Culturally Relevant

Fun Books to Read During Hanukkah

Jaime Herndon


Jaime Herndon finished her MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia, after leaving a life of psychosocial oncology and maternal-child health work. She is a writer, editor, and book reviewer who drinks way too much coffee. She is a new-ish mom, so the coffee comes in extra handy. Twitter: @IvyTarHeelJaime

Hanukkah starts December 18, and while it may be one of the better known Jewish holidays, at least on the surface, it’s actually one of the more minor ones in Judaism. We still go to work during the holiday, we don’t have any special instructions about clothing, and we don’t fast. Hanukkah means “dedication,” and it refers to the rededication of the Holy Temple after it was reclaimed from the Syrian-Greeks around 164 BCE.

When the Jews went into the Temple, there was only one jar of oil, enough to light the candles for just one day — but the Talmud says the oil burned for eight days, which gave them time to get more oil. This is why it’s also called “the Festival of Lights.” It’s a holiday that celebrates liberation and the refusal to assimilate, as well as the miracle of the oil.

To celebrate, Ashkenazi Jews (those with Central/Eastern European ancestry) eat foods fried in oil like latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (jelly donuts), as well as dairy, to honor Judith, who gave the Assyrian king lots of cheese and wine, then cut his head off after he passed out. Sephardic Jews, those with familial roots in Spain or Portugal, celebrate with foods like cassola (sweet cheese pancakes), buñuelos (fried fritters with an orange glaze), and keftes de prasa (fried leek patties). Mizrahi Jews come from the SWANA region (Southwest Asia and North Africa), and traditional Hanukkah foods consist of spanj (crispy fried bread that can be sweet or savory), kubbeh (fried dumpling), pastelim (potato dumplings filled with meat), or svinge (fried sweet dough with chocolate or jam).

Each night we light one candle of the menorah until all of the candles are lit, banishing darkness with light. We play dreidel, exchange gifts, and sing songs.

But what to read over Hanukkah? Here are some fun Hanukkah books to grab during the holiday — whether you’re looking for picture books, middle grade, YA, or adult, there’s something for everyone on this list. While each book may not be specifically about Hanukkah, they all have themes that go along with the holiday, or they’re a fun escape.

Children’s Hanukkah Books

cove of Hanukkah in Little Havana by Julia Anna Blank and Carlos Vélez Aguilera

Hanukkah in Little Havana by Julie Anna Blank and Carlos Vélez Aguilera

Every year, the little girl in this book gets a shipment of oranges from her Nonna and Nonno in Florida, but not this year. Instead, this year, her family takes a road trip to visit them! Showcasing Sephardic rep, the family makes latkes and buñuelos, dance the salsa and play on the beach, and celebrate Hanukkah.

cover of Pinky Bloom and the Case ot the Magical Menorah

Pinky Bloom and the Case of the Magical Menorah by Judy Press and Erica-Jane Waters

This early chapter book series is a fun series that follows Pinky Bloom, Brooklyn detective. In this book, an ancient Israeli coin is stolen from her synagogue. But as she’s trying to solve that case, weird things keep happening — is any of this connected to the menorah her neighbors have left in her family’s care? The menorah that’s supposedly magical? Pinky’s going to find out!

cover of The Golden Dreidel

The Golden Dreidel by Ellen Kushner and Kevin Keele

Looking for middle grade fantasy? Try this one. Sara’s kind of jealous of her friends that celebrate Christmas. When Sara gets a huge golden dreidel from a mysterious guest at her family’s Hanukkah party, she’s warned to be careful with it. When she spins it, she finds herself in a magical new world, full of characters inspired by Biblical stories and Jewish folklore — can she find her way back?

A Place At The Table cover

A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

This middle grade novel isn’t about Hanukkah per se, but it is about family, food, friends, and culture — which are all part of Hanukkah. Sara and Elizabeth are very different: Sara is Pakistani American, and Elizabeth is white and Jewish. They’re taking a South Asian cooking class taught by Sara’s mom, and as they get to know each other, they learn more about what others might be dealing with but never show.

cover of Honey and Me

Honey and Me by Meira Drazin

Milla and Honey have been best friends forever. Now that they’re at the same school, their friendship might be tested for the first time. Structured over the course of a school year/Jewish year, this is a heartwarming story about an Orthodox Jewish community, friendship, and family. It’s truly a celebration of Jewish joy, and that’s part of what Hanukkah is about.

YA Hanukkah Books

It's A Whole Spiel cover

It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Stories Edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman

I love this book with my whole heart. This anthology of stories covers a variety of holidays, festivals, and Jewish life. With a diverse cast of characters in the stories, it tackles issues like dating, questions about identity, friendship, and so much more. This is another book that completely embodies Jewish joy, which we need more of in dark times — making it perfect not just for Hanukkah, but any time things get rough.

cover of All Kinds of Other

All Kinds of Other by James Sie

When two boys, Jules and Jack, meet, both of them feel sparks. But both of them are hesitant: Jules is still figuring out what it means that he’s gay, and how out he wants to be, and Jack had a falling out with his best friend, so he’s still tender. But then a video that connects Jack to some trans vloggers is leaked to the high school, and suddenly the two boys have all eyes on them. Jules is Jewish, so there is Jewish rep — but this is also a story about being true to who you are, and resisting bullies, making it a great Hanukkah read.

how to excavate a heart book cover

How to Excavate a Heart by Jake Maia Arlow

This queer Jewish holiday romcom is everything you wanted, even if you didn’t know you wanted it. Set during winter break — and yes, over Christmas — the book retains its Jewishness on every page. Shani’s in D.C. for an internship over break when she runs into May. Literally, with her mom’s car. She’s still reeling from her first breakup, so when a dog-walking job puts her back in touch with May, she’s a little unsure at first. But as the two get to know each other, sparks fly — but is Shani ready? No matter what you celebrate this winter, this should be on your list.

Adult Hanukkah Books

cover of Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew by Michael W. Twitty

Koshersoul: The Food and Faith Journey of an African American Jew by Michael W. Twitty

Warning: don’t read this on an empty stomach. Twitty writes about foods and traditions of the African Atlantic and Jewish diasporas, describing how food, culture, and identity intertwine. But he also writes about being a Black Jew, and the intersections of communities. He writes about tough conversations and thought-provoking topics, including discrimination, oppression, and belonging. He also looks at how people impact the food, but also how food impacts people. Twitty combines research, memoir, and food writing in this timely and memorable book, and there are even recipes in the back — perfect for adding a new dish to Hanukkah meals.

cover of Triburbia

Triburbia by Karl Taro Greenfeld

While not specifically about Jewish themes or Hanukkah, who doesn’t love a novel about midlife crises of Manhattan parents? It’s a perfect book to read if you need an escape from a family gathering or the winter doldrums. In this entertaining novel, six fathers meet daily at a TriBeCa coffee shop after dropping their kids off at school. Over one school year, we learn more about what they always thought their lives would be like, what has transpired, and what their lives are actually like. It’s a compelling look at parenthood, relationships, and friendship.

If you’re looking for even more great Hanukkah books to read during the holiday, check out this suggested Hanukkah reading list of great Jewish books, or this post on Hanukkah picture books.

What will you be reading over Hanukkah?