Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

How to Spell Chanukah…And Other Holiday Dilemmas edited by Emily Franklin

Chanukah spell cover When I saw this book in my library’s catalog, I thought the blurb said it was a group of funny essays about Hanukah and imagined something akin to varying flavors of David Sedaris. That will teach me to read more carefully. Yes, there are funny and snarky pieces in this collection of 18 essays, but many of them are serious, poignant and nostalgic. Once I got over the expectation of humor in every one, I enjoyed it.
Though you needn’t be Jewish to appreciate the writing(and I’m not), the book does assume the reader has some familiarity with the holiday and it’s accoutrements. There was so many mentions of the potato pancakes called latkes, that I became quite hungry. I was surprised to find that Chanukah is a minor holiday, and it wasn’t until a few decades ago when marketing spun it as a balance to Christmas that it gained a higher profile. I was also surprised by how many reminisces in the book contained both holidays, often in unique ways. Some of the pieces are only a few pages long, others encompass entire family histories and how that affected not just the holiday, but relationships between relatives. One entry is done in the style of a graphic novel.
One of my favorites was a man remembering his first crush. They were both in the school choir and he was chosen to do a duet with her for the Chanukah concert. One afternoon’s rehearsal seemed tinged with magic and has lingered in his memory all these years, bittersweet. Another, The Only Dreidel in Idaho, is about a Mahattan family who goes to a ski resort each year for the holiday, often meeting relatives there. The contrasts between her family and the super blonde, super Christian majority of inhabitants provide much irony and subtle humor. Even more humorous is “The Blue Team”, recalling a boyhood hobby of reenacting the battles of the Maccabees and Syrians, which is the setting of the original miracles of Chanukah. The stage for this was a papier mache Temple his mother had constructed, complete with a Tupperware dome and recounted with vivid immediacy.
Probably the most powerful contribution to the book is written by a proud atheist, which I almost didn’t read. It is a “sermonette” about why people should celebrate Chanukah, if not for the religious reasons, then for a sense of community and bonding with loved ones. It’s quite well argued and could easily be applied to other holidays, come to that.
In fact, the interrelations with family or lack thereof is a main theme of the book, along with how history and society can affect the celebrations. Some authors shared painful memories, other made it all sound such fun. It left me with not only the wish to be a part of lighting a candle on a menorah, with the prayers and songs, but also the understanding that families at holidays can be wonderful or terrible, no matter the culture.

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2007 255 pp. ISBN-13:978-1565125384 available in traditional and ebook formats

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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