Another take on tradition

Mexico's Hanukkah moon leads to a children's writer's new book

September 02, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the Sun

In Hanukkah Moon, a new book by Columbia writer Deborah Clayman, a child dreams of a moon "shaped like a giant dreidel that pops open showering the world with Hanukkah gifts."

But the moon of the book's title is not shaped like a dreidel or anything else. It's not even visible, because it is the new moon, which is completely dark and always appears during the eight days of Hanukkah.

"It's usually around the sixth night," said Clayman, a former high school teacher who writes under the name Deborah da Costa. "Now we watch for the Hanukkah moon. In fact, my whole neighborhood is looking out for the Hanukkah moon."

She first learned of the Hanukkah moon, which is celebrated by Jewish people in Mexico, from a friend who is Mexican, she said. The friend happened not to be Jewish, she said, but knew of the tradition.

Clayman was inspired by that idea to create Hanukkah Moon, her second book, which was scheduled to arrive in bookstores in hardcover and paperback yesterday.

It is published by Kar-Ben, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group that is based in Silver Spring and releases about 15 children's and young-adult books a year, all with Jewish themes.

"This manuscript came in, and we really loved it," said Judye Groner, a Kar-Ben founder and editor. "We're always looking for a new take on Hanukkah."

She particularly liked that the book celebrates both Judaism and Mexican culture, and that it tells of a tradition that is not well-known in the United States.

"I wasn't aware that people celebrated that particular new moon," she said.

Roberto Chavez, who is married to Clayman's cousin and lives in Virginia, said he has read the book "from cover to cover" and feels connected to it because he is a Mexican national who married into a Jewish family.

He said he knows many Jewish people who are Mexican, including at least five at the World Bank, where he works. "It's a very nice book and it's beautifully illustrated, too," he said.

The illustrations by Gosia Mosz, who lives in Poland, are rendered in deep purples and golds, and depict the character's faces as if they are bathed in light. Clayman did not see the illustrations until the book was ready to be published, but she said she is thrilled.

"They got this fabulous illustrator," she gushed. "She followed everything I said so perfectly."

Clayman's first book, Snow in Jerusalem, tells of two boys in Jerusalem, one Arab Muslim and one Jewish, who bond over their love of a stray cat. The book, essentially a plea for peace in the Middle East, was published by Albert Whitman & Co. in 2001 has been translated into several languages. It is being released in paperback by Albert Whitman this year.

Both books are lavishly illustrated and are intended for readers ages 5 to 10.

Clayman said that, although Hanukkah Moon is based on a real tradition, some details are her invention, including a pinata shaped like a dreidel. She also invented the phrase "Hanukkah moon" to describe the new moon that is celebrated.

Clayman, who said she is "60-something," grew up in New Jersey and has lived in Howard County for 35 years. She and her husband, Warren, raised two children in Howard County and now live with three cats.

A few years ago, Clayman left her job teaching social studies and English at Old Mill High School in Millersville to focus on her writing. "I've always dabbled in it," she said.

As a child, she thought she would be a veterinarian or a detective, but by high school she was writing for her school paper, she said.

At first Clayman was afraid she'd fail, so she opted for a pen name. She chose "da Costa," which means two coasts, because at the time she had one child living on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, and she would visit both.

Clayman will be signing Hanukkah Moon in several places, including Oct. 20 at the Borders Express in The Mall in Columbia, and Nov. 4 at the Book Bash, a literacy fundraising event at the Tremont Grand Hotel in Baltimore.

For information about Clayman and her books, visit her Web site, www.deborahdacosta.com.

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