Judith Alpert wasn't consciously thinking about the Hanukkah themes of Jewish identity, pride and freedom when she signed up her grandchildren for a monthly program that sends Jewish books and music to children across the United States.
"I just felt that it's a wonderful thing for my grandchildren to remember they are Jewish and to do it in a fun way,'' said Alpert, who lives in North Redington Beach.
Her daughter Stephanie Messler, mother of Shayna, 4, and Lyla, 2, couldn't agree more.
"It's hard to find Jewish things in Pinellas County, Jewish books or games or music. The fact that they get delivered to our house and they're really great educational books, it's nice and convenient,'' she said.
Messler's children get the books through PJ Library, a program that distributes thousands of books and CDs to children throughout North America. In Pinellas and West Pasco, families can receive the material by signing up with the Jewish Federation of Pinellas and Pasco Counties.
The age-appropriate books and music, which tell about Jewish holidays and Israel, explore Jewish values and feature Jewish folk tales, come with titles such as Where Is Baby's Dreidel?, Dinosaur on Passover and Chanukah Lights Everywhere.
Offered free locally
Randi Friedman, PJ Library coordinator for the Jewish Federation of Pinellas and Pasco Counties, said the program, offered free locally, is a good resource for teaching children about their heritage.
"It's also good for children whose parents don't have a lot of Jewish background,'' she said. "When we sign up families for this program, just one of the parents needs to be Jewish or a grandparent has to be Jewish.''
For interfaith families like Lizz and Sean Singh, the books are particularly helpful. Lizz Singh grew up in a secular Jewish home. Her husband, who was born in Guyana, was brought up by a Catholic mother who made sure that her children also appreciated their father's Hindu religion.
The Singhs' daughters, Amy, 9, and Erin, 6, are being exposed to both Judaism and Christianity and even a bit of Hinduism through their Guyanese grandmother.
"When they were first born, they each were baptized and they each had a Hebrew naming ceremony,'' Lizz Singh said.
The girls now attend Hebrew school at Chabad Jewish Center of Greater St. Petersburg, an Orthodox community, and look forward to the Jewish-themed books they receive each month.
"They give a lot of information, but they are good reads," their mother said.
"I am one of those people who did not have a strong Jewish background at all and I feel that I need a lot of resources to instill that in my kids and teach them about their heritage,'' she said. "I'm definitely learning with them.''
Hanukkah starts tonight
Books about Hanukkah were timed to arrive in time for the holiday, which begins tonight at sundown. The eight-day holiday, also known as the Festival of Lights, is observed by lighting candles — one for each night — on a nine-branch menorah. The ninth candleholder is for the shamas, or servant candle, used to kindle the others. It's a time for Jews to remember Judah Maccabee and his small band of fighters and their victory over the religious and cultural persecution of Antiochus IV.
Messler and her husband, Jordan, have been reading the Hanukkah stories to their daughters. At this time of year, the books are especially welcome, Messler said.
"Our hardest thing living where we live is explaining why we don't celebrate Christmas. I think that Santa Claus is everywhere right now and it looks very exciting to a child to see the lights, trees and Santas,'' she said.
The books help.
"It gets them excited about their religion,'' Messler said. "To have a resource like that is helpful to a parent.''
Besides signing up her Largo grandchildren for the national program, Messler's mother also enrolled her two other grandchildren who live in South Florida.
"I had my sister sign up her grandchildren in St. Simons Island, Ga.,'' Alpert said. "And the reason why we did that is that, No. 1, children love to get things in the mail from grandparents and No. 2, there really aren't a lot of books and CDs for children that have to do with the Jewish religion and holidays and fun.''
Alpert said she and her husband began sending the books to their grandchildren a few years ago.
"That was one of my Hanukkah gifts from us,'' she said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.