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Not your ordinary Hanukkah book

Sunday, December 9th, 2012 | Posted by | no responses

(Illustration by Joelle Burnette)

By NICOLE R. ZIMMERMAN / Cotati and Rohnert Park Correspondent

As a Jewish mom, Joelle Burnette knows about the limited selection of Hanukkah books available each holiday season.

She also knows what it’s like to be one of the few Jewish kids in a school that only acknowledges Christmas.

“I remember what it felt like to be out of place,” she says. “When I’d tell other kids that I celebrated Hanukkah they’d reply, ‘But you believe in Santa, don’t you?’ ”

To prevent her son and daughter from experiencing the same alienation, Burnette began hosting Hanukkah parties in her children’s classes from the time they were in preschool, and continued through the fifth grade.

A Hanukkah menorah illustrated by Joelle Burnette.

Each year, she shared Hanukkah stories and music, brought a selection of menorahs and passed out gelt (chocolate coins) with dreidels for each child to play. She even made latkes (potato pancakes) for half the school.

Burnette, who taught the art enrichment program “Meet the Masters” at Gold Ridge Elementary, where her son—now a student at Tech High—attended school, also led Hanukkah art projects and other grade-level activities at the parties.

What started as a fun way to expose non-Jewish children to the holiday turned into an opportunity to teach tolerance, she says.

That experience inspired the 47-year-old author of “Cancer Time Bomb” to publish her e-book “Freedom Doesn’t Just Come Along with a Tree” last December. The paperback edition, illustrated with her acrylic paintings, came out this fall.

A twist on the classic Night Before Christmas, the rhyming story is told in the voice of a young boy who is the only Jewish child in a classroom adorned with Christmas decorations.

“As a parent, I really wanted something that focuses on how a kid feels when they’re set apart.”

The boy’s mother, like Burnette, breaks that isolation by hosting a school party.

Both the electronic and paperback versions include Burnette’s latke recipe. The new edition also has instructions for playing dreidel, as well as Hanukkah activities such as several ways to make a menorah—the Jewish candelabrum.

Hanukkah, meaning “dedication,” commemorates the victory of the Maccabees—Jewish resistance fighters who opposed Emperor Antiochus’ ruling in the 2nd century B.C. that Jewish observance was an offense punishable by death.

To purify and rededicate the holy temple in Jerusalem, the Jews burned ritual oil. Although there was only enough for one day, the oil miraculously lasted for eight.

Jewish families celebrate the Festival of Lights by frying foods in oil and lighting a menorah during each night of Hanukkah. One candle is lit on the first night, two on the second, and so on.

Burnette’s emphasis is cultural, rather than religious, but her book uses the story of Hanukkah as a lesson on freedom:

“How would you like it if someone demanded:
‘Toss customs aside. That’s what’s commanded!
You can’t celebrate Christmas or look for Kris Kringle.
You can’t exchange presents, drink eggnog, sing carols!’ ”

A strong proponent of the separation between church and state, Burnette actually believes religion should be kept out of schools.

“When homework is Christmas-related, it’s off-putting,” she says. “But if you’re going to push that in school, you should give equal time to other traditions.”

Her intention isn’t to impose Jewish beliefs but to promote awareness and diversity of the holiday celebrations.

The print edition includes supplemental fourth- and fifth-grade curricular ideas that teach tolerance and empathy. The lessons encourage students to consider what it’s like for others in the world who can’t observe their own traditions.

“I really want the book to open the eyes, minds and hearts of the children who read it. And if it helps a lone Jewish child feel empowered and not alone in a classroom focused on Christmas, the story accomplishes its goal.”

You can find “Freedom Doesn’t Just Come Along with a Tree” ($9.99 paperback and $4.99 e-book) at the following locations: Copperfield’s Books in Santa Rosa, Petaluma and HealdsburgReaders’ Books in SonomaAmazon.com;  joelleburnette.com.

Look for Joelle Burnette’s upcoming children’s book, “Magic Peas and Two Front Teeth,” about her now 11-year-old daughter’s experience losing her first teeth.

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Nick Walden is our Cotati and Penngrove correspondent.
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