Author Pamela Ehrenberg’s charming new picture book called Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas celebrates siblings, diversity and the joyous role traditional food plays in different cultures, in this case Indian. With Hanukkah approaching as the story opens, an older brother narrator describes his younger sister Sadie’s penchant for climbing, even in the Indian supermarket. Fortunately, his version of the dreidel song succeeds in getting her to climb down. “I had a little dosa; I made it out of dal.” By page three readers learn the family is a blended one with an Indian mom and Caucasian dad. Rather than making latkes together, this family prepares dosas, a crispy pancake popular in South India that’s cooked in coconut oil. When everyone except a napping grandmother gets locked out as cousins arrive, Sadie’s climbing capability comes in handy. Colorful artwork complements this entertaining story and readers will easily smell the food cooking with each page turn. Recipes for dosas and the sambar served with it are also included.
How did the seed of this multicultural Hanukkah story begin to germinate?
In one way, it began from the recipe: my kids and I were trying to make dosas and found that some aspects reminded us of making latkes for Hanukkah. But it had really begun earlier, when I first realized that Tot Shabbat, way down in the basement of our synagogue, was the most diverse part of our congregation, but this diversity wasn’t yet reflected in the Jewish books I saw. PJ Library had been making similar observations and had begun taking steps to address this—which dovetailed well with the timing of my submission to them.
What theme/s did you want to share?
So, one of the best things about finishing an English degree is realizing that you no longer have to identify themes in books! But I’d say that one set of themes relates to siblings’ having a special way to simultaneously annoy each other and also be each others’ most reliable partners in life. And another set of themes has to do with the exciting transformations I’ve seen in the Jewish community since I was growing up: specifically the idea that there’s no longer a right and wrong way to look/eat/celebrate “Jewish.”
As a child, do you recall your family having a favorite Hanukkah tradition? Have you got one now?
We did the “usual” fun stuff—candles, presents, and my dad always sang an especially spirited Ma O’tzur. But, you know, as an only child who didn’t become especially close with my cousins until adulthood, I often had a sense on Hanukkah and other holidays that we were doing it wrong, that our family of three wasn’t living up to the ideal of large family celebrations. Maybe that relates to one of the book’s themes—that there isn’t a wrong way to go about this.
As an adult, my favorite Hanukkah song is one that wasn’t composed as a Hanukkah song but an “outtake” I discovered on a Fiddler on the Roof CD—the show originally included a funny but powerful song called “When Messiah Comes” that didn’t make it into the final version. The message of “We’re still here” resonates for me in our current era, where swastikas appear in middle schools and white supremacists rally openly in Charlottesville and elsewhere. The light from the Hanukkah candles is an annual reminder of the strength that we’ve handed down, one generation to the next, for thousands of years.
Some blended families celebrate non-Jewish holidays in addition to Hanukkah. Would the Jewish and Indian family in your book? Do you think children get confused?
I actually posted that question on Facebook and Twitter on Diwali, wondering if Sadie’s family celebrates that holiday too, and if they might incorporate any traditionally “Jewish” foods into that celebration. I’m guessing that they might. The only source of confusion to me is how such a cute little toddler can possibly wreak so much havoc, no matter which holiday is involved!
The illustrations show the Indian Grandma involved in festivities. What are your thoughts on in-laws who won’t celebrate holidays other than their own?
When my late husband and I first got married, my new father-in-law gave us a wonderful book called Two Jews Can Still Be a Mixed Marriage. I don’t think the term “mixed marriage” is used anymore, but before that I’d naively thought that by marrying someone Jewish, I’d be avoiding all possible sources of conflict around holidays. Of course, even families where everyone is Jewish can face issues around “do we build a Sukkah/take off work on the second day of Rosh Hashanah/give the kids presents for 8 nights of Hanukkah”—and when in-laws get involved, there can be issues of whose home is kosher enough, who hosts the Seder, etc. I don’t have experience with in-laws other than my own, but I imagine that family members of all faiths and cultures have a wide range of experiences in terms of adapting holiday traditions (or not) and getting on board with new traditions to varying degrees.
Your story focuses on food and togetherness rather than presents. Does the expectation of getting gifts diminish the joy of Hanukkah and its meaning?
Your question actually sent me back to the original sketches for the book, because I thought I remembered that in the scene when the cousins arrive, they had presents with them. It turns out that in the original sketches, there were two items that could have been either giftwrapped presents or suitcases—in the final version, which was transformed to one suitcase. (Of course, one can happily imagine that the suitcase is full of presents!) My kids have always enjoyed the experience of giving gifts to others, so as long as there’s some giving mixed in with the getting, I don’t worry too much about loss of joy/meaning. But I do think that a focus on togetherness can help with an even-keeled approach to happiness, avoiding over-extravagant highs or crashing lows that may be a bit much for many of us at any age.
Is there any reason why the book is ambiguous about whether or not the Indian mother of the story is Jewish?
That was actually on purpose, since the story would work equally well if the family is interfaith or if the mom became Jewish either before or after her marriage. PJ Library encouraged me to leave it open to interpretation, while also being specific for the still-to-be-determined illustrator which parent had grown up with which background. There’s one sentence that we reworked about a dozen times to land on “Indian food that my mom ate as a kid for a Jewish holiday that my dad grew up with.”
Ehrenberg’s Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas and Tu B’Shvat Planting Parsley books are PJ Library selections for our community.
This actually is a joyous season if you don’t get caught up in the frenzy and just go with the beauty and some absurdity that Christmas casts at this time and just retreat to your home and light our lights and spin the driedels and gather with family to recount the story of Hanukkah and the imbedded hope that we can all live peacefully enjoying our varied beliefs.
Ronna Mandel is a a contributing writer to JLife. You can find her blog at goodreadswithronna.com.