By Cyrisse Jaffee
Is it at all remotely important to know how gift-giving became a Hanukkah tradition in America?
The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol by Arthur A. Levine. Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. Candlewick Press, 2020.
It’s a little late for a book about Hanukkah, especially this year. But this book purports to be the perfect blend by creating a new myth for the holiday with an inclusive nod to Christmas. The fact that the book has gotten such favorable reviews speaks to an ongoing cultural struggle: to make Hanukkah and Christmas equivalent. Spoiler alert: they’re not. Admittedly, it’s becoming harder and harder to make that distinction, given the aisle of blue and white Hanukkah merchandise filled with “Oy to the World” messages and ornaments shaped like menorahs. And thank goodness for supermarkets who display matzoh for the holiday (cringe).
Growing up as a secular Jew in New York City, I celebrated both holidays. My uncle married a woman who was Italian American and he had agreed to raise their children as Catholic. Their home was filled to the brim with a decorated tree, pictures of Jesus, and the delicious smell of lasagna and meatballs. We would stop on the way home to see the tree in Rockefeller Center and check out the department store holiday windows every year. My children also celebrate both holidays, since Christmas in my husband’s family has always been a big deal. But no matter how hard one tries, Hanukkah is NOT the same as Christmas — nor should it be.
Hanukkah Magic presents us with a rather lackluster spirit named Nate Gadol, who has the ability to “make things last as long as they needed to.” This applies to making “a tiny bit of oil last eight days and nights in the far-off long ago” (nod to Hanukkah). He can also make a tiny bit of chocolate feed a family of four, keep flowers fresh so that they would cheer up a sick person, and help a dam withstand a storm. A rather odd set of skills, wouldn’t you agree?
Inexplicably, Nate follows the Glaser family as they travel to America by boat, where his magic allows a bit of chocolate to grow for the Purim holiday. Ironically, once in America, Nate’s magic does not apply to enlarging the amount of food, money, or heat that is in short supply for the Glasers and their neighbors, the O’Malleys, during the miserable winter of 1881. When the O’Malleys have no money to buy medicine for their sick baby, there is “Nothing Nate could do about that; he couldn’t stretch what wasn’t there.” Oy vey, what a disappointment this Hanukkah spirit is so far!
The Glasers help their neighbors on what happens to be Christmas Eve. Nate meets up with a “red-suited” man named Nick, whose sleigh is nearly empty. Nate borrows some chocolate from Nick (again with the chocolate!) in exchange for some magic for the sleigh. Suddenly “boxes with ribbons and shiny paper spilled out from under the tree” at the O’Malleys. What’s more, the Glasers realize that Hanukkah is for gift-giving too. Say what?
Forget the fact that the Santa Claus story always bothered me — a strange man who knows whether you’ve been naughty or nice and comes into your house in secret? Yikes! Is it at all remotely important to know how gift-giving became a Hanukkah tradition in America? And why combine the creepier aspects of St. Nick with a feeble version of a Hanukkah spirit? Will this make Jewish kids feel more mainstream? Or give Christian kids understanding of Hanukkah? And what if you celebrate neither holiday?
Whatever the well-meaning intent of the book, we’ll have to wait a little longer for a story that really resonates with the myriad ways in which kids today experience the holiday season, and why lights and candles and yummy food are something we look forward to sharing with friends and family.
Cyrisse Jaffee is a former children’s and YA librarian, a children’s book editor and book reviewer, and a creator of educational materials for WGBH. She holds a master’s degree in Library Science from Simmons College and lives in Newton, MA.