Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Q&A with Kerry and Jesse Olitzky

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky
Kerry and Jesse Olitzky are the authors of the new children's picture book The Littlest Candle: A Hanukkah Story. Kerry Olitzky, a rabbi, is the author of many other books, including Twelve Jewish Steps to Recovery and Restful Reflections. Jesse Olitzky, his son, is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Littlest Candle?

JO: Every Friday, I do a pre-Shabbat celebration with our preschoolers at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey, where I serve as rabbi. Part of that celebration includes telling a story, many of which I would make up. Our preschool director suggested that I should write them down and turn them into full-fledged stories. 

I grew up in awe of my father who is a prolific author. We always talked about writing something together. The kids seem to really love the Hanukkah story I shared with them so I told my father about the idea and this seemed like the perfect opportunity for us to write something together.

KO: I was delighted when Jesse brought the idea of The Littlest Candle to me for many reasons, not the least of which was the opportunity to work on a children’s story with my son.

While many may think that Hanukkah is a minor festival in the Jewish calendar (primarily because it has a very limited number of Jewish legal prohibitions attached to it), as far as I am concerned it is a major Jewish festival.

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky
As a matter of fact, it is celebrated by more families in the orbit of the Jewish community than any other day on the Jewish calendar, so much so that I like to call it the unofficial national holiday of the American Jewish community.

Moreover, over this last generation, it has morphed from being an eight-day celebration to one that stretches over the period of time from Thanksgiving until after the first of the year. How so? That’s the period of time from the erection of the ubiquitous giant menorah in the local shopping mall until it is deconstructed.

Q: How did the two of you collaborate on the book?

JO: I framed the story and then we built on it together. My father has a ton of expertise and experience as an author, and as a children’s author. Since this is my first children’s book, I especially looked to him for guidance as we fleshed out the story.

KO: Jesse framed the story and then we built it together. The personalities of the characters emerged organically as the manuscript took shape.

Q: What do you think Jen Kostman's illustrations add to the book?

JO: Jen’s illustrations make the story come alive. She is able to provide a glimpse of the world that the candles live in, and help us see life from their perspective.

KO: Jen’s illustrations have life to the word pictures we painted throughout the story. She also helped to explicate the personalities of the individual candles.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?

JO: We live in a world of egotism. Those in positions of power tend to care about and celebrate themselves before others. The message of this story, and the essence of the Shamash, is about putting others before yourself. I hope this teaches children how to be more humble and learn about the importance of caring for others. It is a lesson that is so essential, and so needed right now in this world.

KO: I hope the kids bring from the story the profound message of the story of Hanukkah: each of us has the obligation and the ability to bring light into the world, in our own unique way.

Q: What are you working on now?

JO: My father and I have collaborated on other children’s stories as well that we hope will be published in the future.

KO: I am always working on stories. I am thrilled that my next book, The Candy Man Mystery, is already scheduled for the Kalaniot catalogue for 2021. I also have some stories emerging out of personal experience regarding the power of relationships between Muslims and Jews, especially in the Land of Israel, to together forge peace.

Q: Anything else we should know?

JO: We are excited and proud to be partnering with Kalaniot Books as they launch their imprint with The Littlest Candle. They have really been partners in taking our manuscript and bringing it to life.

KO: We both feel indebted to the folks at Kalaniot Books and Endless Mountain Publishing. Although our names are on the cover, they have been partners with us every step along the way. We are proud that they were willing to debut their imprint with our work. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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