Nonfiction Monday: Light up your reading for Hanukkah

December 7th, 2009

Lynne Dorfman, coauthor of Mentor Texts and Nonfiction Mentor Texts, shares some of her Hanukkah memories, along with some great books for the holiday.

When I was growing up in a household where both Hanukkah and Christmas were celebrated, Hanukkah always took a back seat.  It never could live up to the festivities of the Christmas season at my grandparents’ house: the selection of a tree, the decorations, the smell of pine wreaths, baking butter cookies in the shapes of reindeer, Santas, and bells, leaving a plate of treats and a glass of milk for Santa, and the excitement of waking up and running into the living room to see a mountain of presents.  At home, we weren’t allowed to have a tree, and the little menorah sitting on the windowsill in our own living room made a poor substitution for a grand evergreen tree.

Although I was raised in the Jewish faith, I had a healthy dose of Christianity, accompanying my nana and grandparents to church and eventually driving my best friend to early mass every Sunday morning before going to the stables.  I haven’t been a practicing Jew since childhood, but lately I’ve been wondering if I should start to attend synagogue again.  Children’s books gave me the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the Jewish traditions; and truthfully, I’m delighted!  I started with Hanukkah after reading Stephen Krensky’s Hanukkah at Valley Forge.  The story of Hanukkah, retold to General Washington through the character of a Polish soldier, inspired me as it had inspired Washington.  I wanted to learn more.

In writing workshop I am always looking for good examples of anecdotes to enrich informational and persuasive pieces.  It isn’t always easy to teach intermediate and middle school students how to effectively use the anecdote, and it’s such a wonderful way to build content!  This historical anecdote related in Krensky’s book can show students how history and past traditions can be brought to life.  In addition, this historical fiction pieces transitions smoothly between two time periods as the soldier relates the story of the origin of Hanukkah to General Washington. Furthermore, it is a perfect segue into primary source documents as the anecdote can be traced to a Revolutionary War era diary.

The last weekend of September was spent in Newport, Rhode Island. I stood inside the first synagogue in our country, the Touro Synagogue.  On one of its walls was a handwritten letter enclosed in a glass case – a letter written to the people of Rhode Island that praised the inhabitants for their tolerant views and acceptance of all religions.  I saw the hidden room beneath the altar where Rhode Island Jews had helped African-American slaves escape to Canada and freedom.  I thought about Krensky’s book and how important it was for the Jewish soldier in Washington’s army to burn a candle on Hanukkah. I thought about how important it is for children to read and write about heroes, past and present.

In Eve Bunting’s story, One Candle, Grandma relates how she had burned a candle on Hanukkah while imprisoned in a Nazi death camp; and like Krensky’s book, the pages differentiate between two time periods – present day and World War II era. Bunting’s story is a tale of perseverance and strength. It reaffirms the values of tradition and family.  We can all learn from Bunting – how she helps her young readers learn about a difficult period in the world’s history – with a story of the human spirit that is always at its best at the worst of times. After reading about Hanukkah, I realized that the miracle in Bunting’s story was the survival of Great-Aunt Rose and Grandma who long ago, had celebrated another miracle while facing the most difficult of circumstances during the darkest hours of the Holocaust.

Hanukkah, now and forever, will hold a new meaning for me – one that I will treasure – that by keeping traditions alive and celebrating past miracles, there can be hope for the future.  Small and great miracles happen every day.  Here are some other books that you might consider sharing as a read aloud or as a mentor text for writing:

Aloian, Molly. (2009). Hanukkah: Celebrations in My World. NY: Crabtree Publishing.

Bunting, Eve. (2002). One Candle. NY: Joanna Cotler Books.

Heiligman, Deborah. (2006). Celebrate Hanukkah. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.

Kimmel, Eric (ed.). (1998). A Hanukkah Treasury. NY: Henry Holt & Co.

Kimmel, Eric. (1985). Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. NY: Holiday House.

Krensky, Stephen. (2006). Hanukkah at Valley Forge. NY: Dutton Children’s Books.

Polacco, Patricia. (1996). The Trees of the Dancing Goats. NY: Simon & Schuster.

Entry Filed under: Nonfiction Monday,Reading

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