Tales for Hanukkah from a Nobel laureate; The Power of Light, Eight Stories for Hanukkah, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $10.95
On every other day of the year, the Rabbi urges his children to put away childish things and instead recite psalms and study the sacred texts of Judaism; but on Hanukkah, perhaps the most festive occasion in the Jewish liturgical calendar and essentially a holiday for the children, the pious sage relents just enough to tell them a story. Not a frivolous story, heaven forfend, but an exemplary tale about a small boy who discovers the supreme joys of true philanthropy, a very great blessing, and grows up to become a saintly, learned Rabbi, that noblest of God's creations.
In mild reproach the Rabbi's wife charges him with "preaching" to the children on the one day when the poor dears should be playing Dreidel (a Hanukkah game played with a kind of four-sided top), eating potato pancakes, and enjoying the unaccustomed reprieve from their devotions. "I didn't preach, I told them a story," the Rabbi replies, almost as if the author had intervened directly to correct the good woman (his mother, as it happens) with his artistic credo. For the Rabbi of the tale was the author's father, and his son the Yiddish-writing American Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, who grew up to become one of our great storytellers, a vocation he might very well regard as a religious calling.
Singer's fictional world, as readers of his celebrated work both for adults and for children know, abounds with miracles large and small. If the boy and girl (in "The Power of Light") who are the last survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto can somehow elude Nazi surveillance and escape to the holy land of Palestine (now Israel), then why should we be so dull and literal-minded as to doubt that a parakeet named Dreidel (in the story so-named, for the Hanukkah game) should speak Yiddish adequately, if not fluently, and manage in its feathery way to bring the young lovers together in blissful marriage; or that a fawn named Hershele (also actually the Yiddish word for fawn) should, like an apparition, appear out of the icebound Polish winter, take up residence in the Jewish home and -- just as a mysterious old wanderer had prophesied -- indicate by its appearance that the wife would at long last bear a child. In a world that transcends the mundane, we are not at all astonished.
So it goes in these children's tales, Singer's own gift of eight, one each for the eight days of the essentially secular festival joyously marked by the giving of gifts to the children. Hanukkah commemorates the miraculous triumph of the Maccabees (see Maccabees I and II in the Apocrypha) over the Hellenizing heathen polytheists who had captured and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem and its rededication to the one God of the Israelites. Singer gives us one delightful tale for each of the eight candles burned in the nine-branched candelabrum, the ninth, so tradition has it, signifying the love and light one is enjoined to bestow on others, while the eight others signify the miracle by which one day's supply of consecrated oil burned amazingly in the rededicated temple for eight days.
Singer's luminous tales, like most of his stories and novels, are, with a single exception, set in his own native vanished world of Eastern European Jewry , in the historical Pale of Settlement, the world destroyed forever in the Holocaust and which by the miraculous power of art lives immortally in the work of its great writers -- Mendele Mocher Sefarium, I. L. Peretz, Sholom Aleichem, and now Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Irene Lieblich's accompanying Chagallesque paintings capture with extraordinary delicacy and evocative subtlety exactly the heartwarming blend of love and nostalgia.