Until the book fell into 8-year-old Raquel Jarson's hungry hands last summer -- sent to her Morgan Hill home by Harold Grinspoon, a Massachusetts millionaire with the name of a Dr. Seuss-like character -- the Jewish tradition of giving, called "tzedakah," remained a mystery. "My daughter has autism," explained MariaElena Jarson, Raquel's mother. "She's always connected more with animals than with people."

But when Raquel learned about the tzedakah that members of her faith use as a collection box -- in this case, it's kosher to think of it as a Jewish piggy bank -- for money they give to less fortunate people, she was transformed. "That's how she decided that any money we would spend on a Hanukkah present for her she wanted to give to tzedakah," MariaElena Jarson said, "so we could buy warm blankets and a warm jacket for people who didn't have them." Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights, begins Saturday.

In Judaism, tzedakah is the religious obligation to do what is right and just, which describes the plot when a girl Raquel's age undertakes a giving project in "How Dalia Put a Big Yellow Comforter Inside a Tiny Blue Box." It is one of 3 million books distributed free by Grinspoon's PJ Library since he started the philanthropy in 2005, sending Jewish-themed children's books to 109,000 families in 185 communities nationwide each month. The Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley distributes 800 of those, and an additional 2,200 go through the Jewish Federation of East Bay.

God's partners

Tzedakah, which is pronounced like the surname of singer-songwriter Neil Sedaka -- whose name was adapted, in turn, from the Hebrew word for the "mitzvah" of giving -- is an act of religious obligation. "Jewish teaching is that all of us are responsible to care for others," said Marcie Greenfield Simons, director of PJ Library. "Even the poorest among us are technically required to give a little something to help somebody else. We are considered to be God's partners in this world, and therefore it's our job to help make the world a better place."

Raquel's brothers Isaac, 6, and Ari, 4, also collect money to put in the family's sizable collection of tzedakah boxes, but it wasn't until she experienced the catalyst of reading that Raquel decided to give the money she saved to someone whose Hanukkah was likely to be less warm than hers.

Tzedakah isn't charity; it's religious obligation. Children collect coins, or birthday money, in boxes -- which are usually modest, but can themselves be collectible -- then turn it over to the worthy cause of their choice. "It's based on a clear understanding," said Rabbi Leslie Alexander, of the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley, "that this is what we need to do as people alive in a just and righteous society."

"She told me she loved being Jewish," Raquel's mother recalled. "That's kind of unusual at this time of year. Christmas is so prevalent, little Jewish kids sometimes wish they were doing Christmas. She said, 'I love that we give tzedakah.' For any kid, that's awesome, but especially for a kid with autism. To have a child who wants to give more than receive, and who's helping make the world a better place. ..." Her voice began crack with emotion as she described how Raquel helped pick out blankets, bedding, a jacket and an umbrella, then dropped it off at their synagogue, Congregation Emeth in Morgan Hill.

Rabbi Alexander said the boxes were distributed with books last month to encourage seasonal giving. PJ Library's goal, she said, is to get "children to understand that no matter what age they are, they can be involved in doing something that counts to help people."

Ducka! Ducka!

That has been Grinspoon's mission since 1993, when he survived a cancer scare and found himself sitting atop a fortune made in real estate. Since then, his foundation has given away more than $110 million, some of it to Imagination Library, Dolly Parton's literacy program in East Tennessee. "When he saw the power of parents and children reading together," Simons said, "he coupled that with his love for the Jewish people and his deep concern for assuring the Jewish future."

Amanda Glincher with her two sons, Adam Orrin, 5, left, and Joey Orrin, 2, at their home in San Jose on Dec. 5, 2012.
Amanda Glincher with her two sons, Adam Orrin, 5, left, and Joey Orrin, 2, at their home in San Jose on Dec. 5, 2012. (Nhat V. Meyer/Staff)

Grinspoon named his massive giving project PJ Library -- suggestive of kids snug in their pajamas as they read with their parents -- hoping to encourage the traditions of his religion among Jewish children, who are as susceptible to the distractions of modern life as other kids. Grinspoon has a huge collection of tzedakah boxes, and decided to send out thousands of the boxes free, along with a list of suggested ways the money might be put to good use.

That idea excited 5-year-old Adam Orrin of San Jose, who took part in the Jewish Federation's Yellow Comforter Project, named for the book that caught the eye of Raquel Jarson. Adam gets money for doing chores, and his mother, Amanda Glincher, encourages him to give 10 percent of his earnings back to the tzedakah box. "We believe that regardless of where you stand," Glincher said, "there's always somebody else who needs it more."

Adam is the family's most formidable saver, but his little brother Joey, 2, is catching onto the tradition. "His brother loves tzedakah," Glincher said. "He calls it 'ducka.' He doesn't understand the concept of money, because most of us don't use cash in our daily shopping any longer. Whenever he sees a coin, he automatically assumes it's for tzedakah, and he'll walk around going 'Ducka! Ducka! Ducka!' "

Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.

Hanukkah services

San Jose
The Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley and PJ Library will conduct a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony Sunday from 4 to 5:30 p.m. in Santana Row Park.

East Bay
Temple Beth Hillel: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 9, 801 Park Central, Richmond. tbhrichmond.org, 510-223-2560
Jewish Community Center of the East Bay: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 9, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley, www.jcceastbay.org, 510-559-8140; $5. Event for adults will be 7 to 9 p.m. Dec. 13
Beth Jacob congregation: 6:45 p.m. Dec. 15, $10 per person, $36 per family, 3778 Park Blvd., dianewhitten@comcast.net
Oakland Hebrew Day School and PJ Library will host a Hanukkah-inspired story hour at the school (5500 Redwood Rd., Oakland) at 5 p.m., Dec. 12. Milk and cookies will be served. Call 510-531-8600 for information.

Peninsula
Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto, will have candle lighting, songs, dreidel games and traditional Israeli jelly doughnuts and latkes at a free event, Monday, Dec. 10, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., Schultz Cultural Arts Hall. Call 650-223-8692 or email earlychildhood@paloaltojcc.org for information.