We know, it seems far too early to be planning for Chanukah. For all the “Thanksgivingukkah” frenzy that’s been about since the start of autumn, the calendric propinquity between now and those eight oil-saturated nights still hasn’t really sunk in. But guess what? It’s already the first day of Kislev. That’s right, Chanukah is only a few weeks away. Ready or not, it’s time to rev up that festive mood you usually store for another month into the Gregorian year. So place your jelly-filled order to the bakery, stock up on potatoes, start scraping the remnants of last year’s candles off the chanukkiot from the plastic storage bin in your basement, and make some space on your bookshelves for eight nights of reading.
There’s really only one night of Chanukah I distinctly remember out of all the eight-day Festivals of Lights from my childhood and adult life so far. It wasn’t really part of the Festival at all.
Long after the cheap candles had burned down to multicolored nubs of rehardened wax, my mother assembled her pajamaed brood under the floral bed canopy that matched the Pepto-Bismol walls of “the pink room” — the room my sister and I practically shared, owing to the trundle cot that rolled out from under the bed’s thick wooden frame and the convenience of combining two bedtime routines into one, when we had been much younger. By now my sister and I had been reading quietly to ourselves for years, and our mother’s insistence that we join our younger siblings for a bedtime story was unprecedented. Bewildered and, admittedly, slightly disgruntled, we listened with heaving patience as our reader delivered a prologue on the lengths she went to in order to procure this book, only recently released in the United States, in time for the holiday. It was expected, she told us, to be something quite spectacular. “Chapter One,” she finally began: “The Boy Who Lived.”
We had no idea what we were in for.
Outside of day school classrooms, American Jews don’t necessarily think of Chanukah as a story-driven holiday. We focus on the aesthetics: the candles in the window, the overly (for us) melodious blessings and recitations, the golden/chocolate winnings and oil-drenched foods — and of course, I’ll go ahead and throw in a critique about American consumerism here. But there’s no seder, there’s no table to sit down to for hours of required retelling, and that really is a shame. Every night of Chanukah is a great night for stories — and not just Harry Potter.
I have a childhood friend whose family was required to sit around a table each night after lighting the candles. With all other illumination in the house extinguished, his father would read aloud by the light of the shamash—the rest of the candles left for spectacle only, as stipulated in hanerot hallallu, on the windowsill. Some of it was traditional learning, but most of that time was dedicated to fantastical epics and curious stories: tales that brought magic, both real and fictional, back into those eight miraculous nights; that challenge our understanding of the world and ourselves.
Chanukah is a celebration commemorating a jar of oil lasting for eight days, rather than the incredible events of human achievement and resistance leading up to that quiet miracle — and it isn’t easy to get excited about the denoument of the story. But in way that’s one of the luxuries of this most profane of Jewish holidays: we aren’t held to telling this one narrative, alone. So for each of the eight nights of Chanukah, the Jewish Book Council is out to help you find more stories — to read to your children, to share with young adults, and to read after the kids are all in bed.
Find all of the posts in the Eight Nights of Stories series here.
Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.