school anti­hero con­fides in read­ers in an empa­thet­ic, fun­ny, and heart­warm­ing sto­ry that cuts across the expect­ed grain. Set dur­ing Hanukkah, this won­der­ful nov­el is full of uni­ver­sal dilem­mas and real­is­tic pre-teen sit­u­a­tions at home and at school.

Despite its light­heart­ed deliv­ery, includ­ing many laugh-out-loud sce­nar­ios and asides, the book offers seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion about being Jew­ish in a non-Jew­ish world, poor in a well-to-do one, and shar­ing a fam­i­ly that runs from dif­fi­cult to odd when the nar­ra­tor only wants to be nor­mal, hang with his friends, and suc­ceed as a young magi­cian. The book runs chrono­log­i­cal­ly through the eight nights of Hanukkah, each chap­ter a can­dle, with a bonus finale from the shamash when Joel, who only wish­es to live unseen, is on dis­play at the win­ter hol­i­day assem­bly with his par­ents and old­er broth­ers. How and why he gets here is the tra­jec­to­ry of the book. With each suc­ceed­ing chap­ter, the read­er loves Joel more, cheer­ing for him to star in his mag­ic show, get the best of the drei­del spins, and find his mir­a­cles in drei­dels, can­dles, or oth­er signs.

Joel finds talk­ing to God eas­i­er than his bar mitz­vah lessons from the can­tor or receiv­ing help from a pop­u­lar girl to per­form his mag­ic. He wor­ries about him­self, but more­so about his father, rid­dled with arthri­tis and fac­ing a crazy cure that was pop­u­lar in 1971 when this faux mem­oir is set. The beau­ti­ful les­son comes not from glow­ing can­dles or Joel, but from an orange, which an old man offers as a sym­bol of hope on the bus Joel is forced to ride in car-crazy Cal­i­for­nia. Joel insti­gates chuck­les as he pokes gen­tle fun at much of the Jew­ish cul­ture around him, includ­ing an incred­i­ble array of the dif­fer­ent ways to spell Hanukkah.

Drei­dels on the Brain adheres hon­est­ly to the voice of the 12-year-old nar­ra­tor, who begins to under­stand the world through his chat­ty, breezy, and humor­ous dis­sec­tion of events. This book is a mir­a­cle of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty for Hanukkah and through­out the year.

Rec­om­mend­ed for ages 9 – 13.

Relat­ed Content:

Ellen G. Cole, a retired librar­i­an of the Levine Library of Tem­ple Isa­iah in Los Ange­les, is a past judge of the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Awards and a past chair­per­son of that com­mit­tee. She is a co-author of the AJL guide, Excel­lence in Jew­ish Children’s Lit­er­a­ture. Ellen is the recip­i­ent of two major awards for con­tri­bu­tion to Juda­ic Librar­i­an­ship, the Fan­ny Gold­stein Mer­it Award from the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries and the Dorothy Schroed­er Award from the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. She is on the board of AJLSC.

Discussion Questions