Bill Berlin wasn’t identifying so much with Judah Maccabee as with the Grinch when he and his wife, Susan Isakoff Berlin, started composing their book 10 years ago.
The Edison couple was in Brookline, Mass., to visit their children and grandchildren around Hanukka time, and Bill hurt his back. Lying flat on the floor to ease the discomfort, he started making up rhymes, along with Susan, to create a Hanukka version of the Dr. Seuss classic about a grouchy cave-dweller determined to steal Christmas.
The earliest result was a home-made booklet, with some illustrations by Susan, with the young characters named after their three grandchildren, Joshua, Lily, and Kate. Family and friends loved the book, and the couple thought about getting it published, but found no takers.
A lot has changed since then. With five more grandchildren (and another on the way), they decided it would be grinchy to include those first three and none of the others, so they found three safer — and easy-to-rhyme — names.
And they found a publisher.
Neither Bill nor Susan is entirely new to the limelight. Bill, a political science professor at Montclair State University, is senior producer and writer for the PBS public affairs series Caucus: New Jersey and host of the MSU-produced TV show Carpe Diem. Susan is a licensed clinical social worker and educator who has taught in synagogue preschool programs, JCCs, and public schools. They have both had articles published in The New York Times and other publications.
Bill isn’t the kind of guy who looks likely to get over-excited. But, he said, when they got word that the Pelican Publishing Company wanted to publish The Kvetch Who Stole Hanukkah, he whooped with joy.
The pleasure increased when they got to see the illustrator’s work. Peter J. Welling does quirky, unbeautiful characters and at first, Bill said, he wasn’t all that pleased — but the illustrations rapidly grew on him. “He put in all these extra little touches — like the cats — and touches that would fascinated kids,” he said. “I love them.”
The book shares an outline with Seuss’ classic, but then delves deep to connect with other dimensions — like what makes someone a kvetch and what that can mean on a larger scale.
‘The deeper meaning’
“We wanted to create a family Hanukka book that could be used every year, but we wanted it to be something more than just facts about Hanukka,” Susan wrote in an e-mail to NJJN. That something more — “with a nod to Dr. Seuss, AND Dr. Freud” — was “an exploration of why people behave the way they do.”
That, they felt, was inherent in the story. “Over 2,000 years ago, Antiochus and his armies sought to ‘steal’ the soul and spirit of the Jewish people,” Susan wrote. “Unlike other oppressors before and after, Antiochus was not intent upon killing the Jewish people, but rather ‘killing their Jewish spirit.’
“Our Mr. Kvetch has a similar intention,” she continued, “but for very different reasons. And that’s what makes our book an excellent vehicle through which parents can help their children explore their own feelings and the deeper meaning of our Kvetch’s bullying behavior.”
Susan has drawn on her professional expertise to create a teacher’s guide — available on their website, www.mrkvetch.com, with material that can also be used by parents and grandparents.
At NJJN’s request, Susan and Bill asked their three eldest grandchildren how they felt about the book and the name changes. Susan reported back that “they understood why the names had to be changed in the “real published” book, because their brothers and sisters would be hurt if they were left out. But, each one also said, that “as beautiful and as exciting it is to see their grandparents’ book in bookstores, they will always ‘cherish the original.’”