8/9/14

Candlelight for Rebecca

Published in 2009; author Jacqueline Debmar Greene; illustrators Robert Hunt and Susan McAliley

Plot

Winter brings conflicting emotions for Rebecca. She loves Hanukkah, but so much of the city around her is getting ready for Christmas. She sees menorahs all around her neighborhood, but at school the teacher leads the class in making a Christmas centerpiece (greenery around a red candle), and says that Christmas is something all Americans celebrate, not just Christians. Her father puts some evergreen boughs in his shop and her mother thinks Christmas decorations are pretty for other people, but her grandmother scolds her for singing "Jingle Bells"--Rebecca dares not mention that in class they sing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." She's helping her sisters make gifts for people because they reason if their Christian friends exchange gifts in December they can too, but their father says they already have the best gift in the form of religious freedom. Is she supposed to celebrate Christmas because she lives in the United States? It it okay to enjoy some parts of it? Does doing either mean she's neglecting her Jewish heritage?

She also has a new responsibility: the property manager, Mr. Rossi, is ill, so Rebecca tends to his pigeons keeps on the apartment roof--including a homing pigeon who brings messages--and his cat, Pasta, who has just had two kittens. Mr. Rossi lives alone in his drab apartment and doesn't like children, but he grudgingly accepts Rebecca's help.

But back at school, the centerpiece is giving Rebecca grief. She's made a beautiful one, but what is she supposed to do with it? One Jewish classmate, Gertie, is giving it to her mother. Their family doesn't celebrate Christmas but does like to put up some Christmas decorations. Her other Jewish classmate, Rose, is going to toss hers in the trash. Her family doesn't do anything Christmas related. Rebecca thinks her parents would react the same way, but she feels bad wasting such a beautiful thing, especially the generously donated candle. She tries to sneak it home to ask her mother's counsel, but her grandmother sees her first. Rebecca apologizes profusely, explaining that it was a school project. Her grandmother stops her, saying she would never be angry at Rebecca for doing well with her schoolwork, and complimenting the centerpiece. She's not sure what to do with it either, but says they'll figure that out later and has Rebecca help her make latkes for Hanukkah.

Then Rebecca goes to get the animals' food from Mr. Rossi. She's also been bringing him homemade soup to help him get well, and he's warmed up to her enough to tell her that the message the homing pigeon brought was from his brother in New Jersey, inviting him to Christmas dinner. Rebecca comments that New Jersey isn't very far, and Mr. Rossi brightens a bit, saying he could go if Rebecca tends to his animals. He even lets Rebecca attach a note for the homing pigeon to carry to his brother! She happily completes the errand, and on her way to return the bird seed buckets, her sisters stop her, imploring her to try on her fancy dress she wore for Jewish New Year (Rosh Hoshanah, which falls in September). She thinks they're teasing her because she's outgrown it, but they insist and reveal that for her Hanukkah present they've let it out so it fits her now. 

Inspired by her sister's generosity, Rebecca grabs the centerpiece on her way out. She gives it to Mr. Rossi, who is very touched. In turn, he presents Rebecca with gorgeous blue and white glass candlesticks that had belonged to his late wife. She gets back to her apartment just in time for cousins to arrive for the first night of Hanukkah.


Looking Back

The historical section is about the origins of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish celebration commemorating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish people had been oppressed and their culture nearly wiped out by the Seleucids (a Hellenistic state), and overthrew them in the Maccabean Revolt in the second century BC. When the reclaimed the Temple, there was hardly enough oil to light the sacred lamp, which was supposed to burn continuously. It was an eight-day round trip to get more, but the little bit of oil lasted the whole time, a symbol that God was indeed on their side.

For most of history and in much of the world, Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday. But in America it gained more prominence. It's celebrated near Christmas, which is a federal as well as Christian holiday (in fact, it was more secular than religious when the US was founded, and most Christians didn't celebrate it in churches for the first few decades; Christmas itself was minor holiday for the first few centuries of Christianity). More so in Rebecca's time than today, celebrating Christmas was considered part of being American. Some non-Christians went along with Christmas, just as today, but others weren't comfortable with even the secular parts of it. They wanted to honor their own cultural traditions, and so for many Jewish people Hanukkah got a greater emphasis than it had previously, and became more associated with gift-giving.


Misc

This book is dedicated to "my aunts and uncles, who made every holiday memorable."

I know that there are different ways to spell Hanukkah, because the Jewish alphabet is different from the Latin alphabet. I'm using the spelling the book does.

In 1914, Hanukkah ran from December 14 to 20.

When Mr. Rossi gives Rebecca a dish of milk for his cat, I'm reminding of Mary Anne's warning way back in Mary Anne and the Search for Tigger that cats don't digest milk well.

Sadie says that Christmas is the most important holiday for Christians. Easter is supposed to be, but with all the pomp and circumstance around Christmas it's easy to see why some people consider Christmas more important. And I have to admit, I like Christmas a lot more!

Rebecca's gifted at math.

One of my mom's good friends is Jewish, and out of respect for her religion my mom doesn't include her on the Christmas card list. But she also doesn't want to leave her friend out. Conveniently, her friend's birthday is in December, so Mom makes her a fancy birthday card and includes the Christmas newsletter in it.

Even though this book is about Hanukkah and not Christmas, it still makes me excited for Christmas. I love giving gifts, and I just recently finished a few more. Plus, I love snowflakes and candlelight for decoration. 

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