This year Hanukkah begins at sundown on Tuesday, December 16.
Do you, like me, dream of seeing a friend or family member unplug whatever glowing device they are usually staring into long enough to get lost in a good story or be wowed by exploring something longer than a BuzzFeed list? With Hanukkah gift-giving just ahead, here are some suggestions that might do the trick.
Many of these are available at the Spertus Shop, where purchases support programming relating to Jewish learning and leadership.
In a review full of praise, The New York Times called Lev Golinkin's A Backpack, a Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka, a "hilarious and heartbreaking story of a Jewish family's escape from oppression." With biting humor and a sly take on international politics, family relations, and human nature, Golinkin's memoir tackles two trips, his 1989 childhood emigration from Kharkov, Ukraine to West Lafayette, Indiana, and his 2011 journey back on a quest to find and thank the people who'd provided his family with love, support, and the means to escape.
Another view of Jewish life in the region from which Golinkin's family fled, albeit a couple of centuries earlier, is provided in the Pulitzer-nominated The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern. In it, Petrovsky-Shtern, the Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies at Northwestern University and a member of the Spertus faculty, draws on a wealth of never-before-used archival material to challenge the popular notion of the shtetl as a ramshackle Jewish village stricken by poverty and pogroms. Instead, this colorful and pathbreaking social history argues, in its heyday (a period from the 1790s to the 1840s), the shtel provided a bustling economic, intellectual, and religious community where Jews thrived.
Where did the image of the poor, backward, tradition-bound shtetl come from? One obvious answer is Fiddler on the Roof, this year marking its 50th anniversary. Adapted from the tales of Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem and set in Tsarist Russia in 1905, Fiddler turns the fictional village of Anatevka into the setting of one of the greatest American musicals, a theater piece that resonates around the world. Give the theater-lover in your life collectors' hardcover edition of the script by Joseph Stein, complete with the lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Or give a gift pack of Fiddler and the The Golden Age Shtetel for a yin and yang look at Jewish history.
A totally different entrée into Jewish history is offered up in On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals, and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao. In it, Rabbi Deborah Prinz combines her love of chocolate with her passion for travel and talent for archival sleuthing, sharing a journey that begins when she reads that Jews brought chocolate to France. Is it true? Read to find out.
Two other great gifts this year have to do with food.
My favorite gift book last year was Jerusalem: A Cookbook (recently awarded Best International Cookbook by the James Beard Foundation and still a great gift choice). Jerusalem-born, London-based chef and restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi is back with gorgeous vegetarian cookbook called Plenty More. Recipes range from Apple and Celery Root Salad to Fig and Goat Cheese Tart.
Eating Delancey, by Aaron Rezney and Jordan Schaps with an introduction by Joan Rivers, is a photo-filled compilation of classic Jewish food with profiles and recipes from classic Lower East Side eateries such as Sammy's Roumanian Steakhouse, Russ & Daughters Appetizers, Katz's Delicatessen, Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery, and Ratner's. Bette Midler, Jackie Mason, Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Don Rickles, Fyvush Finkel, Isaac Mizrahi, Lou Reed, Arthur Schwartz, and Milton Glaser wax nostalgic throughout the book.
Favorite Hanukkah book for kids this year? Woody Guthrie: Honeyky Hanukah, in which joyful pictures by Dave Horowitz bring to life a little-known Guthrie tune inspired by his mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. It comes with its own CD of the Grammy-winning Klezmatics performing the featured song.