A Mountain of Potatoes and a Damsel in Distress

The Eight Knights of Hanukkah – written by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Galia Bernstein
Holiday House, 2020

Yes, I know it’s not Hanukkah anymore, or perhaps it would be better to think of the timeline as not Hanukkah yet.  Purim has just ended and Pesach (Passover) is around the corner.  But it’s a good time to think about inviting the Eight Knights of Hanukkah to your home.  Their names are a mix of Anglo and Jewish tradition: Sir Alex, Sir Gabriel, Sir Margaret, Sir Julian, Sir Lily, Sir Henry, Sir Isabella, Sir Rugelach, and their memorable mother, Lady Sadie. Leslie Kimmelman’s humor is welcome, and so is her clear statement that gender roles restricting knighthood and heroism to males are just ridiculous. Galia Bernstein’s inventive illustrations bring medieval manuscripts up to date and make them ready to celebrate the Festival of Lights.

Like so many literary classics for children, the book opens with a map, introducing the village where our story takes place.  This not a metropolis; the landmarks listed include little more than a vegetable patch, a bakery, and some lettering indicating that “Here Be Dragon,” and “Hot Soup.” When Lady Sadie sends her eight adult children on a quest to save the last night of Hanukkah from “a dastardly dragon named Dreadful,” they are ready to succeed. Said Dragon has wrought havoc, everything from damaging a child’s dreidel to leaving a woman alone with a huge pile of potatoes ready to be peeled for latkes (potato pancakes), but no helpers available. Each person’s dilemma requires a solution which fits the category of mitzvah, a commandment, in this case, a good deed.  Some villagers are sick. Naturally, “Sir Julian, the fourth knight, performed the mitzvah of bringing chicken soup to the sick and keeping company with the lonely.” Throughout the book, there is a careful balance between humor and practical lessons about the obligations of the holiday and of Jewish life in general.

The pictures are just perfect for this story of a group of loyal Jewish knights and a dragon who turns out to be somewhat less terrifying that they would have predicted. Each knight is an individual, with carefully delineated features. Bernstein’s palette recalls a box of recently sharpened color pencils.  Piles of sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) are the same light brown as Sir Lily’s hair, while their red filling matches the roses climbing the trellis to Lady Sadie’s window in the castle. Each illuminated initial beginning a page contains an intricately drawn object: a rolling pin, a cat and dog, and, finally, a beautiful chanukiya (Hanukkah menorah). The book’s culminating feast, where the knights “exchanged tales of spectacular deeds and derring-do” is a truly communal event; multigenerational, multicultural, juggling and dreidel-spinning fun. There is even a young dragon trying out his skills.  A note at the end about “The Traditions of Hanukkah” points out that fulfilling mitzvot is a year-round process, so you can definitely start reading and sharing The Eight Knights of Hanukkah now.

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