In Print - Faith triumphs in Jewish folk tale

By CK Wolfson - December 6, 2007

"Letter on the Wind, A Chanukah Tale," by Sarah Marwil Lamstein, illustrations by Neil Waldman, Boyds Mills Press 2007, $16.95

It has all the necessary elements: a poor but faithful hero; a village of doubters; a crisis - in this instance not having oil to observe the traditional Menorah lighting during Chanukah; and a happily ever after.

"Letter on the Wind," a large illustrated children's book that provides both miracle and explanation - something to satisfy both believer and skeptic. When a drought ruins the olive crop, there is no oil in the village to light the wicks in the Menorah. One poor villager, Hayim, despite the ridicule of the villagers, takes it upon himself to write to the Almighty: "...you know that Chanukah is coming. But you see the olives hang on withered trees, so we have no oil to light the menorahs. I beg you, send us enough oil for the entire village."

Letter on the Wind
An illustration by Neil Waldman from "Letter on the Wind." Click photo for larger version.

The villagers continue to scoff when Hayim takes his parchment to the highest hill to wait for a strong wind, which he believes will carry his request to the Almighty.

It is a straightforward folk tale, inspired by the story of Chanukah, in which the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Greek king, Antiochus. When the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple there was only enough oil to keep the Eternal Light over the arc lit for one day. Miraculously, it lasted instead for eight days, until more could be provided.

This tale begins with the dilemma of no oil, but then the plot includes a twist. Just when it seems as if Hayim may be a hero, the villagers discover something that makes them all suspect him of foul play. After all, it's a bit much to expect people to believe in miracles. It's much easier for them to believe in subterfuge, in slight of hand, or even in a bit of larceny. So they reject the oil that Hayim has obtained and distributed as ill-gotten gains. Another crisis.

A villager, glancing at the scribe, said, "The oil is stolen."

"We will not use it," said another.

"The scribe pointed his finger at Hayim and shouted, "Thief!"

Children's book author Sarah Marwil Lamstein, a Newton resident who spends summers in Chilmark, earned an MFA from Vermont College. While her writing includes little flourish or poetic flair, it does advance the story with clarity. What gives the book its imaginative, almost mystical feel is the artwork by award-winning illustrator Neil Waldman. His stylized, full-page depictions of wavy clouds, swaying trees, and assorted scenes translate the folk tale effectively.

Author signing with Sarah Lamstein, Friday, Dec. 7, 7 pm. Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Main Street, Vineyard Haven. The event includes a Chanukah puppet show for ages 4 and up. For more information, call 508-693-2291.