Friday, September 23, 2016

Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf

The new picture book Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf by Greg Wolfe was brought to my attention by Rachel Kamin and Kathy Bloomfield during the 2016 Association of Jewish Libraries conference in Charleston, SC. They had some major concerns about the message it conveys to young readers, and they were so impassioned about it that I sat down with them to record their conversation. I later contacted author Greg Wolfe to invite his feedback, but to date have received no response.

Rachel Kamin is the Director of the Gray Cultural & Learning Center at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, IL. She is the Children's and Teens' Book Review Co-Editor for AJL Reviews, and a past Chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.

Rachel has left a review of Shmelf on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and GoodReads. Please read her review and add your own comments at those locations and/or here at The Book of Life.

Rachel reached out to Bloomsbury with her concerns about this book but the only response she received was that they “stand by the book as a celebration of Hanukkah and Jewish culture.”

Kathy Bloomfield is the Executive Assistant to the Clergy and Communications Manager at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Bethesda, MD. She is the President of AJL's Schools, Synagogues, and Centers Division, and a twice-past member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee. She is a book reviewer for AJL Reviews, and she blogs at

Kathy's and Rachel's comments are based upon the advance reader's copy received by Rachel in her capacity as AJL Reviews Co-Editor.



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Andria Rosenbaum said...

As a Jewish author, I'm so disappointed with Bloomsbury. This book disrespects Jewish tradition and culture, rather that celebrating our very rich and miraculous history.

Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum

A Grandma Like Yours/A Grandpa Like Yours,
Meg Goldberg On Parade

Steven Bernstein said...

What a wonderful podcast this week. I will reserve judgment about this particular book until after I have read it myself, but--in general--I find depictions of Hanukah as the Jewish Christmas to be highly insensitive. I find it so problematic that I insist on wishing people with whom I interact commercially during the month of December a "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays" so as not to perpetuate the equation of the two festivals. Thank you for this episode!

Joyce Levine said...

Wonderful podcast! I was particularly impressed by the point Rachel made that it was the elf and Santa who decided that Jewish kids need Christmas, despite the fact that the Jewish family was seen as happily enjoying their own holiday. Talk about religious insensitivity! When my own children were young, we had a neighbor who told them, "Santa said he couldn't come to your house, so he left your presents at my house." I was shocked by that well-meaning but perfectly ill-advised message. The book seems to convey that same sentiment of pity. Thank you, Rachel and Kathy, for speaking so eloquently about the issues this book brings up.

Lisa said...

Great interview! It is too bad that the author is not commenting so we can hear his thinking, but I assume he just thinks it is all in good fun, like a Hanukkah Harry skit on Saturday Night Live. I guess the difference is that little children are involved and the not so subtle message to them is...try to get your piece of the secular majority culture and you will be happier.

It is possible that children will feel more included this way, because this is the way I was raised by my secular Jewish parents, who did not want me to feel left out. But in my case, upon reaching my teens, I figured out who I was and actually blamed my parents for choosing that route and accused them of lack of pride in our Jewish heritage. They agreed with me that it was just a stupid thing to do and that their embrace of Christmas rituals (a tree, stockings, going to see Santa) was a lapse of their own parenting and they really had no excuse for it other than fear of their kids being left out of things. It was all strange, because most of our family friends were Jewish also.

So I understand some of the reasoning behind co-opting what are secular American rituals around the Christmas holiday, but they still are Christmas rituals and have nothing to do with the rich and rewarding rituals of Jewish life.