Dreidels on the Brain

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Dreidels on the BrainWhat the Book is About:

As the only Jewish kid at Bixby school, with a family that’s downright mortifying and flat broke, it’s no wonder that twelve-year-old Joel fantasizes about becoming a superhero – Normalman – that kid who looks like everyone else.

Joel’s life is full of challenges: his father suffers from Ankylosing Spondylitis and is disabled, and his mom has a host of medical issues as well. Money is a constant struggle, and if that’s not bad enough, Joel is short, wears thick glasses, and has braces. Luckily, he’s a talented magician and gets through life using his own particularly Jewish brand of self-deprecating humor. This story is set in the 1970s and is full of cultural and Jewish references from that period. 

In this poignant and funny coming-of-age story, Joel learns to appreciate the good things in life and manage the difficulties too. 

Jewish Content and Values

  • Joel and his family celebrate Hanukkah by lighting the menorah, singing songs, telling the story of the Maccabees, eating latkes, and, especially, playing dreidel.
  • There are many references to Jewish traditions, Yiddish humor, and Jewish celebrities throughout the story.  
  • Joel attends bar mitzvah class and converses with God regularly. 
  • Joel meets and is inspired by a Holocaust survivor, who shares his story. 

Positive Role Models

  • Joel is a kind son and comes across as more mature, thoughtful, and responsible than the average twelve-year-old. When his father gets bad news about his latest business venture, he tips over the chess game they were playing so he wouldn’t win the game and risk hurting his father’s feelings. At the beginning of the book he is ashamed to bring his unusual family to the school concert, but he eventually learns to embrace his life’s weirdness and walk with pride. 
  • Joel’s parents are optimistic characters who care deeply for their children and try to provide them with everything they need. 

Content Advisory

Joel’s father suffers from a painful, debilitating disease and when he stops taking his medication before a scheduled surgery, he falls into a coma (he recovers completely). Joel’s grandmother’s mental capacities have dwindled with age, and she had to be taken away in a straightjacket and institutionalized. All these episodes are handled with humor, and it all ends happily, but some children may be upset by the serious challenges that Joel faces. 

Joel meets a Holocaust survivor on a bus, and hears the man’s sad but inspiring story, which includes being starving, cold, and tattooed with a number. The kids discuss the Holocaust between themselves and share details about piles of eyeglasses and teeth from victims, and showers that spray poison gas.   

Talk it Over

When Howard, Joel’s older brother, began at Bixby as the only Jewish kid at school, some of his classmates threw pennies on the ground, teasing him that “Jews love pennies.” Have you ever witnessed someone being made fun of because of their religious or racial background? What did you do?

More For You

Judaism’s relationship with magic is complicated. It’s explicitly forbidden in Leviticus 19:26: “You shall not practice augury or witchcraft,” yet, the ancient mystical studies of Kabbalah paradoxically seem to encourage a relationship with the supernatural. Nowadays, popular belief in magic has waned, but many Jews still practice superstitions to avert the “evil eye” by wearing a hamsa (a symbol with an eye embedded in the palm of a hand, usually as a pendant) or a red string. Can’t hurt, can it?

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