Two writers speaking with one voice
North Jersey author Chana Stiefel talks about collaboration with her husband, Dr. Larry Stiefel
Chana Stiefel of Teaneck always wanted to be a writer. Growing up in Miami, she spent a lot of time writing. As a sixth grader, she started a newspaper called The 6th Grade Sentinel. During a gap year in Israel, she started a newsletter about the gap-year program. As a student at Yeshiva University’s Stern College, Ms. Stiefel wrote for both the school’s newspaper and its literary journal. Next, she earned a master’s degree in science, health, and environmental reporting at New York University.
Ms. Stiefel interned and then worked at Scholastic, which publishes children’s books; that got her interested in writing for children. Then she started writing children’s books and has published about 30 so far. Her first books were about science and history, because “I love nature and I love sharing experiences in nature with kids and I love science and explaining science to kids,” she said.
She started writing fiction books a few years later. One evening in 2008, as she was putting the youngest of her four children, Maya, then about 7, to bed, Maya was angry with her father. Ms. Stiefel joked that they should return him to the daddy store, and that idea evolved into her first fiction book, “Daddy Depot.”
Ms. Stiefel recently came out with her first two Jewish books, “Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up,” co-authored with her husband, Dr. Larry Stiefel, a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics, and “The Tower of Life: How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs,” illustrated by Susan Gal. The new books will be introduced at a number of upcoming local events.
“Mendel” is a humorous holiday tale about a young man who always messes up but learns that everyone makes mistakes, and sometimes the results can be miraculous.
The story begins with a description of Mendel’s holiday mistakes; flipping the number of potatoes and onions in a latke recipe that calls for five potatoes and only one onion, placing sparklers instead of candles in the menorah, and accidentally leaving a tray of jelly donuts on Rabbi Klein’s chair. But despite the mistakes, the rabbi believes in Mendel and offers him the best job — driving the Mitzvah Mobile around town and inviting everyone to the big Chanukah bash. What could possibly go wrong?
Mendel was so filled with joy as he drove around, proudly displaying the large menorah with glowing candles that was affixed to the van’s roof that he didn’t notice an overpass, and the giant menorah crashed into the bridge. After the police and the tow truck arrived, a news team came to cover the story. Mendel was mortified but remembered Rabbi Klein’s lessons and “stood up taller like the shamash — the special candle that lights all the others” as he told the story of Chanukah on camera. And when the tow truck pulled the dented van away, the menorah’s candles were still glowing — a surprise that the news team reported as a Chanukah miracle.
When Mendel finally arrived at the bash, he was hailed as a hero; the holiday is about publicizing the miracle of Chanukah, Rabbi Klein explained, and Mendel had put it in the news.
This cute, funny story, with adorable illustrations by Daphna Awadish, received a starred review from School Library Journal. The book is geared to children who can’t read yet, but older children and adults certainly will enjoy the heartwarming story.
The original idea for “Mendel” was Dr. Stiefel’s. He is the creator of a short story blog, the “Maggid of Bergenfield,” which began with stories Dr. Stiefel told his family around the Shabbat table. He started to write them down and began writing a story each week about the weekly Torah portion and upcoming holidays. He worked on it for four years, until 2018, so now there are four stories for each Torah portion. “The stories are intended to make you think about the weekly Torah portion in a new way,” he said.
Dr. Stiefel loves writing and particularly enjoys writing short stories because the genre lets the author get an idea across easily, he said. And the story ideas just come to him.
One Chanukah, when Ms. Stiefel was in Israel for a family bar mitzvah, Dr. Stiefel challenged himself to write eight stories over the eight days of the holiday. “Mendel’s Hanukkah Mess Up” was created from one of those stories.
This is the first time the Stiefels co-authored a book, and both enjoyed the process. “It was a pleasure to work together,” Ms. Stiefel said. “We had a great time talking the story out. Larry is very funny and was very involved in the drafting and editing process.”
“The process was really fun,” Dr. Stiefel agreed. “We laughed a lot as we were coming up with ideas for Mendel’s mistakes.
“Chana is a wonderful writer, so it was really a joy to write this with her,” he continued. “Having her as my partner was really easy because she’s so good at this.”
The plot is the same as in the original story in the blog, but the Stiefels adapted the language and some of the scenes to better fit the picture book genre. The mess-up scenes in the beginning of the story, for example, were changed to be more visual.
Would they co-author another book?
“I’d love to,” Ms. Stiefel said. “Larry has a treasure trove of stories on his blog. One of these days we’d love to look through them together and see which ones would make good books.”
Dr. Stiefel also would love to collaborate again. “Chana is a pleasure to work with,” he said. “She’s my wife and she’s wonderful — and she’s also a very professional writer.”
Although the story is about Chanukah, and Jewish audiences will appreciate its specificity, the book’s underlying themes — believing in yourself and each person having a spark to light up the world — are universal. Mendel is a very relatable character, both to Jewish audiences and to broader ones. “I definitely relate to him because I mess up all the time — who doesn’t mess up?” Ms. Stiefel said. “The book teaches that it’s perfectly fine to mess up sometimes.”
“The Tower of Life” also is a picture book but it has a very different tone and is geared to older children and adults. The book tells the true story of Yaffa Eliach, a Holocaust survivor and historian, who recreated the spirit of her beloved Polish town, Eishyshok, with a soaring exhibit of more than 1,000 photographs at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter asked Dr. Eliach to help build a memorial to Holocaust victims and she accepted the assignment. Her goal was to restore humanity to the victims. She wanted her townspeople to be remembered not as prisoners of the Nazi regime, but as human beings, so she built a memorial that would shine a light on their lives.
Dr. Eliach’s grandmother, Alte Katz, had been one of the town’s photographers and had captured newlyweds, babies, bar mitzvah boys, and regular life in Eishyshok on film. Before each Jewish New Year, townspeople would send these pictures with holiday greetings to relatives around the world. When Yaffa was 6, the Nazis invaded, and the Jews were rounded up in the town’s synagogue. Yaffa and her parents escaped, and they were able to tuck a few family photographs into her shoes. Virtually all the town’s approximately 3,500 Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Yaffa and her parents miraculously survived. She eventually moved to the United States and brought the family pictures with her.
As Dr. Eliach set out to design a memorial, she remembered those family photos and wondered if some of them that Jews in Eishyshok had mailed to relatives during happier times had been saved, too.
She put ads in newspapers, spoke on radio shows, and followed leads. She tracked down former residents who had left before the war and relatives who had received the mailed pictures, or their descendants, in virtually all 50 states and on six continents. When she found people, they often connected her with others, and as news of the project spread, people began reaching out to her.
Dr. Eliach ultimately spent 17 years collecting pictures and wound up with 6,000 photographs, including images of almost every member of Eishyshok’s Jewish community from the mid-19th century until 1941.
“Dr. Eliach’s idea was to restore humanity to victims of the Holocaust by showing that they are regular people,” Ms. Stiefel said. The pictures were of celebrations and of new babies, of shopkeepers and people tending their chickens, of children playing in the snow and swimming in lakes, of regular people living their lives. “The exhibit makes the people of the town relatable.”
“The Tower of Life” is a story of hope and resilience, shining a light onto the beautiful — and also very ordinary — community of Eishyshok.
The book has received many awards. It is a Junior Library Guild Gold Medal Selection and received a 2002 Eureka! Nonfiction Children’s Book Award Honor/Silver Medal from the California Reading Association; three starred reviews — from School Library Journal, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly; and a New York Times book review. The book also has been listed as a Best Nonfiction Book of 2022 by the New York Public Library, the Chicago Public Library, and School Library Journal. In addition, its artwork has been selected for the Society of Illustrators Original Art Show in New York City and will be on display until January 7, 2023.
Ms. Stiefel learned about Dr. Eliach from her 2016 obituary in the New York Times. “I had no idea when I started writing how relevant the messages in the book would be,” she said. “I think that’s what is resonating right now.
“Dr. Eliach wanted everyone who saw the photographs to see themselves in the pictures and to recognize and appreciate our shared humanity. And I feel like what the world needs right now, with the rising antisemitism, is empathy; for people to appreciate that we’re all just people, that the victims of the Holocaust were people, that Jews everywhere are just human beings living our lives like everyone else. There’s so much hatred in the world right now, and Yaffa’s message is one of hope, resilience, and light.
“In this climate, I think it’s really important to produce Jewish books and to share our Jewish stories,” Ms. Stiefel concluded. “It’s important to share Jewish joy, as Mendel does. And since survivors are passing away, we need to carry on their memories. If we don’t tell their stories, who will?”