Who is this Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf?

It’s not even Rosh Hashanah, and some people are already talking about Hanukkah! There’s a new children’s book: Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf by Greg Wolfe. A Hanukkah Elf may sound familiar if you know of Elf on the Shelf and Mensch on the Bench, but this is a different concept. This is not a creepy elf in your home watching your every move – but rather an attempt to explain to Jewish kids why Santa isn’t coming to visit them.

The setting, of course, is the North Pole. Santa’s elves are checking their lists to make sure they have an accounting of all the kids who have been nice (rather than naughty) and will be receiving gifts this year. Shmelf, a new elf, is concerned when he realizes there are some good kids on his list who won’t be receiving gifts from Santa that year. Perplexed, he goes to the head elf to find out what is going on and learns those kids not receiving gifts are Jewish.

Wanting to learn more, Shmelf journeys to observe one of those families and sees the fun festivities involving a menorah lighting, dreidel games, gelt, latkes, and yes, presents! Shmelf realizes Hanukkah is a great holiday and returns to the North Pole to talk to the big guy himself: Santa Claus. Impressed by Shmelf’s caring about the Jewish children, Santa appoints him a Jewish elf. Now dressed in blue and white, Shmelf will set off with his reindeer Asher to visit the Jewish kids each year. And note, if you’re hoping for a visit from Shmelf this year, we learn in the book that he prefers chocolate gelt and a kosher dill (what a combination!) rather than cookies and milk.

This book has a lot going for it. It’s a cute story, whimsically told in rhyme. And as an added bonus, the author and illustrator impressively represent diversity in the characters (the elves, for example, have different skin tones). It’s perfect timing for this book to come out in 2016 since the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve – a rare occurrence.

My guess is debates will rage about whether this book is appropriate to read to Jewish children. I think every family has to decide what is right for them. I’m sure some will love this book and others will argue that it tries to make Hanukkah too much like Christmas.

Wherever one lands in deciding whether this is the right book for their family, what I find most interesting is that this book highlights the balance of universalism and particularism in the Jewish community. It ultimately concludes that there is something particular about Judaism (Hanukkah) that should be celebrated, and yet that kids should share a connection to something a bit more universal, at least in America (Christmas). Some will agree, others will disagree. And that’s okay.

Parts of my Judaism are distinctive and quintessentially Jewish – others parts of my Judaism connect me to all of humanity. My life is enriched by balancing my Jewish identity and other components of my identity that feel more universal. Judaism is simultaneously about being inward looking and outward looking.

For each of us, it’s about finding that balance. We carry multiple identities and people can clearly celebrate both their Jewishness and their humanness. For some, that might mean a visit from Shmelf, and for others it might mean that eight nights of gifts works just fine without an elf nearby. The choice is yours.

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