Read all of the posts in our Eight Nights of Stories series here.
Hanukkah Bear by Eric A. Kimmel; illus. Mike Wohnoutka
I have to admit, I was extremely puzzled when I first approached this book. It looked completely unfamiliar, yet I knew I had read this story somewhere before.
So have you, if you held a subscription to Cricket magazine two decades ago. Originally published in Cricket and as a 1990 picture book under the title The Chanukah Guest, Hanukkah Bear is a new rendition of the Eric Kimmel classic, out this year. Once more, our nonagenarian heroine Bubba Brayna welcomes the wooly “rabbi” into her home for Chanukah: she lights the candles, plays a game of dreidel, feeds her guest steaming, scrumptious latkes, and sends him home with a new knitted scarf before her friends arrive and discover her foolish mistake!
I wouldn’t say that Hanukkah Bear is an improvement on it’s original incarnation; nor is it an inferior edition, either: Holiday House merely seems to be trying to achieve something very different with the story than the original publication strove for — as evidenced by the very titles of each book. Where The Chanukah Guest relied on subtlety, Hanukkah Bear goes for the overt. The former maintained the Cricket air of sophistication in stories for young readers; the latter adopts a childish text font and warm, cartoonish illustrations by Mike Wohnoutka — a stark contrast to Giora Carmi’s subdued renderings. Thought the text remains, as far as I can recall, unchanged, Hanukkah Bear bends toward a younger readership than its predecessor by dint of aesthetics alone. It is certainly a charming book for readers 4 – 8, but if you’re looking for something with a bit more longevity, see if you can get your hands on a copy of the original title.
Of course, what lends Hanukkah Bear its plot is the twist of mistaken identity — a literary ploy crucial to virtually every superhero narrative. It’s the apex of dramatic irony in the comic book world: the one thing we are allowed to know outside of the action as it unfolds. It’s exhilarating and often amusing whenever Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne narrowly avoid discovery, much like when Bubba Brayna unwittingly faces off with a hungry bear. But what about the average schmo who’s mistaken for a hero? Reeling from the legal controversy over the ownership of Superman, Clark Kent creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster dreamed up the mortal Funnyman, a television comedian who develops a taste for humorously fighting crime. The full collection of comic books and newspaper strips have been reproduced in Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero From the Creators of Superman edited by Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon, interlaced with historical explanations and critical essays. Teens who appreciate comic books, mid-century cultural history, or a good wisecrack ought to get a taste of this Superman side project and legitimate piece of Jewish American history.
After the kids are asleep…
Maybe you’d like a graphic novel for yourself? In a dark twist on the mistaken-for-a-rabbi premise of Hanukkah Bear, The Big Kahn by Neil Kleid and Nicolas Cinquegrani follows the three children of a fictional (and fictitious) prominent rabbi as they cope with the discovery that their father had been living a lie right up to his death: Rabbi David Kahn, now deceased, was never Jewish. The Big Kahn is a graphic novel for adults: the depictions of sex and complex adult relationships might not be appropriate for younger readers; anyone considering this book for a teenager should make sure to it passes a parental review first.
But tonight’s theme also involves the welcoming of strange guests, and it doesn’t get much better than the S.Y. Agnon classic A Guest for the Night.
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.