REVIEW: Miracles and Menorahs by Stacey Agdern
Sarah Goldman loves Hanukkah, and she’s thrilled to be appointed as vice chair of the Hollowville Hanukkah Festival. So when the festival is threatened with cancellation, she comes up with an idea: a new slogan and advertising campaign topped off with a metal menorah large enough to fill the center of town. But even though her heart and dreams are large, the committee’s budget constraints threaten to stop her grand plans right in their tracks.
Famous metal sculptor Isaac Lieberman also loves Hanukkah. But his vision of a perfect Hanukkah isn’t a commercial community event—it’s spending time with family, following age-old traditions. He’s not interested in the festival, no matter how many times his grandmother, his bubbe, asks him to contribute one of his sculptures.
Then Sarah comes tumbling into his life…can she change his mind about more than just the holidays?
Dear Ms. Agdern,
Months ago, I saw this book listed for release in October and put it on my wish list. Then I was excited to be offered the chance to review it. The description on the cover – “A Friendship and Festivals” novel – is very important as the Hanukkah Festival in her small town is very important to Sarah Goldman but she and Isaac Lieberman are just publicly acknowledging their beginning (kisses only) romantic relationship as the book ends.
Hollowville, a small town in upstate New York, is proud to have the only Hanukkah Festival in the state if not the country. Though it started as a small bazaar at their temple, the members of the HHC community have watched it grow over the past nine years until now the Festival is spread over the town. But dark forces in the person of one of the town counselors want to begin adding “trees,” “red and green decorations,” and change the emphasis from Hanukkah to “holiday.” We all know what that means.
This year Sarah Goldman has taken over the position of vice chair of planning the Festival and she fears that if they can’t not only deliver profit to the town merchants but also have a show stopping centerpiece where most towns would have “trees,” this might be the end of the Festival being Hanukkah and only Hanukkah. What she envisions is a giant menorah but every artist she contacts is either unable to deliver what she needs or quotes a price she can’t afford. Then a long time family friend offers to contact her grandson, a sculptor.
Sarah had met Isaac earlier in New York City and after talking to him, had pronounced him a Hanukkah snob. Isaac agrees that his mother prefers the City to small town life but he is at home in both environments and adores his bubbe. Yet even his beloved bubbe can’t get him to agree to make a menorah for the Festival as Isaac dislikes the idea of commercializing what ought to be a special time with family. Can Sarah hold off the threat of “trees” and “Santa” to keep the Festival a one of a kind Hanukkah celebration and will Isaac see what the Festival means to the community?
Let me get the things I didn’t understand out of the way first. The evil counselor Webster makes a stink at the beginning of the story about how the festival can be transitioned to a “holiday” one with “a tree” which all the other council members know is shorthand for Christmas and he acts obnoxious a bit later on but then … seems to vanish from the story and all the subsequent council meetings where the Hanukkah Festival is discussed and things are voted on. Only at the very end does he raise his poisonous head to drip venom where he can but in the interim, he’s more “threat hanging over everything” than actual presence.
Then Sarah and the woman who is chairperson of the Festival keep mentioning to themselves and others that if the Festival doesn’t have the flashy menorah and make money, that this will be the last one forever. I assume what this actually means is the Festival wouldn’t focus only on Hanukkah as it had but might be transitioned to another “holiday.”
Isaac’s lack of enthusiasm for the Festival is understandable. Sometimes I’d like to see my holiday dialed back a little to the real reason for it. His understated sense of humor comes out as he tells his bubbe his reasons.
“I don’t want to turn the simple joys of Hanukkah, of candles, lights, and mitzvot, into something much bigger and much less festive than it should be. We’re celebrating the resilience of our community, not fighting a war fueled by applesauce and sour cream.”
This is a story centered on a small town which means the story shows both the good and the bad of small town life where everybody knows your name and watches everything you do. At times it almost seems as if Sarah’s family, coworkers, and friends know what she’s going to do before she’s done it. Often this exasperates her, and later Isaac, but at least these people do seem to care a lot about her and each other. The pace of the book is a bit slow at times and I felt some repetition could have been edited out.
For all that we’re living in an age of instant communication where you’re never really out of reach, Sarah and Isaac need to work on their communication skills and check their phone plans. Some of their issues getting in touch with each other felt more manufactured just when the plot needed it than real. This is a slow burn romance carried out in full view of friends and family – who are all watching and very interested in the outcome. It ends more on a HFN with plans to see where it will go rather than anything settled but that’s fine with me.
But when she lifted her head, the look in his eyes grounded her. They were bright, once again reminding her of a shamash candle. And his smile… his smile was sweeter than any soofganiyot she’d ever tasted.
I loved the full immersion in Jewish culture and the use of Yiddish words. Also that the English translation doesn’t immediately follow. For the ones which weren’t obvious to me – DuckDuckGo is my friend. Isaac is also referred to not only as a mensch but also a rugelach instead of a cinnamon roll. When Sarah’s menorah hat is mentioned, of course I had to look this up and – wow! – there it is. The support of all the townspeople – with one exception and we know who that was – and Isaac’s NYC friends is lovely. The Festival truly becomes a way to shine light into the community and welcome all who want to be there. B