Imagine for a moment that you're General George Washington surveying your army at Valley Forge in the bitter, biting cold of December. Your army is discouraged, starving, without proper clothes or weaponry, and hunkered down in resignation. You come across a soldier in his hut lighting two small candles, murmuring softly as he touches the flame of one candle to another.
Now imagine the same soldier, a Polish immigrant and a Jew, is asked by his Commander in Chief to share the meaning of the candle lighting and the story behind Hanukkah. Sound far-fetched? Surprisingly, the answer is no. Based on the diary entries of Louisa Hart, the step-daughter of Michael Hart, a Jewish merchant known to Washington, Washington told the Harts about meeting a Polish-born Jewish solider at Valley Forge who explained the holiday of Hanukkah to him. (See Jews on the Frontier, by Rabbi W Harold Sharfman, for more.)
Hanukkah at Valley Forge takes this fascinating little footnote to American Jewish history and expands it into a compelling, superbly written and illustrated story that all children, Jewish and otherwise, will find appealing.
We never find out the soldier's name, but he shares with Washington the story of Hanukkah — how the Greeks looked to assimilate the Jewish population and how a small band of Jewish zealots, the Maccabees, seeking to remain a Torah-true people, battled the army of the mighty Antiochus for nearly three years until finally the Greeks were driven out. The soldier further explains the "miracle" of the holiday to Washington, telling him of the work involved in resanctifying the Temple and how one day's portion of holy oil needed to keep the temple menorah flame alive burned eight days bright while new oil was found.
In this telling, Washington's own words from his many writings are interwoven as responses to the soldier's story. Washington sees the many parallels between his out-manned, out-gunned ragtag Revolutionary army and the Jewish Maccabees. At story's conclusion, Washington is inspired, a little bit of hope restored as he goes back into the snowy night. (For another bit of Washington and his regard for the Jewish Community, here's the text of his letter to the congregation of Touro Synagogue, America's oldest Jewish house of worship.)
Stephen Krensy's beautifully realized text flows softly from page to page. "I rejoice in the Macabees' success, thought it is long past." Smiling grimly, Washington adds, "And it pleases me to think that miracles may still be possible." Greg Harlin's warm, vivid and realistic watercolor illustrations positively glow off each page.
Hanukkah at Valley Forge is a handsomely produced children's story that will keep children ages 7-11 (and their parents!) interested and attentive. Like Washington, I enjoyed seeing the connections between two peoples who, though out-numbered, were passionate enough in their convictions to persevere against damning odds. Jewish families will surely want to add this one to their holiday bookshelves for next year's gift giving and storytelling.