There Was a Young Rab­bi: A Hanukkah Tale

Suzanne Wolfe, Jef­frey Ebbel­er (illus.)

  • Review
By – August 24, 2020

Suzanne Wolfe and Jef­frey Ebbel­er have tak­en the old, rhyth­mic, nurs­ery rhyme, There Was an Old Lady Who Swal­lowed a Fly,” and trans­formed it into a joy­ful hymn ded­i­cat­ed to Jew­ish par­ents. The young rab­bi of the title is a reli­gious pro­fes­sion­al, a moth­er, and a daugh­ter to aging par­ents. In this Hanukkah sto­ry, the rabbi’s incred­i­ble skills at mul­ti­task­ing and her evi­dent ful­fill­ment in all she accom­plish­es, make her a tru­ly mem­o­rable new sym­bol of the holiday.

When read­ers first meet the rab­bi, she is read­ing the Torah in her syn­a­gogue; a help­ful text box clar­i­fies that the Torah is read on Hanukkah, although the sto­ry of Hanukkah is not record­ed in the Torah. Ebbeler’s illus­tra­tions are a won­der­ful mix­ture of real­ism and car­i­ca­ture. The rabbi’s less than per­fect­ly styled hair and over­sized glass­es, as well as her big smile, make her a famil­iar image of moth­er­hood, but with enough spe­cif­ic charm to pro­vide indi­vid­u­al­i­ty. Next she lights the meno­rah, with her hus­band and chil­dren look­ing on with lov­ing admi­ra­tion. Flip­ping latkes from her fry­ing pan into the air, slam­ming the oven door shut with her foot as she cooks brisket, and spin­ning drei­dels with her fam­i­ly are all part of her busy hol­i­day obser­vance. Yet the rab­bi is not a super­mom with stel­lar abil­i­ties which no ordi­nary par­ents could hope to imi­tate; multi­gen­er­a­tional coop­er­a­tion is a big part of her suc­cess. Two chil­dren assist her in unrolling the Torah scroll and her whole fam­i­ly active­ly par­tic­i­pates in each Hanukkah tra­di­tion. A child with a dis­abil­i­ty is also part of their fes­tive meal. The rab­bi opens a gift in a small box from her appre­cia­tive hus­band, who ear­li­er is shown on a snowy night bring­ing the grand­par­ents, as well as a cake beau­ti­ful­ly dec­o­rat­ed with a Star of David, to their home. A par­tic­u­lar­ly appeal­ing image shows grand­par­ents watch­ing proud­ly as the rabbi’s young daugh­ter lights the Hanukkah meno­rah. One may infer that these are the rabbi’s par­ents, giv­en the fam­i­ly resem­blance between the old­er and younger woman, which Ebbel­er empha­sizes humor­ous­ly by their sim­i­lar big eye­glass­es and warm smiles.

In addi­tion to the infor­ma­tion about Torah read­ing on Hanukkah, Wolfe includes a note about the sev­en-branched meno­rah in the Tem­ple era, to accom­pa­ny Ebbeler’s pic­ture, one of two which brings the book into the past of his­toric events. Nev­er­the­less, this high­ly rec­om­mend­ed tale is fun­da­men­tal­ly a book about fam­i­ly and about the strength of Jew­ish women, focus­ing on the rabbi’s meld­ing of her mater­nal and rab­binic roles. The lilt­ing text and bright pic­tures cre­ate a mod­ern counter-text to the fly-swal­low­ing old lady. Instead of the fun­ny absur­di­ty in that piece of folk­lore, the young rabbi’s sto­ry is one of ener­getic pur­pose, as she brings Hanukkah to her fam­i­ly and community.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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