No Match for Hershel

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins: 25th Anniversary Edition – written by Eric Kimmel, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
Holiday House, 2014 (reissued 2022)

The wicked if foolish goblins who try to destroy the darkness-challenging festival of Hanukkah are no match for Hershel, the determined character from Jewish folklore who refuses to be scared away.  The goblins are also no match for two stars of children’s literature, author Eric Kimmel and late illustrator Trina Schart Hyman.  This beautiful slip-cased edition, which includes a poster, reminds readers how gifted artists can offer unique interpretations of classic tales.  There are many children’s books about Hanukkah which emphasize heroism, but Hershel’s clever mechanisms to outwit would-be destroyers of Jewish tradition is different.  Kimmel’s twist on tradition, and Hyman’s glorious depictions of the story make this an unforgettable Hanukkah book. (I’ve reviewed other Kimmel Hanukkah books here and here.)

In a thoughtful afterword, Kimmel explains the book’s genesis.  He had developed the idea of creating a Hanukkah story “along the lines of Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol.Hershel is decidedly not an imitation, nor is it a project implying that Jewish children inevitably want, or need, to celebrate Christmas. (One of the worst offenders of many in this category is Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf, but the more subtle and well-intentioned Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein sends the same message.) Kimmel gives an entirely Jewish character the opportunity to act autonomously within a recognizable Eastern European setting–one with which Jews are all-too-familiar—with attacks on Jewish culture and lives.  Kimmel writes of how thrilled he was to learn that Trina Schart Hyman would illustrate his book: who wouldn’t be?  As Hyman graciously and accurately wrote to him, “I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to work on a manuscript that implies great visual stuff, but know enough to stop at the implication.”

In his village of Ostropol (link to image of Hershel of Ostropol), Hershel learns that his fellow Jews will not be able to celebrate Hanukkah that year because of a menacing group of goblins. These nasty, if mythical, antisemites are blowing out Hanukkah candles, as well as destroying dreidels and tossing out potato latkes.  But Hershel is fearless.  His language, and all of Kimmel’s narration, are understated.  When he confronts the monsters, whether those “no bigger than a horsefly” or grotesquely huge, he knows just which words to speak in order to undermine their project. Instead of showing terror at the King of the Goblins himself, Hershel responds calmly, “Don’t be silly. You’re one of the boys from the village. You’re trying to scare me.” When he teaches one goblin how to play dreidel, Hershel counters the creatures’ relentless negativity with “Don’t go…Stay awhile. We’ll have fun.” He is also adept at using simple mind games against his enemies. If a goblin is so greedy that he finds himself unable to pull his hand out of pickle jar, it’s easy enough for Hershel to convince him that the jar has supernatural powers.

Hyman’s goblins are both demonic and hilarious.  Hershel is humble but dignified. The buttons on his vest are not all closed and his coat swings around as he taunts his nemesis, the pickle eater, who stamps his foot in frustration like Rumpelstiltskin. The town is poor, but strengthened by love and loyalty.  Cousins to Sendak’s wild things, if somewhat more grotesque, the artist’s goblins are reptilian, with allusions to Greek mythology and classic fairy tales.  Hershel’s expressive facial expressions contrast with the exaggerated ones of his opponents. Playing dreidel, Hershel looks calm, while the baffled goblin stares at his diminishing pile of coins.  When Hershel finally succeeds in defeating the goblins and the fierce storm they had provoked, the peaceful town is covered in snow, as Hershel’s invincible menorah glows. Even better, “…there was no reason to worry. In every window there stood a menorah with nine gleaming candles to light the way.”  It takes more than some angry goblins to spoil Hanukkah in Ostropol, when Eric Kimmel and Trina Schart Hyman are there to tell there story.

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