The Curious Conflation of Hanukkah and the Holocaust in Jewish Children's Literature

Article excerpt

In recent years, a large number of Jewish children's books have twinned Hanukkah stories with Holocaust narratives. What brings these two groups of narratives together, and what meanings are provoked by their combination? In this article, I examine several children's selections, dating from 1990 to the present, through the lenses of memory studies and Bakhdnian literary criticism, focusing on three major themes: the interplay of trauma and nostalgia, the representation of intergenerational dialogue, and the use of literary artifacts to bridge time. I argue that the literary conflation of these two events results in an historical flattening, eliding the substantial differences between these two moments of persecution; at the same time, I attend to the sometimes quite complicated and evocative moments of memory provoked by this textual linking.

On a cold December night in 1993, a rock crashed sharply through a window in Billings, Montana. The window sheltered the bedroom of a young Jewish boy, Isaac Schnitzer, and the projectile rock comprised the latest incident in a string of local racist and anti-Jewish acts that coincided with Hanukkah, the Jewish "festival of lights." In a story that eventually received national media attention, die citizens of Billings rallied around Isaac and his family.1 They placed hanukkiyot - menorahs, the nine-branched candelabras that Jews light on this holiday - in their windows throughout the holiday season. Some of the menorahs were three-dimensional, while others were made of paper, often drawn by the children of the household. These gestures formed a powerful performance of interreligious solidarity. The story was so striking that it was eventually retold in Janice Cohn's picture book, The Christmas Menorahs: The Town that Fought Hate.2

In Cohn's account, a remarkable conflation occurs. Hanukkah and the Holocaust become cognate events. "Haters and bullies have been around for as long as anyone can remember," Isaac's father tells him. He then narrates the story of the Holocaust for his son, telling him an apocryphal tale about the king of Denmark and his brave actions in solidarity with Danish Jews during World War II.3 Later in the book, Isaac narrates "The Hanukkah Story" of the ancient Maccabees' military victory over the Syrian-Greeks, or Seleucids, for his friends at school. Both tales are illustrated in sepia, "flashback" tones, in contrast with the vivid hues of "today" found on the book's other pages.

"As long as anyone can remember." How long is that? Further, if the universal "hater and bully" really is eternal, ever-present, why select these two particular events together? Why does The Christmas Menorahs speak of Hanukkah and the Holocaust in the same breath? What kinds of meanings are created in this telling?

Below, I analyze this conflation of Hanukkah and the Holocaust in selected Jewish children's literature published since 1980. On one level, this combination is not remarkable. As Laura Levitt argues, the Holocaust has emerged as an overwhelming force in American Jewish lives and identities, sometimes eliding tales of "ordinary loss."4 At the same time, with Levitt, I contend that reading the Holocaust alongside other stories of American Jewish history - the experiences of those Jews who were not victims or survivors of the Holocaust - can open up new spaces of memory; indeed, this appears to be what is already occurring within many of the books on the market.5 This conflation - the telling of violent pasts, both Maccabean and European, alongside the telling of family histories and American Jewish holidays - leads to a unique ethical tension. The play of memory and time in Hanukkah literature can result in the elision of historical differences among diverse tales of persecution and in the domestication of violent narratives. Simultaneously, however, the flexibility of memory and nostalgia allows for a fanciful "time travel" that is narrated through intergenerational connections and representations of family artifacts. …