________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 1 . . . . September 1, 2006


The Lubavitchers Are Coming to Second Avenue: A Hanukkah Story.

Sharon Abron Drache. Illustrated by Jayne Lemon.
Ottawa, ON: L’Dor Vador Publications, 2006.
64 pp., pbk., $11.99.
ISBN 0-9732967-1-2.

Subject Headings:
Christmas stories, Canadian (English).
Hanukkah stories.

Grades 3-5 / Ages 8-10.

Review by Harriet Zaidman.

** /4


They ran to the living room window to watch for the Lubavitchers’ grand arrival.

One very beat-up yellow Ford stopped in front of our house, and two men in ordinary winter clothing, except for their old-fashioned black hats, walked up the path.

"Maybe they are the bodyguards for the Lubavitchers who will arrive in a few more minutes," Rachel said.

The Lubavitchers Are Coming to Second Avenue will be appreciated most successfully by children in an environment where Jewish customs are commonly discussed or practiced. It presumes an understanding or acceptance of traditions and stories about mystical characters from the history and religious teachings of Eastern European Jewry. It is not well written. The holiday of Hanukkah is only peripheral to the real content of the book, which is the recounting of Kabbalist tales. Ideas and issues are left undeveloped or unexplained.

     The story is set in 1978, in the Glebe, a neighbourhood in Ottawa, ON. The Bernstein family is the only Jewish family on the block. They celebrate Hanukkah while everyone else celebrates Christmas, complete with gifts and showy Christmas trees. The Bernstein children bake cinnamon buns for their friends, the Racines, and help them decorate their tree. While Davika Bernstein and Nicole Racine, both Grade 5 students, are fairly certain Santa Claus does not exist, they both hope there is a 'special someone' who will appear for each of their holidays. The story of Hanukkah is explained at the end of the book. Effectively, though, its only role in the plot is to give the girls the opportunity to hope for a supernatural visit.

     Davika's wish is answered with the appearance of two Lubavitchers, pious Jews who have come to reinforce observances and understanding among Jews. They sit the family down and begin to tell the story of the Besht, the founder of the Hasidic movement of Judaism. In a poof of smoke, the two Lubavitchers disappear, and the Besht, who lived from 1700 to 1760, appears before them. The Besht relates how he became known as the Baal Shem Tov, the master of names and worker of miracles. A circle of light surrounds the street, and the Racine family is invited in to hear the Besht's stories about Judaic mysticism and witness his magic.

     After the Besht returns to heaven, the Lubavitcher Jews reappear. The Racines are impressed by the Besht, and although he is not Santa Claus, he has made their own traditional holiday memorable.

     The complex stories from the Kabbalah refer to mystical teachings of rabbis who have studied and developed an esoteric interpretation of the Old Testament. Followers of Kabbalah believe that these rabbis are chosen to receive a revelation from God. The followers then propagate their teachings to succeeding generations. As with all mysticism or religion, Kabbalah presumes acceptance of the existence of God and the imperfect logic of miracles (“Don't ask any questions." direct the Lubavitchers).

     While the book does inform children about the Baal Shem Tov, the plot has many problems that should have been red-circled at the first draft stage.

     Many questions arise that are never answered. They include:

a. What does the mention of Canada's Parliament in the foreword and the "mysterious opportunity" it offers have to do with the story?

b. Why do the children expect the Lubavitchers to arrive in a limousine, only to see them arrive in a battered up yellow Ford?

c. Why does Mother boast that she has had four children in six years?

d. Why doesn't the family have the same standards of keeping kosher that would allow the Lubavitchers to accept Mother's offer of food?

e. Why is mother upset when the Lubavitchers give her and the children instructions?

f. Why does Father admire the Lubavitchers but is annoyed at their presence in his house?

     The narrative within the story prompts further questions. Why does the Besht stroke his beard and ignore Mr. Racine's comment that Jesus Christ must also have been a tsaddik, a righteous man to whom God had imparted special knowledge? And how many children will automatically know what a non-practicing Anglican priest is?

     Adults will understand some attempts at humour that many of the above questions contain. However, if this book is aimed at children, they should be explained or eliminated.

     The trade size paperback has watercolour illustrations by Jayne Lemon on the covers and black and white paintings inside. The black and white paintings invite some study, but the figures and scenes do not display much artistic sophistication.

     A glossary at the end of the book explains the many Hebrew, Yiddish and English words that are used in the text. There is some further information about the Besht, as well as a bibliography.

Recommended with reservations.

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.


To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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