Hanukkah is a holiday of stories, and “Hanukkah Lights,” a new collection from National Public Radio, offers a sampling as warm and sweet as a mug of fair-trade hot chocolate. Over the years, NPR’s “Hanukkah Lights” program, featuring modern-day Hanukkah tales read aloud, has presented selections by such literary luminaries as Elie Wiesel, Mark Helprin and Rebecca Goldstein, gift-wrapped in the traditional NPR package of soothing voices and tasteful music. Now, these holiday treats have been repackaged in book form, with soothing typefaces and tasteful illustrations, making the collection — you guessed it — perfect for the holidays.
The tales plumb the depths of Hanukkah, inevitably returning to the trope of miracles, both extraordinary and pedestrian. The volume contains 12 stories, ranging from nostalgic family sagas to midrashic parables to perhaps the only Hanukkah science-fiction story ever written: “Go Toward the Light” by Harlan Ellison. The book also comes with a bonus CD of the original recordings of four more stories, including a topsy-turvy gem from musician, mystery writer and Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman.
The stand-out in “Hanukkah Lights” is Helprin’s spare, powerful “Hanukkah in the Age of Guys and Dolls,” the only story in the collection to point out that at the holiday’s heart lies not a mystical miracle but a brutal war. Standing in the Beit Shan Valley in Israel in the winter of 1972-73, watching the light of distant bonfires, Helprin’s narrator reflects, “Two thousand years later, we were still fighting in the same place, still struggling through veils of darkness, but we were still alive and we had the light of survival in our eyes.” It is that light, far from the hearth-fire glow of the other stories collected here, that makes Hanukkah what it is. It is the light of freedom.