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Thursday, February 02, 2023
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Reviewing: “Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up” Chana Stiefel and Larry Stiefel. Kalaniot Books. 2022. English. Hardcover. 32 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1735087573.

Reviewing: “The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs” by Chana Stiefel. Scholastic Press. 2022. English. Hardcover. 40 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1338225891.

Ever since she was young, Chana Stiefel has had a passion for stories and writing. She especially enjoys writing for children, and throughout her career has written over 30 books, many of which have been highly acclaimed. Her two newest books, “Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up” (co-authored with her husband, Dr. Larry Stiefel) and “The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs” were released this past October, and are the perfect gift for eager young readers this holiday season.

Graduating from college with a degree in English, followed by a master’s degree in journalism from New York University, Chana began her career originally working as an editor for a Scholastic science magazine for children. However, her passions for stories soon prompted a career shift, and now she is happily writing children’s books full time, which she continues to release every year.

“Honestly, when I started writing for kids, I fell in love with it and never looked back,” Chana shared with The Jewish Link. “I suddenly had this outlet that felt so comfortable, and I just loved sharing my wonder of the world with kids. Knowing that kids across the world are able to enjoy them means the world to me.”

“The Tower of Life,” published by Scholastic on October 4, tells the true story of Yaffa Eliach, a Holocaust survivor, who was invited to build an exhibit for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The museum was being built by then president Jimmy Carter, and what Eliach crafted was the incredible Tower of Life, which featured over a thousand pictures of the people from the shtetl she grew up in before the Holocaust began. The exhibit is now a permanent fixture in the museum.

“What Yaffa built is simply incredible,” Chana continued. “If you look up pictures of the exhibit, you’ll see the incredible detail and work she put into it. Yaffa truly wanted the people she knew to be remembered for who they were and the lives they lived, rather than just a number in the war, and she did so brilliantly.”

Chana first learned about Eliach when she read her obituary in The New York Times in 2016, and was so moved by her story that she knew she wanted to write a book about her. Chana wanted to introduce Eliach’s story to children, and so she decided to write it as a picture book, which was then illustrated by Susan Gal.

“I believe children should know about people like Yaffa,” Chana continued. “Her story is one of strength and resilience, and even though she went through one of the bleakest times in Jewish history, she still came out of it with hope and courage. She restored humanity to the victims of the Holocaust. These are things that not only Jewish children, but all children, should learn about and hopefully take away lessons of empathy and connection.”

Chana’s other book, “Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up,” was co-authored with her husband, Dr. Larry Stiefel. Outside of his work as a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics, Larry runs his own blog, The Maggid of Bergenfield, where he shares short stories based on the weekly parsha and Jewish holidays. Readers may even recall that stories from the Maggid of Bergenfield ran as a popular column in The Jewish Link for several years. “Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up” actually started as a story on Larry’s blog, but through Chana’s encouragement they decided to turn it into a book together.

“It was a real joy for us to write this book together,” Larry shared. “And to see it out in the community has been really incredible. I usually just post my stories online, but when I was putting this one together I knew there was something more here to explore. My wife helped me edit it, and I hope kids have as much fun reading it as we had writing it.”

“Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up,” which is illustrated by Daphna Awadish, is all about Mendel, a well-intentioned young man who ends up causing all sorts of Hanukkah-related shenanigans. The picture book is geared towards younger readers, and was published by Kalaniot on October 25.

“We had a lot of fun working on it,” Chana continued. “It’s one of my favorites, and I hope kids will give it a read this holiday season.”

The Stiefels have a number of events coming up where they will be signing copies of their books and discussing them. One of the events coming up is the first-ever Jewish Book Festival at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, which will take place on Sunday, Dec. 11. “Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up” will be spotlighted at this event.

“I love doing events where I get to meet my readers in person,” Chana continued. “There’s something special about getting to actually see the audience I write for and discuss my stories with them. It makes me cherish that this is my job and that I even get to do this in the first place.”

When it comes to advice for young kids looking to become authors themselves, Chana’s advice is simple:

“You have to read, read, read, and then you have to read some more,” Chana went on to say. “Then you have to practice writing every day, and do a lot of research. It also helps to connect with other writers. And also don’t be afraid to share your work! The only way to improve is through trial and error, so listen to what other people say and try to learn something from it.”

“Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up” and “The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs” are currently available for purchase on Amazon and Bookshop.org, and at The Curious Reader in Glen Rock and Judaica House in Teaneck. If you would like to learn more about Chana’s works and her upcoming events, you can check out her website, chanastiefel.com. Larry’s blog can also be visited at maggidofbergenfield.typepad.com.

Upcoming book events with Chana and Larry Stiefel include Sunday Dec. 4, 11 a.m.: book signing at Barnes and Noble, Livingston, New York; Sunday, Dec. 4, 3 p.m.: book-launch party at The Curious Reader, Glen Rock, New Jersey; Sunday, Dec. 11, 10:30 a.m.: reading at the Jewish Book Festival, Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York City; Sunday, Dec. 11, 2:30 p.m.: holiday party, Teaneck Public Library, Teaneck, New Jersey.


Adam Samuel is a journalist from Teaneck. He blogs at www.adamssoapbox.com

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