When Mindy Saved Hanukkah and the Eldridge Street Synagogue

By Judy Greenspan, Museum at Eldridge Street Education Director

East Side, West Side, all around the town, there’s no shortage of wonderful children’s books that take place in New York City museums. The American Museum of Natural History has The Night at the Museum, a charming picture book that inspired the blockbuster movies of nearly the same name. Across the park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the intriguing setting for the children’s classic, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. And downtown at Eldridge Street, we have When Mindy Saved Hanukkah. Although our museum did not yet exist when the book was published – this wonderful holiday story takes place in the Eldridge Street Synagogue.


Written by Eric Kimmel, and beautifully illustrated by Barbara McClintock, When Mindy Saved Hanukkah is about the tiny Klein family (and we do mean tiny – they’re all just a few inches tall) who live behind the walls of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. It’s Hanukkah and Papa has ventured into the sanctuary to find a candle for the holiday. But beyond the walls, he runs into trouble, big trouble, in the form of an enormous cat. “An Antiochus” of a cat, he gasps, when he returns home breathless, bruised, and sadly, without the candle.

The book title gives you some hint of what happens next, and on December 14th Preservation Detectives will follow Mindy’s adventures as they go on a treasure hunt around the Eldridge Street Synagogue to find the candle and to save Hanukkah.

Since our family program is inspired by Mr. Kimmel’s story, we wanted to find out what inspired him back in 1998 when he wrote the book. His answers might surprise you!

Eldridge: Which came first: did you have the idea for this story and then visit the Eldridge Street Synagogue, or did the Synagogue inspire the story?

EK: I’ve never visited the synagogue. The story came first. Even better was that we had a real place to put it. My hope was that the story would bring attention to the worthy goal of restoring the synagogue to its old glory.

Eldridge: Why did you choose to base When Mindy Saved Hanukkah in the Eldridge Street Synagogue?

EK: It was a roundabout decision. My editor, Dianne Hess, and I worked out the story over lunch at an Italian restaurant in New Orleans. We came up with the idea of a Jewish family that lives behind the walls of a synagogue. Which synagogue? I had just read an article about the Eldridge Street Synagogue being renovated. I thought, “Why not have them live there?”

Eldridge: Did you know anyone who came here?

EK: No. I had no personal contact with anyone who ever set foot in the synagogue. I only know about it from articles in the paper and from its significance to the Jewish immigrant community at the turn of the last century

Eldridge: Can you describe how the synagogue looked in 1998, the year the book was published?

EK: The synagogue was being renovated when the book came out. I’m told there was nothing much here to see. Barbara McClintock, the illustrator, had to rely on old photographs to create the pictures of the interior because it didn’t look like that when she was working on the illustrations.

Eldridge: Do you think the restored synagogue would have provided the same inspiration for your book as it did back in the 1990s?

EK: That’s hard to say. My actually being in the synagogue might’ve inspired a completely different story. Maybe there’s another story within those walls? Who can say? I just might have to go there myself.

Eldridge: Did you know illustrator Barbara McClintock before writing the book? Can you describe your reaction to her drawings?

EK: Barbara and I are Facebook friends. We’ve never met face-to-face. I love her illustrations. I always hoped that we might do another story about Mindy and her family. I thought about taking them to Coney Island. That never happened, but that’s okay. I don’t think there’s a better illustrator for capturing what life was like 100 years ago.

Barbara’s drawing of Bubbe and Zayde is partially based on a picture of my great grandparents which I sent her. She really got them right. My great-grandfather was drafted into the Austrian army in 1858. He served until 1864. The general selected him to be his valet. As the general’s personal servant, nobody said boo to him. He was in several battles. Everyone who ever knew him described him as a martinet. He was afraid of nothing. Not even a giant cat!

Eric Kimmel's great-grandfather who served as inspiration for the Zayde character in "When Mindy Saved Hanukkah"

Eric Kimmel’s great-grandfather who served as inspiration for the Zayde character in “When Mindy Saved Hanukkah”

Thank you Eric Kimmel for sharing your thoughts on the genesis of Mindy. We invite you to visit Eldridge Street and see how our restored landmark looks in comparison to Barbara McClintock’s beautiful illustrations. And who knows what you might discover in the sanctuary’s nooks and crannies!

Our interview with Eric Kimmel was edited and condensed. 


Categories: Blog, Jewish History

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