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In New Picture Book, Family Adds A 'Ninth Night Of Hanukkah'

Dec 10, 2020
Originally published on December 14, 2020 11:56 am

Hanukkah is here, which means eight nights of eating latkes, spinning dreidels and lighting the menorah. Well, a new picture book makes a radical suggestion — a ninth night.

In Erica Perl's new children's book The Ninth Night of Hanukkah, Rachel and Max move into a new apartment with their parents. It's Hanukkah and they can't find the box that contains the family's menorah, dreidel and other supplies.

The Ninth Night of Hanukkah, by Erica S. Perl and Shahar Kober
Sterling Children's Books

"They're poised to have the worst Hanukkah ever," Perl tells NPR. "They're in a new apartment. They know no one, they can't find a single thing they need for the holiday, and the holiday has just begun."

So, Rachel and Max look to their new neighbors. None of them apparently celebrate Hanukkah, but the neighbors — brought to life in the book by illustrator Shahar Kober — jump to offer what they can.

"They end up with a box of birthday candles, for example, instead of Hanukkah candles, a bag of chocolate chips instead of chocolate gelt," Perl says. "And they cobble it together night after night with the help of their neighbors."

Then, just as the eight days of Hanukkah come to an end, Rachel and Max find their missing box — and they have an idea.

"They see an opportunity," Perl says. "Basically, they realize that Hanukkah has ended. The eighth night has passed, but they look at their menorah, their Hanukkiah, and they realize that there's this candle that has been helping every single night, the shamash candle, that's the one that lights the other candles — just like their neighbors have helped them. And so they want to say thank you to their neighbors and thank you to the Shamash and kind of give a special night to those who help."

Interview Highlights

On how she came up with the idea of a night to honor the helper, the worker, the one who makes everything else happen

Well, you know, my kids were actually the inspiration for this book. They, like many kids, are attuned to injustice. And so they call it out when they see it. And one year we were celebrating Hanukkah and they said, you know, it's just not fair that the shamash candle works every single night and never gets to be the center of attention. And that struck me as strange and funny and also kind of, the more I thought about it, relevant, meaningful. So I started working on it.

From The Ninth Night of Hanukkah, by Erica S. Perl and Shahar Kober
Shahar Kober / Sterling Children's Books

On the idea of recognizing the helpers and workers and also of improvising when holiday traditions are not what you planned

Obviously it's a really challenging time. It's a really hard time. But so many people have stepped up in little ways and big ways without fanfare to help each other. And so the message of the book feels more relevant than ever in this time when we really are realizing that helping isn't just nice, it's necessary to our happiness and our survival.

On the Hebrew word dayenu, which means enough — and whether eight days is enough

I think it's a beautiful night for Jews and for non-Jews to come together and to realize how nice it is to light candles and to connect across the season. And if we need an extra night to say thank you to those who have helped, they certainly deserve it. So I'm not going to say dayenu quite yet. I'm just going to, you know, thank the helpers in my life, of which there are many.

From The Ninth Night of Hanukkah, by Erica S. Perl and Shahar Kober
Shahar Kober / Sterling Children's Books

On suggestions for starting a new nighth night tradition

Well, it's really easy. And the beautiful part about this is it works very well on Zoom even if we can't physically be together and light candles together, even saying the words, just telling someone what they've meant to you and how they've helped you is really an incredible thing to do. And with kids, you can draw pictures and make cards and share them with people who have helped you. And the cool thing is that in that way, you also get to be like the shamash, too, because you're sharing your light in the same way that people have shared theirs with you. It's reciprocal.

On advice for celebrating in a year when traditional expecations may not be met

Yeah, I think that for me, I'm kind of a problem-solving person. And so I think that there's opportunity in this moment to try things [in] a new way. I mean, people saw this at Thanksgiving when they were not doing their traditional get together, doing the safer and smarter things. And some very exciting new traditions came out of that. People who decided 'I never like turkey, I'm going to have something else.' So this Hanukkah, it's going to be different for all of us. But there might be some amazing new traditions for your family that you can carry into next year, when hopefully we'll be together.

Justine Kenin edited and Sam Gringlas produced this interview for radio. Meghan Sullivan edited and produced for the web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hanukkah is here, which means eight nights of eating latkes, spinning dreidels and lighting the menorah. Well, a new picture book makes a radical suggestion - a ninth night. Erica Perl is the author of "The Ninth Night Of Hanukkah," and she joins us now.

Welcome.

ERICA PERL: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with the story of this children's book. Rachel and Max move into a new apartment with their parents. It's Hanukkah. They can't find the box that has the family's menorah, dreidel and other stuff. So what do they do?

PERL: Well, they're poised to have the worst Hanukkah ever. They're in a new apartment. They know no one. And they can't find a single thing they need for the holiday, and the holiday has just begun. But as it turns out, all around them are neighbors. And they start reaching out and find that even though apparently no one that they meet in their building celebrates Hanukkah, there are generous people who can offer them sort of stand-in items.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, that's key. The people helping them out are not sharing a menorah or a latke recipe. These are people who might not even be familiar with the holiday at all.

PERL: Correct. So they end up with a box of birthday candles, for example, instead of Hanukkah candles, a bag of chocolate chips instead of chocolate gelt. And they cobble it together night after night with the help of their neighbors.

SHAPIRO: And so at the end of this week of improvising and making do, the kids come up with a plan to thank their neighbors for all their help. And this changes thousands of years of tradition.

PERL: (Laughter) Kind of. I mean, we respect all that. But they see an opportunity. Basically, they realize that Hanukkah has ended. The eighth night has passed. But they look at their menorah, their Hanukkiah, and they realize that there's this candle that has been helping every single night - the shamash candle. It's the one that lights the other candles and - just like their neighbors have helped them. And so they want to say thank you to their neighbors and thank you to the shamash and kind of give a special night to those who help.

SHAPIRO: How did you come up with the idea of a night to honor the helper, the worker, the one who makes everything else happen?

PERL: Well, you know, my kids were actually the inspiration for this book. They - like many kids, they are attuned to injustice, and so they call it out when they see it. And one year we were celebrating Hanukkah, and they said, you know, it's just not fair that the shamash candle works every single night and never gets to be the center of attention. And that struck me as strange and funny and also kind of, the more I thought about it, relevant, meaningful. So I started working on it.

SHAPIRO: I know you wrote this before the pandemic, but this idea of recognizing the helpers and the workers and also the improvising when holiday traditions are not what you planned - they both seem particularly relevant.

PERL: Yeah, it's been kind of amazing. It's a nice - you know, obviously, it's a really challenging time. It's a really hard time. But so many people have stepped up in little ways and big ways, you know, without fanfare to help each other. And so the message of the book - it feels more relevant than ever in this time when we really are realizing that helping isn't just nice. It's necessary to our happiness and our survival.

SHAPIRO: Another Hebrew word that some people might be familiar with is dayenu, which means enough. Isn't eight days enough? Do we really need to add a ninth?

PERL: Well, I mean, I personally feel that, you know, you can have latkes night after night after night, and they just don't get old. I think it's a beautiful night for Jews and for non-Jews to come together and to realize how nice it is to light candles and to connect across the season. And if we need an extra night to say thank you to those who have helped, they certainly deserve it. So I'm not going to say dayenu quite yet. I'm just going to...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

PERL: ...You know, thank the helpers in my life, of which there are many.

SHAPIRO: So if people do want to start a new ninth night tradition, what are your suggestions?

PERL: Well, it's really easy. And the beautiful part about this is it works very well on Zoom or with, you know - even if we can't physically be together and light candles together, we can - just even saying the words, just telling someone what they've meant to you and how they've helped you is really an incredible thing to do. Writing a note - and, you know, with kids, you can draw pictures and make cards and share them with people who have helped you. And the cool thing is that, in that way, you also get to be like the shamash, too, because you're sharing your light in the same way that people have shared theirs with you. It's reciprocal.

SHAPIRO: And if, like the kids in this book, your holiday tradition this year is not what you planned or expected, do you have any advice for celebrating anyway?

PERL: Yeah. I think that - for me, I'm kind of a problem-solving person. And so I think that there's opportunity in this moment to try things a new way. I mean, people saw this at Thanksgiving when they were, you know, not doing their traditional get-together, doing the safer and smarter things. And some very exciting new traditions came out of that - people who decided, you know, I never liked Turkey. I'm going to have something else. So this Hanukkah - it's going to be different for all of us, but there might be some amazing new traditions for your family that you can carry into next year when, hopefully, we'll be together.

SHAPIRO: Erica Perl is the author of the new children's picture book "The Ninth Night Of Hanukkah," with illustrations by Shahar Kober. Thank you for talking with us, and happy Hanukkah.

PERL: Happy Hanukkah to you, Ari. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.