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How Israel Celebrates Hanukkah

Israel’s interpretation of how to celebrate Hanukkah (the transliteration and Romanized spelling is also written as Chanukah and Hanukah) is vastly different from the American interpretation. There is generally very little to no gift giving, with the exception of perhaps a dreidel or a little bit of gelt (chocolate or real money) for the children. There are a couple of consistent Hanukkah traditions in Israel that are widely practiced: lighting menorah candles and eating certain types of fried foods.

Lighting one candle a night for eight nights on the menorah (which this year falls between December 24 to January 1 on the Jewish calendar) is a widespread practice in Israel. It represents the rededication of The Temple, the holiest site in Judaism, during a Jewish rebellion in 164 B.C.

Menorah displayed in a window. Photo © Ron Zmiri/123rf.
Menorah displayed in a window. Photo © Ron Zmiri/123rf.

Today, those who are religiously observant in Israel light the candles one by one and display the menorah in the window. Traditions vary based on the family, and sometimes the menorah is placed somewhere inside the house. Ancient menorahs had seven branches and were used as a sort of symbol of a portable temple during the years that Israelites wandered in the desert. The modern version has nine branches: one central or side candle is used to light the other eight. Each night one additional candle is lit until all nine candles, either wax or olive oil lamp, are burning. First-century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius dubbed Hanukkah the “festival of lights,” and the moniker has remained until modern times.

The oil used in the ancient menorah is at the root of why modern Israelis use fried food to celebrate Hanukkah. Two specific fried foods are popular during the weeks leading up to Hanukkah: fancy donuts and potato latkes. Latkes are typically prepared and eaten at home with family, but donuts are sold everywhere in Israel starting in mid-November.

Jelly-filled donuts are traditional, but fancier donuts are also common around Hanukkah. Photo © Genevieve Belmaker.
Jelly-filled donuts are traditional, but fancier donuts are also common around Hanukkah. Photo © Genevieve Belmaker.

The Israeli version of a donut for Hanukkah is a small dough ball with filling and frosting on top, but without a hole in the center. They are sold in shopping malls, bus terminals, cafes, and coffee shops, and even as part of street bazaars in some places. Some versions of the donuts include fancy decorations on the top and rich fillings that range from jam to chocolate to different flavored fillings. They generally cost about $2.50 each.

Topping-laden donuts are also abundant in Jerusalem. Photo © Genevieve Belmaker.
Topping-laden donuts are also abundant in Jerusalem. Photo © Genevieve Belmaker.

Hanukkah is a bit unusual among Israeli holidays in that only schools are closed for a portion of the holiday, unlike many other holidays which commercial and government functions also shut down. It has little noticeable impact in daily life, but if you’re out after dark and walking in the streets, you can see many menorahs lit up in windows, truly making it feel like the festival of lights.

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Where to Shop for Gifts in Jerusalem

In Jerusalem, effective shopping is all about picking the right starting point. If you want knick-knack souvenirs or you start out where cheap clothes are sold to locals, you can easily waste time and energy. Worse yet, the end result could be something along the lines of: “Oh whatever, I can’t take this anymore!” as you purchase some cheap knick-knack gift that you bought out of sheer exhaustion. Not only are these types of gifts either overpriced or made in China, you’re better off buying something at the airport.

When you go on the hunt for gifts in eclectic East Jerusalem, don’t be afraid to get creative. East Jerusalem is fairly accessible and walkable once you’re oriented and have a good rally point. To avoid wandering off in the wrong direction, start from the intersection of Salah e-Din Street and Sultan Suleiman Street on the eastern side of the Old City. It’s easy to find on Google maps, everyone knows it, and it intersects with another major road on a roundabout. You can reach the intersection from the Old City’s Herod’s Gate or Damascus Gate very quickly. From the Salah e-Din/Sultan Suleiman intersection public transportation and taxis are very close, West Jerusalem’s city center is a walkable distance (though on the long side), and there are numerous places to eat a meal or get a snack. Most importantly, it gives you access to a wide variety of shops.

If you begin from the roundabout and go northeast on Salah e-Din, you’ll come across a number of shops that sell everything from tennis shoes to falafel, mostly geared to locals. There are also a couple of money exchange storefronts. Try to gravitate toward the stores that look like candy or spice shops. Inside you will find a fascinating world of all kinds of regional spices, including local custom blends.

A spice shop in Jerusalem. Photo © Genevieve Belmaker.
A spice shop in Jerusalem. Photo © Genevieve Belmaker.

Spice and candy shops engage in a certain degree of competition over their unique “blends” of spices for different purposes. They will also gladly give you a custom mixture on the spot based on your preferences. If packaged properly for safekeeping during return travel, spices are one of the most affordable, authentic, and interesting gifts you can bring back to friends and family. They are also very lightweight and a great conversation piece about the tastes and smells of your travels.

For loved ones who don’t cook much, continue on Salah e-Din Street toward the American Colony hotel. It’s a good 15-minute walk, but the two shops in the prestigious hotel’s front courtyard are full of surprises. One is a very upscale antiques shop, and the other is a book shop full of fascinating English titles on the region and English-speaking staff, called The Educational Book Shop. The American Colony is a great place to take a rest and have a coffee, too. There is also an ATM just outside the hotel gates that accepts foreign debit cards (not easy to find in East Jerusalem) and you can easily get a taxi here or ask the hotel concierge for recommendations on shopping tips.

If you don’t make it that far or want to stay closer to the Old City, The Educational Book Shop has another location on Salah e-Din Street that features a cozy upstairs cafe with coffee/tea and some baked treats. At either location you can find almost any type of book on the region, including children’s books.

Shops in the Old City are close together and easy to browse. Photo © Rostislav Glinksy/123rf.
Shops in the Old City are close together and easy to browse. Photo © Rostislav Glinksy/123rf.

Travel along Salah e-Din Street toward the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and you will discover a wide variety of places to buy gifts, though many are geared toward tourists. Just on the other side of the roundabout from Salah e-Din, enter through Herod’s Gate. Take the first two lefts to Antonia Street, follow that to Sha’ar HaAyarot Street, then turn left to the Austrian Hospice. There are signs for it and everyone knows it, so don’t be afraid to ask. From the intersection of the Austrian Hospice, any direction will lead you to all manner of spice, rug, jewelry, and scarf shops.

A left turn and straight south from this location will lead you to the best shops. Once you’re in the Old City, remember to bargain! There will be plenty of shops with religious trinkets, but beware that some places do sell items made in China (especially scarves), but they are usually labeled as such or the shop owner will tell you if you ask where it’s made. Most scarves sold in the Old City are actually made in China or India.

Colorful trinkets can be found in East Jerusalem. Photo © Genevieve Belmaker.
Colorful trinkets can be found in East Jerusalem. Photo © Genevieve Belmaker.

If you’re looking to spend more on gifts, there are numerous high-end jewelry shops that sell antiques, Judaica, and upcycled jewelry featuring pieces of polished Roman glass near the Roman colonnade. Always ask for a certificate of authentication when buying antiques and a receipt for VAT (tax) reimbursement that you can redeem at the airport when you’re leaving.

If you have one or two goals for gifts before you set out shopping in East Jerusalem you’ll succeed, but you also need to be open to exploring until you hit on something amazing.

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Elise Parsley

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Elise Parsley studied drawing and creative writing at Minnesota State University Moorhead. During college, Elise also volunteered over 1800 hours helping kids read and learn through an AmeriCorps academic enrichment program in the Fargo, ND elementary school system. Now she helps kids read and learn through writing and illustrating humorous children’s books.


Elise’s debut picture book, If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, DON’T! earned a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. She has since released the second book in the “Magnolia Says DON’T!” series, titled If You Ever Want to Bring a Piano to the Beach, DON’T! and has a third adventure, If You Ever Want to Bring a Circus to the Library, DON’T! coming in May 2017.


What to Expect from a School Visit:


Elise Parsley loves school and library visits, big time! She infuses each presentation with energy, humor, and loads of crowd interaction. Audiences can expect to hear a story (or two if there’s time!) and watch a step-by-step drawing demonstration that teaches kids how to improve their own art or includes a word game. As an added option, Elise can also share how she makes picture books (spoiler alert: it includes lots of writing and drawing and re-writing and re-drawing!). Elise has also been known to haul a keyboard along with her for brief, but fantastic, dance parties. Of course, there’s always a Q&A time from both students and adults, and Elise loves to cap off each visit by signing books and chatting with kids.


Interested in a visit from Elise Parsley? Email


Learn More About Elise Parsley’s Books:

If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don't! coverPiano to the Beach coverIf You Ever Want to Bring a Circus to the Library, Don't! cover

New Year Cocktail: Put a Ring On It

Holiday: New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day brunch

No, we’re not talking about that catchy tune by Beyoncé. We’re talking about ringing in the New Year with a proper cocktail.

Put a Ring On It Cocktail

Recipe by Bottiglia, originally called the Fresca Fizz

4 to 6 raspberries
10 to 12 mint leaves
¾ oz. Wilks & Wilson raspberry gomme syrup
1-½ oz. Grey Goose vodka or Sapphire East Gin
¾ oz. lemon juice
1-½ oz. Prosecco
glass: Collins
garnish: lemon wheel, mint spear, and raspberry

Place raspberries, 6 mint leaves, and raspberry syrup into bottom of a shaker. Gently muddle (press muddler into fruit, leaves, and syrup about 3 times) fruit, herbs, and syrup. Add rest of ingredients except for Prosecco, top with ice, and shake vigorously for about 60 seconds. Pour in Prosecco and stir gently. Place remaining 6 leaves into bottom of glass, top with crushed ice, then strain cocktail into glass. Garnish with a mint spear, lemon wheel, and raspberry.

Javaka Steptoe

Javaka Steptoe photoOnce a model and inspiration for his father, the late African American award-winning author/illustrator John Steptoe, New York Times best selling author/illustrator Javaka Steptoe has established himself as an outstanding talent in his field. This eclectic young artist/educator utilizes everyday objects from aluminum plates to pocket lint, and sometimes a jigsaw and paint, to deliver reflective and thoughtful collage creations filled with vitality, playful energy, and strength.


Javaka has currently illustrated eleven award-winning books and continues to collaborate with celebrated writers on future projects. Steptoe explains,Collage is a means of survival. It is how Black folks survived four hundred years of oppression, by taking scraps and transforming them into something beautiful, into life. He creates artwork that is both personal and universal, celebrating the richness of our collective past through the use of family as a recurring theme. Steptoe contends, “I want my audience, no matter their background, to be able to enter into my world and make personal connections with their lives.”


His life work and artistry is a reflection of his commitment to the cause of children’s education. He believes that art as a tool for education helps strengthen problem solving skills, builds esteem, and fosters independent and innovative thought. Javaka travels extensively, reading and conducting workshops at schools, libraries, museums, and conferences across the country and internationally.


What to Expect from a School Visit:
I have presentations and workshops that align with Common Core standards and can accommodate a variety of different age groups.


I separate them into three categories:


Artist Talk — PowerPoint presentation and informational talk about my life and artistry.


Interactive Storytelling — I facilitate the telling of a story using audience participation props and sometimes an artist of a complementary discipline
Ex: a guitar player for “Jimi-sounds like a rainbow.”


Art Workshop — Participants make artwork based off of themes, materials, and, styles found in my illustrated books.


I can also tailor presentations specific to your school.


Interested in a visit from Javaka Steptoe? Email


Learn more about Javaka Steptoe’s books:


Radiant Child cover


Javaka Steptoe Press Kit

Jewell Parker Rhodes

 Jewell Parker Rhodes photoJewell Parker Rhodes is the author of the Louisiana Girls children’s book trilogy, which includes Ninth Ward, Sugar, and Bayou Magic. Her children’s books have received the Parents’ Choice Foundation Award, the Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, and the Jane Addam’s Children’s Book Award, among others. Towers Falling, her new middle grade novel, was published in July 2016.


Jewell grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Drama Criticism, a Master of Arts in English, and a Doctor of Arts in English (Creative Writing) from Carnegie Mellon University. Jewell is the Founding Artistic Director and Piper Endowed Chair at the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University.


What to Expect from a School Visit

Jewell loves school visits and tries to make her talks engaging, fun, and interactive.  She talks about her childhood, her writer aspirations, and her writing process.  She includes readings from her novels and videos which complement the novel and/or provide social and historical background.  She asks and answers questions throughout her talk and reserves time at the end for students to shine and show their curiosity.


Interested in a visit from Jewell? Email



Learn more about Jewell’s books:





Towers Falling

Caitlin Alifirenka

Caitlin Alifirenka photoCaitlin Alifirenka is co-author of the YA dual memoir, I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives. Along with her pen pal, Martin Ganda, and Journalist, Liz Welch. I Will Always Write Back is a New York Times and Indie bestseller, it has won Junior Library Guild Awards, was part of Amazon’s Big Spring Book Selection, and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.


Caitlin grew up in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, where her parents still reside. She currently resides outside of Philadelphia, PA with her husband, Dzmitry, and their children and works as a Registered Nurse in the Emergency Department.


What to Expect from a School Visit


Do you remember having an assembly and being excited to do something different? I like to make assembly’s exciting for kids, keep them interested and make them think. As the students enter the auditorium Spice Up your Life by Spice Girls is playing as the file into their seats. This usually gets the students excited about my presentation. It’s different than their typical assembly.


I start my PowerPoint presentation with a brief background of my life before Martin, and his life before me. It’s my hope that this opens their minds to our differences but most importantly, to our similarities. I want to convey to the students that parts of the world may be different, but not better or worse, than our lives here. I love this part because I’m able to watch as the students (from all backgrounds) begin to realize just how fortunate they are to have grown up with so much. Through my presentation I show them that I was just like them. And I was able to look beyond myself and do my best to help those less fortunate. For me, that realization was that my best friend was starving and he needed my help. By the end of my presentation, I want the students to want to be kind.


I finish up my presentation with the original video of Martin’s arrival to the United States. At this point, there are usually many tears as well as cheering. I follow up my presentation with a Q&A session with the students, sign books, and take pictures with the students. If one student from each visit can perform a random act of kindness, then we’ve made the world a better place.



Learn more about I Will Always Write Back:


Barry Lyga

Barry Lyga photoBarry Lyga graduated from Yale and then promptly went to work in the comic book industry. He was instrumental in the development of Free Comic Book Day. (You’re welcome). Since leaving comics, he’s written 17 novels, published in multiple languages around the world, including the bestselling I HUNT KILLERS. His books have been called “alluring,” “daring,” “extreme,” and even “made of paper.” He has no interesting hobbies because he basically spends all of his time writing. He was once called a “YA-rebel author,” which sounds strange every time he hears it.


What to Expect from a School Visit


I generally use AV, but for smaller workshops, I don’t need to. I have a variety of presentations I do depending on the school, the group, and what book I’m there to talk about.


I can talk, for example, about how Colleen Doran and I created the graphic novel MANGAMAN, along with visuals of the artwork-in-progress and the general process of creating a comic book.


But what I most like to do is a presentation where I talk mainly about things I wish I’d known at the age of the kids I’m speaking to. This includes Joseph Campbell’s “follow your bliss,” but also Steve Jobs’ admonition that everything in the world was made by people no smarter than you. I really try to get kids to realize that they don’t merely live in this world — they can CREATE this world. I try to keep it as light as possible, beginning with some jokes at my own expense and then slipping into the more serious stuff. Then, to reward them for listening to me, I do “Serial Killer Fun Facts,” during which I reveal scary things I learned while researching the KILLERS books…and usually end up picking some folks in the front row to kill…and also offer suggestions on how to terrify younger siblings. Oh, and I also give some advice on how to get away with murder.


The big thing, though, is Q&A. I absolutely LOVE to do Q&A. Because at least then I know that the people with questions got something out of our time together.


Interested in a visit from Barry? Email


Learn more about Barry’s books:

I Hunt Killers coverGame coverBlood of My Blood coverAfter the Red Rain coverBang cover

A Letter of Introduction from Federico Axat

Kill The Next One by Federico AxatI am writing these lines a long time after the last page of Kill the Next One. The book is no longer the same, and I am no longer the same. The life of a book in the outside world commences with the word “fin,” and a number of things have happened since then: translations, events, and many readers have had the opportunity to read it. I have had the great joy of exchanging views with readers, and it has been revealing; Kill The Next One is a labyrinth whose passages have not yet been fully explored, I fear, not even for me.

I knew the book would start with a strong event, that it would lead to a maze of repetitive cycles and some lineaments, rather than saying too much.

One afternoon at the beginning of the writing journey, I went to visit my mother, who has always been interested in the course of my literary career. I do not have the habit of talking too much about works in progress; however, this time I forgot that rule and talked about the idea I had in mind. It would draw on possible plots, hypothetical characters, and situations that support what I want to tell. She made me a coffee with sugar and sat at the table willing to talk with me as we had done so many times before. I stood next to an antique piece of furniture that had belonged to my grandmother. This cabinet is covered at the top by a plate of marble, and it has wooden ornaments in the corners. The marble slab became the main timeline, and the ornaments were the cycles. I slid my finger forward and backward along the edge of the marble, explaining the operation of the novel, where the surprises were, how the cycles worked…just as a professor explains a complex theory to the discomfiture of his students. Permit me to use this analogy not because I think I have the lucidity of a professor, but because my mother, who is a highly intelligent and lucid woman, did not understand a word of that first sketch of Kill The Next One. And that was logical! For there was nothing to understand.


This strong start was the key to shaping the plot itself. I remembered a story I had begun writing a long time ago in which a man was about to take his life in his home office. His doorbell rang, and the man had the choice to answer or not. When he finally decided to open the door, he met a mysterious man who made him a proposition that was difficult to refuse. The story wasn’t there. I had not even figured out what was so compelling about the proposal. I returned to the story, reread it—there were only about three or four pages—and I knew that was the opening I was looking for, that the elements I needed to develop the plot had been drawn in the marble furniture inherited from my grandmother Anita.

Joshua Tree’s Desert Daze Festival

Desert Daze Festival in Joshua Tree

The full moon rises over the desert mountains, roosting above a Joshua tree. The pulsing music throws a net of sound over the swaying crowd as West African guitarist and singer-songwriter Bombino spins the surging desert blues of the Sahara into the open Mojave. It’s the kick-off of the 5th Annual Desert Daze music festival.

Sprawled across the 420 acres of the Institute of Mentalphysics in Joshua Tree, California, the festival has an organic feel, merging landscape, music, and art. Dedicated in 1941, the Institute is a retreat center for spiritual contemplation, peace, and quiet, but they’ve clearly made an exception for Desert Daze. If the festival is tapping into any type of spiritual training, it’s the ecstatic tradition: Desert Daze is a full-on party.

The Block Stage at Desert Daze. Photo © Jenna Blough.
The Block Stage at Desert Daze. Photo © Jenna Blough.

Psychedelic desert rock is the widely-interpreted genre with heavy-hitting international bands performing across the festival’s three stages. Over the three-day event, we took in the freak lounge performance of Gary Wilson, accompanied by nervous laughter from the crowd as he crawled on stage draped in the industrial plastic of an autopsy room. LA-based Thee Oh Sees creates a controlled frenzy of sound, blending psychedelic and punk rock. Everyone comes out for the dark, rock reverberation of Austin-based Black Angels on the main stage. We’re all so entranced by their sound that, at the end of one song, no one claps. The Danish duo Raveonettes mix melodic vocals and noise. Instead of the colorful psychedelic light playing behind other bands, they opt for a harsh, metallic light that cuts like a helicopter blade to match their wave of volume. The people eat it up; it’s a dance party in the dust.

My friends and I are lucky enough to have VIP tickets. They give us access to a peaceful vantage point with lounge chairs overlooking the campgrounds—an open desert expanse filled with tents and camper vans, hippies and the hip. Here we chat with one of the art directors. He has been on the grounds for a week transforming the already beautiful landscape into an event. There are little touches everywhere: colored lights infuse the Joshua trees at dusk. Art installations dot the landscape—comfortable nooks nestled in shaggy, ornamental cedars with crystals, Edison lights, oriental rugs, couches, and defunct televisions. The pièce de résistance is the Cave of Far-Gone Dreams, a curtained hut housing fake interactive museum exhibits on magic mushrooms.

The cave of far-gone dreams. Photo © Jenna Blough.
The Cave of Far-Gone Dreams. Photo © Jenna Blough.

The art director tells us this is a power spot, and that the Institute was built where underground rivers meet in a vortex. According their website, the Institute claims to have exactly 18 vortices, describing them as places that amplify physical, spiritual, and emotional sensations. There are also geometric Frank Lloyd Wright-designed cottages, buildings, and landscaped walkways.

A sea of tents in Joshua Tree's campground. Photo © Jenna Blough.
A sea of tents in Joshua Tree’s campground. Photo © Jenna Blough.

Mornings are quiet as a red sun slips over the mountain ridge. The days begin slowly, 2,000 festival goers awakening in tents and vans and cottages, fueling up with coffee, kombucha, breakfast burritos, weed, and beer until the stages open and people start streaming along the dusty paths toward music and common spaces.

It’s been a full weekend, but on Sunday night no one is quite ready to let it go. The final headliner, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, plays on and on to a packed stage. We need to get back to LA in the morning so we make our way to camp, but the vortices appear to be working. The amplified acoustic sounds of the band spill across the hills, washing over the campground and ushering out the weekend on a final wave of sound.

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