I first connected with Aviva, a North Carolina Author and Jewish Mom on Instagram. I had just started my author page and had posted a picture of a big stack of Handy Howie books. This sweet, encouraging woman posted an excited and empathetic comment, and BOOM. We've been encouraging each other ever since! I like to think of her as my "Instagram Bestie" and I know we would be real life besties if we weren't across the country but I gotta try and play it cool so shhh!
When my boys and I were learning about Hanukkah in December, I borrowed tons of library books, but I wanted some real-world perspective on what the holiday might look like in a modern Jewish household. So I contacted her for an interview and decided that it would be really cool to make interviews a regular segment in my newsletters. So the interview is divided into two equally cool segments. Aviva is down to earth and hilarious, so follow her account @avivabrown.author and send the woman some popcorn if you want to earn instant points!
Can you quickly explain the story of Hanukkah in your own words?
Whoo. Quickly? I don’t know that Jews do anything quickly! When I ask my rabbi a question he says “I’m just going to be a minute.” I say, “A real minute, not a rabbinic minute.” HA!
Hitting the highlights, a few thousand years ago, the Jewish people lived in Hellenized Greece and a decree came down that we could know longer worship G-d in the Temple. Many Jews were highly integrated into Greek society and were totes fine with going along with this.
One group of Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee and called the Maccabees, were not and so they waged a guerilla-style war, first on the Hellenized Jews to bring them back into the fold, and then against the Greeks. They won (YAY!!!!), but when they got back to the Temple were we worshipped, it had been desecrated. They cleaned it up and went to light the eternal light (ner tamid) which symbolizes G-d’s presence. It was burned with a special, purified oil that takes 8 days to produce. There was only enough oil for one day, they lit it anyway and it burned for 8 days--long enough to produce more oil.
Boom. Miracle. Hanukkah commemorates that miracle and that we managed to maintain our religious freedom and Jewish identity. It’s also called the Festival of Lights, because...light, obviously.
Is the lighting of the menorah a family activity/ceremony, or do you each do it on your own?
Every family does this differently, but the Aviva family all lights our own hanukkiah, which is the specific menorah used for Hanukkah. Kind of like all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares. I think my now 6 year old started lighting her own, with help at about 3 years old.
This year I’m making a felt menorah with velcro so that my toddler can “light” with us.
What is your favorite Hanukkah book for young kids and why?
I love, love, love Little Red Ruthie. First, I have a weird love for Little Red Riding Hood stories. Second, it is a FUN book. The best thing is that it manages to be a cute story, incorporate Hanukkah traditions, and tell the Hanukkah story and it does it well.
Do you find it difficult to get your kiddos excited about Hanukkah when Christmas is EVERYWHERE and so commercialized?
This was more of an issue for us at the beginning of our Jewish practice when we stopped celebrating Christmas, but not so much anymore. I think it’s partially due to their attendance at a Jewish private school, but also it’s just become what we do.
Plus, I basically stop leaving the house after October 31st. Hahahahaha. That’s not because I’m anti-Christmas. It’s because I’m anti-crazy crowds and drivers.
Are there any Christmas traditions (tree, lights) that your family participates in or incorporates into your celebrations?
No. The first year we started our conversion, we started in September. We celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas. It was a nightmare for my spouse and me--and our wallet. At that time we were an interfaith family; my husband had no intention of converting to Judaism, but we weren’t attached to Christmas so we just stopped.
We spent the next year “prepping the kids” and it was a change, but it went well. Now no one in the house can imagine anything different.
What is your favorite part about your family’s Hanukkah celebration?
My favorite part is that Hanukkah lasts 8 days, so if I don’t have all my gifts ready, I’ve got time. LOL. But if I’m being honest, one night we give the kids money for tzedakah (charity). The next day we go and shop for donations either to the food pantry or toiletries to the homeless shelter. I don’t know if the lesson is sinking in, but I want them to recognize that we can bring a little light into the lives of others.
Can you tell me the significance of covering your hair for Shabbat?
I think hair covering, whether all the time or only on Shabbat, is more of an Orthodox Jewish practice. I’m not an Orthodox Jew, and I don’t cover my hair on every Shabbat. When I do, though, it’s to remind myself that this day is different and I need to be different--more patient, more thoughtful, and more aware of G-d’s presence.
Are there any different rules about covering your hair during Hanukkah? Or possibly a different or more formal head dress specifically for this holiday?
You converted to Judaism only a few years ago-do you celebrate either Christmas or Hanukkah with your extended family? How have you handled changing traditions?
Oy...this is a loaded question. So...no, we don’t celebrate Christmas. Our concession has been to have dinner with my mother and siblings later in the day after all the festivities are done.
No more Christmas went over better with some of our family than it did with others, and unfortunately some of those relationships were really impacted by our new holiday.
One night during Hanukkah we invite my extended family over and cook latkes (fried potato pancakes), play dreidel, and exchange small gifts. We try to include our family in our holidays and we celebrate any holidays that don’t conflict with Jewish theology with them--like Independence Day, etc.
Are there any traditional Hanukkah foods?
There’s a meme floating around called “Jewish Holidays explained for Non-Jews” or something like that. Hanukkah is described as greasy foods and fundamentalism week, which is, frankly, hilarious.
Since the holiday is about the miracle of burning oil, the tradition is to eat fried foods. In America that’s mostly latkes, fried potato pancakes. In Israel, they typically eat fried jelly donuts called sufganyiot. Really, though, anything fried is a-ok.
What about decorations/colors?
Many families don’t decorate at all, other than their menorot (plural of menorah). I like to put other lights/candles around the house and a few festive decorations, but it is much more low-key than Christmas.
Most decorations for Jewish holidays are going to blue and white because those are the colors of the Israeli flag. For Hanukkah, I typically stick stick to shades of blue along with white. I am a bit of a decor rebel, though, so at some point, I’ll probably try something wild. Zebra print?
If there was one thing you wish everyone could understand about Hanukkah, what would it be?
Hanukkah is NOT Jewish Christmas. It happens to fall around the same time, and in America has been set up that way. It’s actually a very minor holiday. We do give gifts in my family, but they are small, and we don’t give them every night. Although we do give one big gift on the last night. We try to focus on miracles, bringing light into the darkness, and being together as a family and being free to practice our tradition.
Your first book features Judaism as a main theme, do you have any ideas/plans for a Hanukkah book?
I don’t, actually. I’ve made a conscious effort not to write holiday themed books. Ezra’s BIG Shabbat Question is technically about a holiday (Shabbat), but I just feel that there are plenty of books about Jewish holidays. I’d like to focus on everyday life as a Jewish family of color.
You are a mother of four-what do you find is the hardest thing to balance with making books and motherhood?
There’s a big age gap between my 3rd child and my 4th--5 years. My older kids are in school most of the day. Since Mimi became a toddler, getting work done during the day has become more difficult, but I can work around nap time most days.
However, I did approach self-publishing Ezra’s BIG Shabbat Question and my forthcoming books as a business, so we put capital in each month, until my company becomes self-sustaining. There are times that I think about how that money could be spent on our kids and I feel guilty.
What did you do for a living before you became an author?
I’ve been a stay-at-home-parent for twelve years, since I was expecting my first son, Nate. This last year has been a weird year of shifting my perspective about what it is I “do.” When people ask, there’s a 50/50 chance I’ll stay that I’m a SAHM or that I’m a children’s author.
“Ezra” was obviously based on a real experience with your son-what made you decide that particular “kid-ism” would be a book?
I don’t think it comes across in the book, but my son Evan, whom Ezra is based on has high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder. He’s never asked that particular question, but he will obsess about a subject or issue and question. it. to. death.
When I got the idea for the book, the question came first, and then I decided to go with it. Ezra is my real life--a joyful, chaotic home, a babbling baby, an imaginative girl, a surly tween, and my sweet boy with a million questions and an encyclopedic knowledge of all sorts of minutiae.
I would not be surprised if Evan grows up to be a rabbi. Not that I’m pushing. He can do anything he wants to do, except live in my basement until he’s 30. I mean, I don’t even have a basement, so that’s not an option.
“Ezra” shows your family members, your home (in great detail!), and synagogue. How much of the illustrations are based on what they actually look like and how much is Anastasia’s own imagination?
Ninety-eight percent of the illustrations are true to life, including the kids’ bedrooms, and my front hallway, and my synagogue. The local friends who know us and attend our Temple comment on it all the time. I gave Anastasia pictures and she was bang on.
The only part that isn’t true to life is my kitchen. I’m sorry, but I currently hate my kitchen, so I had her create the kitchen of my dreams. Actually, I’m not sorry. I’m hoping my wonderful husband takes note (hint, hint). LOL!
Since all four of your children are introduced in “Ezra”, are you going to be formatting your future books as a series?
That is a giant NOPE. Nope, nope, nope. Ha! When I wrote my other manuscripts, I found that having the same characters recur in the books made them unwieldy. I’d rather have a better story than something completely true to life. Our big family worked well in Ezra’s BIG Shabbat Question. It didn’t work so well in other stories.
My next book, Ora: Summer Camp Stowaway, features a family with three children. This is my 6 year old daughter Wendy’s book. I decided that each book will have one of my kids as the main character, but the family makeup will be different. Not only does this make the stories better, but it gives me the opportunity to show different families--same-sex families, single parent families, etc.
Tell me about a really high HIGH from your author journey so far, and a really low LOW?
Just one? I’m blessed to have had many. In September, my local newspaper, the Greensboro News and Record, did a front page featured profile on me. Greensboro, NC has a population of around 300,000 and I figured not many would be interested. However, the article was widely shared. I mean hundreds of times in Jewish circles--parent groups, writing groups, synagogue groups, groups for lawyers.
I sold more than 500 books in 12 weeks.
I did a “huge” print run of 1000 books, and *snap* just like that, more than half of them are gone. Incredible. I say “huge” because 1000 books is a daunting number to me, but I was told by many people it was peanuts. Yeah...okay. HA.
Do you have a release estimate for Ora?
My next book, Ora: Summer Camp Stowaway will be released in either March or April 2020. Since it’s a book about Jewish summer camp, I want it out in the spring so that kids can read it and get excited for camp.
It is very likely to be released in paperback. I’m slightly disappointed, because I love my hardcover books, but the important thing is getting the books in kids’ hands. If paperback is how I can do that, bring on the paperback!
Tell me about a big goal you have for the upcoming year career-wise-other than Ora of course!
My original goal was to publish two books in 2020--Ora and an as yet untitled book about my older son, Nate. That’s still the loose plan, but I find myself with many opportunities coming my way that aren’t related to writing children’s books.
So my secondary goal is a rebranding. I’m working on transitioning from Aviva Brown, author, to Aviva Brown, author and…
That’s it, just and… There isn’t really a word. I guess you could say “lifestyle blogger,” except that I have four children. I’m not going to be an aspirational type. Maybe Aviva Brown, author and anti-lifestyle maven? I’ll think of something absurd to call it.
Final Question: What is your favorite guilty pleasure junk food/candy?
Popcorn. I’m not even kidding. I love popcorn so much, it’s listed in my website bio. I eat 2-3 bags of microwave popcorn a day. At least it’s low-calorie? Just kidding. I don’t care.
To learn more about Aviva or order her book, visit her website, www.avivabrown.com