hanukkah giftsRating: 3.5 stars
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Length: Novella

Jared Greenfield is dropping off some packages at the Jewish Community Center when he comes across a group of men playing basketball. Jared’s eyes are drawn to a gorgeous guy with great skills. When Jared runs him later on the train, they strike up a conversation and Jared is eager to get to know the handsome man.

Shai Goodhart is a modern Orthodox Jew with a close family. Jared is Jewish as well, but he is pretty much non-observant, so Shai decides to invite Jared to spend the evening with his family as they celebrate the second night of Chanukah. Jared enjoys the celebration and the insight he is getting into the rituals and traditions behind the holiday, but he is also somewhat off balance by how conservative Shai and his family are. Shai admits to Jared that he is gay, but also that his family has no idea and would not accept him due to their religious beliefs. In fact, Shai is expected to marry a woman his family has chosen. With Shai showing Jared what his life is like as a religious Jew, Jared in turn decides to show Shai what his life is like as a gay man in the city.

Over the course of the holiday, Shai and Jared begin spending more time together. At times Shai is wary, as no one knows he is gay and he is worried his secret will come out. But the attraction between the men is clear and despite their differences, feelings are growing between them. However, Shai and Jared live very different lives, not to mention that Shai’s family would not accept him being gay. Now the men have to figure out if they can make a relationship work despite their differences.

I always like to read some Chanukah stories this time of year, so I was excited when I saw this new story by Jacob Cheyenne. I was intrigued by the set up here with a modern Orthodox Jew paired with a secular, largely non-observant man. Even though these guys are officially the same religion, their lives are very different and it is interesting to explore how they could make a relationship work and bridge the divide. I also liked the idea of these two guys each exposing the other to their world and lifestyle, and I think that part worked pretty well here. I found Shai to be very likable; Jared was too at points and frustrating at others. I also appreciated that the story showcases some more substantial religious traditions than many holiday romances.

Where I struggled here was really believing in the relationship between these two. They meet the first night of Chanukah and it is only a matter of days before Jared is declaring his love, and by the 8th night they are both in love and thinking of a future together. But so many things remain unreconciled or discussed. Jared is at times interested and engaged in Shai’s religious views and I liked the parts where he is reflecting on his own beliefs in light of learning about Shai’s. But at other times Jared is so disparaging, calling Shai childish for following so many rules and being frustrated by the fact that he leads his life according to pretty strict Jewish laws. We never see Jared really come to accept this aspect of Shai. In fact, we are pages from the end of the story when Jared says he isn’t sure if he can be with an Orthodox Jew, yet the concern is then dropped. The guys also don’t have even the first conversation about how they would make a future together given their widely different beliefs. Yes, they are the same religion, but have nowhere near the same lifestyle. This would be a huge hurdle and one that I would have liked to see explored, at least a little, yet it is not even addressed at all. I wanted to believe that these guys could make a future together, but we are not given enough here for me to really imagine how it was possible.

I few more things worth mentioning. First off, though people’s individual observances vary widely, there were a couple of places where Shai’s actions required some significant suspension of my disbelief (for example, we know he keeps strict kosher, but then we see him eating brisket at Jared’s house that is never mentioned as kosher, nor is it served on kosher dishes, which seemed highly unlikely given his level of observance). I also found the writing here to be a lot of telling, rather than showing. It made the writing seem a little simple at times, with things just told to us outright. I also feel like the romance happens way too fast. Like I said, it is a matter of days and they are in love. And the very end seemed almost impossible for me to believe. I can’t go into detail without spoiling, but it seems totally uncharacteristic of Shai, not to mention unrealistic given the events right beforehand.

So there were parts of this story that I liked and others that didn’t work so well. But either way I did appreciate getting to read a Chanukah story that looks into the holiday and the religious aspects in a unique way.

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