Welcome back to another installment of Bookster’s 5×5! With the holidays right around the corner, we’ve gathered five wonderful Jewish writers to talk about Hanukkah, inspiration, and representation.
Meet the Authors:
Leslie Kimmelman has long been associated with Sesame Workshop, both as a writer and editor. She is the author of more than three dozen children’s books, including The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah and Write On, Irving Berlin! (which were both Sydney Taylor Notable Books), and the Sydney Taylor Honor Book Everybody Says Shalom. The Eight Knights of Hanukkah is her most recent picture book. She lives in the New York City area.
Stacey Agdern is an award-winning former bookseller who has reviewed romance novels in multiple formats and given talks about various aspects of the romance genre. She’s a proud romance writer, who incorporates Jewish characters and traditions into her stories so that people who grew up as she had can see themselves take center stage on the page. She lives in New York, not far from her favorite hockey team’s practice facility. Her most recent release, Miracles and Menorahs, is a contemporary romance published by Tule Publishing.
Howard Eisenburg is a ninety-four-Year-old author of The Amazing Adventures of Super Dreidel. His writing career began at eighteen in a US-occupied SS barracks at the end of WWII as editor of his unit’s mimeographed Company K Rifleman. Over the years, he has written six books, a musical, and hundreds of major magazine articles, often with his late wife, Arlene.
1. What inspires you most when writing?
Adam Cole: I’m spurred by the need to solve some kind of problem. In my non-fiction, it’s answering a question that’s never been answered, or could be answered better. And in my fiction, it’s a story or character I imagine seeing in print and then have to make reality.
Leslie Kimmelman: I usually have a musical soundtrack while I’m writing. Music always sets the mood. Also I have a beautiful view from where I sit at my computer, into the yard behind my house. These days there are frequently animal visitors- birds, rabbits, groundhogs, deer, even a coyote!- roaming around. In general, though, I get inspiration from reading the books of other authors. Nothing is more fun than coming upon a new idea, or even just a new word or interesting turn of phrase.
Bob Alper: The common, ordinary and extraordinary happenings that surround me, which is why my first book. Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This, bears the subtitle The Holiness of Little Daily Dramas. The title was chosen in reaction to seeing my then twelve-year-old son comfort his eight-year-old sister when she unexpectedly became homesick. as my wife and I were about to depart following a summer camp family day. An unexpected moment that I call holy. Or my story of a friend/restaurant owner who shared how he dissolved in tears when a visiting nun, who worked at an orphanage when he, an infant, was there decades earlier, smiled and said, simply, “Why, then. I held you.” Or the chapter about Elizabeth Badt, whose funeral I officiated to which not a single person came.
Stacy Agdern: I have a playlist that I listen to for each project I write . Putting that playlist together is an integral part of my writing process, and I choose each song because of the emotions I want to evoke in the story. As I write, the playlist changes to reflect the scenes and the story and it helps me focus :).
Howard Eisenburg: The same thing that inspires a singer when she’s performing or a quarterback when he throws a touchdown pass. We all love applause; being loved and appreciated. We love good stories and good storytellers, too. The first writing I ever did was at eighteen. That was (wow!) seventy-six years ago when WWII ended in Germany and my commanding officer discovered I’d had two years of college. “Private Eisenberg,” he ordered, “write me a newspaper. It’ll be good for morale.” The Germans had left a mimeograph machine in the barracks we occupied, and that’s how the “Company K Rifleman” was born and- I didn’t know it then- so was a writing career.
2. What’s your favorite part of Hanukkah/the holidays?
Adam Cole: I’ve come to love the candles. Something about the light drives away the darkness that has gotten deeper for me over the years, even as the light has gotten brighter. Well, okay, I love the latkes too.
Leslie Kimmelman: For me, the best part of Hanukkah is its simplicity. It’s hard to beat the simple beauty of small flames lighting the darkness. Then add the metaphor: even a single candle can shine out and make a difference. In The Eight Knights of Hanukkah, that’s what I focused on; that small acts of kindness (they don’t have to involve chasing dragons!) are within everyone’s reach.
Close second: crispy latkes, nice and hot, with homemade applesauce.
Bob Alper: A page in my cartoon book, “A Rabbi Confesses,” say it all! It depicts my wife and me sitting before a TV, with me saying to her, “One of the joys of the winter holiday is listening to the TV anchors trying to pronounce Cha-nu-kah.”
Stacy Agdern: One of the things I love the most is that quite a few of the holidays celebrated around this time involve a concentration on “light and miracles.” Light in the darkest times is a theme I gravitate towards, especially when the way we celebrate is different this year. It’s a theme I definitely focused on in ”Miracles and Menorahs.”
Howard Eisenburg: Well, it used to be getting down on the floor and spinning dreidels for pennies with my cousins, but nowadays it would take a crane and a derrick to get me back on my feet. So the favorite part of Hanukkah for me was writing The Amazing Adventures of Super Dreidel, with the rhymed story divided so it can be read in eight nights. It’s fun to do that with the whole family (the ones who can read anyway) taking turns reading. And it’s my first WRITE YOUR OWN ENDING book so near the end, as a huge elephant is about to flatten Rachel and Randy, there are two blank pages for young readers to become writers and create their own endings.
3. What’s something you wish more people knew about Hanukkah?
Adam Cole: There’s a great story that Hillel and Shammai got into an argument. Shammai thought we should start with eight candles and light one fewer each night, because the oil ran out over the course of eight days. But we follow the opposite advice of Hillel, who recommended that we increase our joy by adding candles instead.
Leslie Kimmelman: It’s NOT a Jewish Chistmas! When I was a kid, friends were jealous because we had eight whole nights of gifts. But we didn’t. In my family growing up- and it’s a tradition I continued with my own kids- gift-giving was extremely modest. We also make sure to donate during Hanukkah to causes that are important to us. Hanukkah to me, is small and intimate. I think if it’s presented as a holiday with its own customs and traditions, as something completely different from Christmas rather than as a competing holiday, kids will easily be able to access its magic.
Bob Alper: Do you have a couple of hours? Yes, what I wish is that more people knew that the story of “the miracle of the day’s supply of eternal light oil that miraculously last eight days” is a Jewish version of Santa Claus. In other words, to use a current term, it’s fake news. Problem is, plenty of Jews, including adults, think it’s part of Jewish historical teaching, which they quietly (and logically) reject, and which then makes them feel like they must be outsiders. Imagine a Christian adult who was never clearly told that Santa is not real. Many adult Jews are in that weird boat re: the Chanukah “miracle.”
Here’s the historical background: In 164 BCE, a group of Jewish zealots, the Maccabees, defeated the occupying Syrian Greeks and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem. (The word Chanukah means “dedication.”) End of story. Centuries later, now under Roman domination, the rabbis realized it wouldn’t be a such great idea to celebrate that victory (might annoy the Romans) so they made up a legend (let me repeat that: they made up a LEGEND) about a “miracle” of oil for the eternal light that lasted not one but eight days.
Stacy Agdern: Hanukkah is not as religiously significant as people think it is. For me, it’s definitely a holiday of identity, one that allows Jews and Jewish culture to take center stage in a cultural way that we normally don’t get the chance to. Stories, music and songs are given equal space and time because of other holidays going on. Each time I can walk into a store and purchase a light-up sweater or some random character holding a dreidel, I feel seen in a way that I don’t usually. And that, I feel at least is one of the miracles of Hanukkah.
Howard Eisenburg: When I wrote my book I forgot to include Rachel and Randy’s design plans for building a Super Dreidel. All I said was…
THEY HAMMERED AND SAWED
THEY SCREWED AND THEY DRILLT.
WHEN THEY FINISHED THEY CRIED
“WOW! LOOK WHAT WE’VE BUILT!
If I’d remembered to put their Superdreidel plans in, everyone who reads the book would be able to build a Superdreidel of their own and then fly back a few thousand years to help the Maccabees win the war. (That is, if their parents let them go.) It’s unfortunate that Hanukkah falls so close to Christmas. It deserves more respect than it gets when too many people just think of it as the holiday when they give their children presents so they won’t be envious of their Christian friends at Christmas. (Of course, long ago when I was a kid, that was fine with me.) But the Maccabee story has always been an inspiration and we never tire of hearing it told, whether in prose or (my version) in rhyme.
4. What’s something you hope to write about in the future?
Adam Cole: I’m currently in the middle of several fantasy and mystery series, which I am writing concurrently. It’s my desire to finish all of them. That’s not for me to decide.
Leslie Kimmelman: I try not to jinx it… I have two new books coming out in the spring, part of an early reader series about a bat and sloth who are friends. Then, in the fall, is The Ghouls’ Guide to Good Grammar, which makes my nerdy heart happy. I am hoping to sink my teeth into nonfiction next and I have a couple of ideas I’m playing around with.
Bob Alper: I’ve written two books about ordinary people and events. If I write a third, I’ll continue that path, which I love.
Stacy Agdern: More jewish joy. There are so many stories that I’d love to write about characters getting the chance to take center stage, all wrapped in Jewish joy :).
Howard Eisenburg: I am working on my memoir about writing with my beloved late wife Arlene, called A Typewriter Built For Two. I also have a play called Million Dollar Bet, and a dating book for people fifty and over that I wrote, It’s Never Too Late To Date, is being re-released!
5. What are your thoughts on the representation of Hanukkah in literature?
Adam Cole: I find that a lot of Jewish children’s books are fairly tame. The goal of educating Jewish children on our traditions seems to take precedence over interesting writing. I’m hoping, with my Isaac series, to change the landscape a little.
Leslie Kimmelman: There are so many terrific Hanukkah books now; that wasn’t true until fairly recently. That lack of books is what led me to writing Jewish books in the first place; my first one was called Hanukkah Lights, Hanukkah Nights, and it was just a basic introduction to the holiday for very young kids. The books available now run the gamut from humorous to serious, from telling about the holiday to stories that revolve around it but don’t explain it, fiction and nonfiction, for all ages. And with fabulous illustrations; the art in many of the old titles was so uninspiring. It is a whole lot easier to find great Hanukkah books for my grandson than it was to find them for my children.
Bob Alper: Not that interested, except for my own Chanukah stories.
Stacy Agdern: I think, especially in the romance genre, we’re getting more of it. I can actually point to a bunch of different titles- the 8 Kisses Anthology, Jennifer Gracen’s beautiful ‘Holidays in Manhattan, Penelope Peters’ Ben’s Bakery and the ‘Hanukkah Miracle, Elliott Cooper’s Hearts Alight, Xan West’s 8 Kinky nights- and I’m still not sure that I’ve gotten all of them. It’s wonderful that Jewish Romance authors are writing about Hanukkah in different ways, centering a whole bunch of different jewish experiences. I cannot wait to see what happens next :D.
Howard Eisenburg: We all love and admire heroes. We root for David to topple Goliath, Moses to lead his people out of Egyptian slavery, and Clark Kent to defeat Lex Luthor. The Greeks have their Oddysey and the Maccabees are right up there with the best of them.