Whimsical dreidels and menorot catch childrens eyes

Clutching hold of her mother's leg in Berkeley's Afikomen, 3-year-old Erin Berg of Richmond announces, "I want to buy this."

The Winnie-the-Pooh dreidel she longs for has just arrived in the store as part of this year's Chanukah shipment.

"I don't think this is going back on the shelf," says Erin's mother, Sarah Alexander, seizing the dreidel.

Alexander, who recently visited the store to buy her first-ever menorah and dreidel, says that this Chanukah she would like Erin to have "fun and the beginnings of memories" through "objects she can relate to and be excited about."

The Pooh dreidel accompanies a Pooh menorah. Both items are new at Afikomen this year.

Also new are menorot in the form of Rolls-Royces and baseball diamonds, Chanukah music boxes, a plastic "piano" floor mat that plays Chanukah tunes when stepped on, and a soft red musical dreidel that produces a version of "The Dreidel Song" when squeezed.

"We're going to be hearing that for the next month," sighs Afikomen owner Jerry Derblich.

In Palo Alto, Shirley Bob of the Judaica store bob & bob is also busy unpacking boxes of Chanukah merchandise.

There are "all kinds of incredibly beautiful things" this year, says Bob — including a glass menorah with inlaid pressed flowers from Israel, and "a great big soft dreidel for a 1-year-old.

"It's always very exciting when we do the unpacking," she says.

For Ljuba Davis of Berkeley, also shopping in Afikomen, Chanukah is partly a "crafts holiday" when family and friends get together for a day of art and fun. For this year's party she has selected a make-it-yourself, dreidel-shaped piñata. She is also buying a children's book of Bible stories for a daughter who has moved to Norway.

"There's not much Judaica in Oslo," Davis says. Her daughter specifically requested a children's book that would be "easy to understand — for Norwegians who don't know much Jewish history."

Other book-minded parents will be glad to know that there are several new Chanukah-related titles on the market this year.

Jonathan Schwartz, librarian at the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco, is particularly fond of "The Borrowed Hanukkah Latkes" by Linda Glaser. In the story, a family befriends an elderly, lonely neighbor by progressively borrowing more and more from her for their Chanukah party.

"It's a nice story, with a good message," says Schwartz. Illustrations by Nancy Cote are "bright and cheerful," he adds.

Another new title, "By the Hanukkah Light" by Sheldon Oberman, has "wonderful illustrations by Neil Waldman" says Schwartz. He adds, however, that the book's toned-down introduction to the Holocaust ("a man came with an army and hurt a lot of people; we were afraid to put a chanukiah in the window") might not suit everyone's tastes.

For younger children, Harriet Ziefert's book "Eight Days of Hanukkah" has a rhyme for each night of the holiday.

"It's nice the way the pages are cut, each one getting slightly wider," says Schwartz.

From fun and novel gifts to serious presents, it seems this year there's a Chanukah gift for every interest and budget. Menorot at Afikomen range from $7 to $650; dreidels run from 50 cents to $170. But whether it's a collector's item or a party favor you're after, part of the fun is just seeing what's available.

"I try to have as much variety as possible," says Derblich, who attends major gift fairs in the United States and Israel in search of new merchandise.

"Every year, I love seeing all the creativity that's out there."