Review: There Was a Young Rabbi: A Hanukkah Tale

There Was a Young Rabbi: A Hanukkah Tale by Suzanne Wolfe, illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Jeff Gottesfeld

Liberal Judaism merits as many excellent religious female role models as it can muster, and Wolfe and Ebbeler tell and depict the story of an versatile and knowledgeable one in this tale that takes readers from the first night of Hanukkah to the last. The heroine is a young female rabbi who brings her family along through the joys of the holiday, in energetic rhyme that will have kids reading along with whomever is recounting it to them, or reading it aloud on their own. All the highlights of Hanukkah are here -- latkes flying above the rabbi's stove top in a four-latke flip; the menorah lit by the rabbi and her son and daughter (all in kippot, mind you); the rabbi's ten-pound-at-least kosher brisket coming out of the oven; dreidel victories; visits from the mishpocha; a brief history lesson; and even the rabbi leining a Torah held open by two Jewish boys, one of whom is non-white. Wolfe admirably makes it clear that Hanukkah is not a Torah holiday, that the menorah in our windows is not the seven-branched one of the Temple, too, and also appeals to storied Talmudic legend, leaving the retelling of most Maccabee truths to parental discretion. Ebbeler's art is playful and expressive, with a wintertime theme that makes the indoor moments all the more inviting. In a word, charming.

This book meets every Sydney Taylor criteria. The writing is sprightly and fun, and so are the illustrations. There would be no story to tell but for its Jewish theme and content. For liberal Judaism, the depictions in the book are positive and accurate, as well as age appropriate. The author goes out of her way to differentiate the Hanukkah holiday from Torah holidays, and keeps her explanations clear through small boxed additions that do not affect her main text. Language is right for the intended age, too. With a female rabbi at its center, and a cast of illustrated characters that includes non-white and differently-abled children, there is sufficient diversity for the length and purpose.

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Reviewer Jeff Gottesfeld has won awards from the Jewish Book Council, American Library Association, the Writers Guild of America, and the National Council for the Social Studies. His The Tree in the Courtyard (Knopf, 2016) was a 2017 Sydney Taylor Notable book, and has been translated into eight languages. His most recent title is No Steps Behind (Creston, 2020), illustrated by Shiella Witanto, and praised by the Association of Jewish Libraries journal as “exceptional.” He is based in Los Angeles, California. Visit him at