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Encore: Author Erica Perl on her book, 'The Ninth Night of Hanukkah'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Last night was the eighth and final night of Hanukkah. Children's book author Erica Perl imagines, what if there were nine? A couple years ago, I spoke with her about her picture book "The Ninth Night Of Hanukkah." In the story, Rachel and Max move into a new apartment with their parents. They can't find the box that has the family's menorah, dreidel and other stuff for the holiday. So what do they do?

ERICA PERL: Well, they're poised to have the worst Hanukkah ever. They're in a new apartment. They know no one. And they can't find a single thing they need for the holiday, and the holiday has just begun. But as it turns out, all around them are neighbors. And they start reaching out and find that even though apparently no one that they meet in their building celebrates Hanukkah, there are generous people who can offer them sort of stand-in items.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, that's key. The people helping them out are not sharing a menorah or a latke recipe. These are people who might not even be familiar with the holiday at all.

PERL: Correct. So they end up with a box of birthday candles, for example, instead of Hanukkah candles, a bag of chocolate chips instead of chocolate gelt. And they cobble it together night after night with the help of their neighbors.

SHAPIRO: And so at the end of this week of improvising and making do, the kids come up with a plan to thank their neighbors for all their help. And this changes thousands of years of tradition.

PERL: (Laughter) Kind of. I mean, we respect all that. But they see an opportunity. Basically, they realize that Hanukkah has ended. The eighth night has passed. But they look at their menorah, their hanukkiah, and they realize that there's this candle that has been helping every single night, the shamash candle. It's the one that lights the other candles and - just like their neighbors have helped them. And so they want to say thank you to their neighbors and thank you to the shamash and kind of give a special night to those who help.

SHAPIRO: How did you come up with the idea of a night to honor the helper, the worker, the one who makes everything else happen?

PERL: Well, you know, my kids were actually the inspiration for this book. And one year we were celebrating Hanukkah, and they said, you know, it's just not fair that the shamash candle works every single night and never gets to be the center of attention. And that struck me as strange and funny and also kind of relevant, meaningful. So I started working on it.

SHAPIRO: I know you wrote this before the pandemic, but this idea of recognizing the helpers and the workers and also the improvising when holiday traditions are not what you planned - they both seem particularly relevant.

PERL: Yeah, it's been kind of amazing. It's a nice - obviously, it's a really challenging time. It's a really hard time. But so many people have stepped up in little ways and big ways, you know, without fanfare to help each other. And so the message of the book - it feels more relevant than ever in this time when we really are realizing that helping isn't just nice. It's necessary to our happiness and our survival.

SHAPIRO: Another Hebrew word that some people might be familiar with is dayenu, which means enough. Isn't eight days enough? Do we really need to add a ninth?

PERL: Well, I mean, I personally feel that, you know, you can have latkes night after night after night, and they just don't get old. I think it's a beautiful night for Jews and for non-Jews to come together and to realize how nice it is to light candles and to connect across the season. And if we need an extra night to say thank you to those who have helped, they certainly deserve it. So I'm not going to say dayenu quite yet. I'm just going to...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

PERL: ...You know, thank the helpers in my life, of which there are many.

SHAPIRO: So if people do want to start a new ninth night tradition, what are your suggestions?

PERL: Well, it's really easy. And the beautiful part about this is it works very well on Zoom or with, you know - even if we can't physically be together and light candles together, we can - just even saying the words, just telling someone what they've meant to you and how they've helped you is really an incredible thing to do. Writing a note - and, you know, with kids, you can draw pictures and make cards and share them with people who have helped you. And the cool thing is that, in that way, you also get to be like the shamash, too, because you're sharing your light in the same way that people have shared theirs with you. It's reciprocal.

SHAPIRO: That's Erica Perl, author of the children's picture book "The Ninth Night Of Hanukkah," with illustrations by Shahar Kober.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "8 DAYS (OF HANUKKAH)")

SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS: (Singing) Time to light a candle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gus Contreras
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.