Rebecca Coleman --- author of THE KINGDOM OF CHILDHOOD and, most recently, HEAVEN SHOULD FALL --- paints a humorous picture of her family’s celebration of Chanukah, particularly her grandparents’ gift boxes of books. Their contents ranged from her personal favorite, the Choose Your Own Adventure books, to her least favorites: cookbooks on shellfish and self-help books on aging.
My father used to tell us that when he was a boy, his family's menorah was a plastic, plug-in affair; on each Chanukah evening,his father would read the Hebrew blessing, then tighten down that day's light bulb. And because every adulthood is a reaction to the childhood that preceded it, my own family's menorah stood two feet high and was carved of wood etched with primitive designs. It took candles, thank you very much --- the pillar type that could tide a family over during a week-long power outage. The glow of that menorah was something to behold. On the eighth day,it became a veritable torch.
My mother's parents loved books. No Chanukah was complete without a heavy box sent from their home in upstate New York, filled with storybooks and novels individually wrapped in cheerful paper. The problem was, they were also the authors of such volumes as THE STERNO GUIDE TO THE OUTDOORS and SYMPTOMS AFTER 40 and liked to send us their latest work, so a gift-wrapped book from my grandparents could be a very hit-or-miss experience. And Chanukah, with its one-gift-per-night rule, is a high-stakes holiday. Choose wisely and you'll end the day reading a wonderful new novel; poorly, and the latest edition of THE GOURMET GUIDE TO SHELLFISH is all yours. With so much at stake, one develops advanced reconnaissance skills at an early age.
The year I was nine, my grandmother outsmarted my practiced gift-peeping techniques by wrapping my present in a knitted bag. It was red, with black and white geese on it, tied with a tight white drawstring. This packaging had me at my wits' end. I was a professional, after all. At last I chose the bag out of pure frustration, wrestling the string open as soon as the prayers were finished. And then, pure delight --- Grandma had sent an entire stack of Choose Your Own Adventure novels, six of them at once! These were the stories that became your own, drawing you in as the main character and challenging you to make the next good decision --- or else see your adventure end in peril. For a child who loved to read, it felt as though she had given me the whole world.
I remember lying there on the carpet in the light of the menorah candles, immersed in a journey to a distant galaxy, reading one ending, and then the next, and the next. There was plenty of time. It was the Festival of Lights, and in my family there would never be a shortage of books or light.