How to build your own family traditions for the holidays

Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier
Los Altos resident and avid storyteller Enid Davis tells the tales of Hanukkah to keep traditions alive.

The miracle of Hanukkah is not the holiest holiday in Jewish tradition, but there’s a valiant story to work with - the scrappy, rebel Maccabees overcome the Greek King Antiochus’ forces, return to their temple in Judea and find just enough sacred oil left to light a candle and resume their worship traditions.

To celebrate the eight days and nights commemorating that struggle, families light candles on the menorah and eat foods fried in oil. Often a dreidel makes an appearance, signifying a game the rebel Maccabee scholars played to hide secret study of the Torah while their religion was banned. Individual families fill in the rituals, songs and traditions around these basics with their own spin as Hanukkah picks up modern meanings.

"The joy in Judaism is in the holidays," Los Altos resident Enid Davis explained.

The identity-defining persecutions that make up much of Jewish history dovetail with the idea of "L’Chaim" - the toast to life.

"OK, they killed some of us, but we’re alive," Davis said. "So let’s eat!"

Davis grew up in Brooklyn hearing her father’s made-up stories, which included jokes and themes about Judaism. As an adult, she wanted to learn more and started to research the world of Jewish children’s literature.

Although Hanukkah books now abound, there aren’t many fundamental Hanukkah stories - tales that inspire childhood memories and family songs. How-to explanations of dreidel play and Jewish culture don’t touch on the myths and legends that can make a story memorable. So Davis set out to create some, and she has tips for how families can fit a story to a theme important in their heritage.

"That’s the beauty of the folktale - you can bring in African or Asian traditions, and any religion," she said. "The stories talk about universal issues - poverty, greed, foolishness, generosity, goodwill - that we all need to be reminded of, no matter how old we are."

Davis worked as children’s librarian at the Los Altos main library and throughout the county for 18 years, where she first found a place for traditional children’s storytelling. Now retired, she leads local storytelling classes, the Los Altos Library’s storytelling evening every fourth Thursday of the month and special events like the "Story Fest" that gathered folk tellers and lovers of tales in Los Altos Nov. 7.

"Latke Lad," Davis first fractured-fairy-tale remix, she distributed through the Santa Clara County library system, followed by "The Five Maccabees Tough." She now has copies available as prizes for Town Crier readers who participate in the Holiday Coloring Contest. Print out and color in the scene from the Latke Lad, and bring it in to the Town Crier's office at 138 Main Street to claim your own. 

Recasting a familiar story like "The Gingerbread Man" or "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" as Hanukkah tales using familiar cultural themes is something anyone can do for the family. And if you write the story in parts for different voices, the folktale can become a play told around the table as a family. Looking for Jewish inspiration? Davis suggested a few places to start.

A superhero for all seasons

Davis calls Elijah a "Jewish superhero," and he also features in Christian and Muslim tradition. An Old Testament prophet-turned-angel, Elijah circumnavigates the world with four wing flaps and wrestles (and trounces) the Angel of Death before riding triumphantly to heaven. He plays a trickster/savior in stories, settling disputes and teaching lessons. Rabbinic tradition holds that when you reach an impasse in an argument, let the matter rest - "Teyku" - and Elijah will decide when the Messiah comes.

"I hope more Jewish and gentile people alike discover the rich character of this historic figure who takes his place with universal wish granters, fierce protectors and cherished wise men," Davis said. "His main job on earth is to protect Jews from their many enemies. To his credit, he also has a good sense of humor."

Elijah is probably best known in observant and secular Jewish homes as the visitor awaited at the Seder meal during Passover. Leaving a wine glass out for Elijah is a familiar tradition - but the stories behind why he’d visit, and what his duties include in the day-to-day, make up the stuff of folktales and legends. They include material for a range of wintertime stories fit for family evenings.

"Elijah is the No. 1 biblical figure in Jewish folk and fairytales. He appears more often in stories from around the world and down through the ages than Moses, King Solomon or King David," Davis said. "He is a complex legendary and folkloric figure - true, he grants wishes to worthy people, but he will reverse their fortunes if they lose their empathetic and charitable ways. He wants rituals observed absolutely correctly, but a person’s worth is in the goodness of her heart and not in her righteousness."

Davis retold an Elijah story as a read-along family play for Hanukkah (visit this story online for the full text to try out with your own family). He’s a character who has inspired Hanukkah season stories in everything from picture books to The New Yorker magazine’s humor column - and you can refashion a story using him, too.

Stretching a theme

"With a little bit of imagination, you can turn many a child’s folktale into a Hanukkah story, much to the delight of youngsters who know the original tales," Davis said. "Go for it - make your own holiday story."

Following are two examples.

When Golda-Locks invades the three bears home, eating their potato pancakes, breaking the Hanukkah candles by trying to stuff them in the menorah and messing up the wrappings of their Hanukkah presents waiting for them on their beds, instead of jumping out of the second-story window to escape, she stays to play dreidel games with the forgiving bears.

Or, when Little Red Riding Hood brings the applesauce and sour cream to Bubbe’s (Grandmother’s) house to serve with the latkes (potato pancakes), she stops to invite the wolf to a Hanukkah lunch. The wolf, of course, is thinking, "Like I’m really going to eat fried potatoes instead of fresh Grandma." But he is flabbergasted by the delicious aroma of Grandmother’s sizzling latkes and spares both Red and Bubbe. Meanwhile, the hunter, hearing the strange, deep, growly sounds of a wolf shouting "gimmel, gimmel" ("win, win"), rushes into Granny’s house only to find the three enjoying a game of spinning the dreidel. N

Enid Davis wrote three story-plays for families of all ages to enjoy this holiday season - click the links for the full pdf:

The Latke Lad

Elijah and the Hanukkah Party

The Butcher's Hanukkah

Hanukkah books for holiday gift-giving

Enid Davis recommended Hanukkah books for children of all ages.

New this year:

• "Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise" (Kar-Ben, 2015) by Karen Fisman: This warm-hearted tale follows a family with different religions and traditions.

• "The Parakeet Named Dreidel" (Farrar, 2015) by Isaac Bashevis Singer: Pre-published in a collection, but now a stand-alone picture book, a parakeet named Dreidel plays matchmaker in this Hanukkah tale written by a master.

Picture Books, Preschool to Grade 2

• "Hoppy Hanukkah!" (Whitman, 2009) by Linda Glaser: Introduces the rituals of Hanukkah featuring two bunnies. Preschool - K.

• "Honeyky Hanukah" (Doubleday, 2014) by Woody Guthrie: A jaunty book based on a Guthrie song. Includes a rousing CD. Preschool - K.

• "Simon and the Bear: A Hanukkah Tale" (Disney/Hyperion, 2014) by Eric Kimmel: A near-sighted old lady mistakes a bear for the rabbi and the fun begins. Preschool to Grade 2.

• "The Hanukkah Mice" (Marshal Cavendish, 2008) by Steven Kroll: A family of mice enjoys Rachel's new dollhouse. Preschool-Grade 2.

• "I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel," (Scholastic, 2014) by Caryn Yacowitz: A humorous parody of the familiar song with fabulous illustrations. Ages 3+

Children, Grades 2-6

• "The Jar of Fools" (Holiday House, 2000) by Eric Kimmel, 56 pp. A foremost writer of Jewish children's literature, Kimmel has written many wonderful books. This work is based on the Jewish town of fools and retold for Hanukkah.

• "The Hungry Clothes and Other Jewish Folktales" (Sterling, 2006) by Peninnah Schram, reteller: Ms. Schram has written several other excellent collections of Jewish story collections. She is a well known storyteller.

• "The Diamond Tree: Jewish Tales from Around the World" (HarperCollins, 1991) by Howard Schwartz and Barbara Rush, retellers: Dr. Schwartz has retold several other collections of Jewish folktales for children. He is a famous folklorist and a retired professor.

Teens and Adults

• "The Classic Tales: 4,000 Years of Jewish Lore" (Jason Aronson, Inc., 1989) by Ellen Frankel, reteller.

• "Yiddish Folktales" (Schocken, 1988) by Beatrice Silverman Weinreich, editor.

In addition, Howard Schwartz has published many fine collections of Jewish folk and fairy tales for teens and adults. He is a famous folklorist and a retired professor.

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