People of the Book's Hanukkah Throwback
By Sala Levin
When you’re a child, Hanukkah is truly the most wonderful time of the year. There’s something magical about watching the multi-colored candles add up night after night, about your family stumbling their way through songs whose words no one can entirely remember, even about the gold-wrapped gelt that you gobbled down despite the fact that they tasted vaguely of plastic. Sometimes it snows, and those are the best years: when you come into the kitchen, your boots trailing snow, to hear latkes sizzling in hot oil and to see a present, neatly wrapped in blue and white paper, sitting at your spot on the table.
But then the teenage years come, and then the dreaded adulthood, and Hanukkah is pedestrian, dull–almost, it seems, irrelevant. No one bothers to grate potatoes for latkes anymore–tradition traded in for the convenience of the freezer section of the grocery store–and no one wants to pretend to remember the words to Maoz Tzur. The menorahs in the shopping malls, the plastic dreidels that never quite spin as well as they did in your youth: it all seems like a halfhearted response to the brashness of the Christmas season. “I’m here, too!” Hanukkah seems to be saying. “And look,” gesturing to a plate of jelly doughnuts, “I brought food!”
So, in an effort to revive some of Hanukkah’s youthful glimmer, People of the Book is going back–way back–to a childhood favorite: Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, the 1985 book by Eric Kimmel that has become a holiday staple. In the book, the lonely Hershel of Ostropol comes across a desolate village where no one celebrates Hanukkah for fear of the goblins that haunt the old synagogue. The only way to defeat them, Hershel is told, is to spend eight nights in the synagogue, lighting the Hanukkah candles each night until the final night, when the king of the goblins himself must light the candles. “If I can’t outwit a few goblins,” Hershel says, “then my name isn’t Hershel of Ostropol.” And off he saunters, hard-boiled eggs and pickles in hand, to rid the village of its Hanukkah goblins.
One by one, the goblins come, growing progressively more intimidating each night. But Hershel bests them all, capitalizing on their greed and utter foolishness. He tricks one into trapping his hand in a jar of pickles (who, after all, is immune to the draw of a sour pickle?) and another into losing all his gold in a dreidel set-up. They all leave the synagogue dejected, outsmarted by the clever Hershel of Ostropol, who each night manages to light every Hanukkah candle.
Finally, the last night arrives, and with it the dreaded king of the goblins. He is terrifying, a figure cloaked in darkness, both looming and malevolent. “Even in the darkness he could see the outline of a monstrous shape filling the doorway, a figure too horrible to describe.” But Hershel keeps his cool, rising to the occasion by fooling the king into lighting the Hanukkah candles under the guise of providing more light for Hershel to better see the king’s frightful visage.
And just like that, the spell is broken: the goblins are driven out of the village by Hershel and his chutzpah. The villagers are free to celebrate as they always wished they could have, with candles and dreidels and as many latkes as their stomachs can hold. Hershel is hailed as a hero: the man who saved Hanukkah.
But maybe the goblins of Hanukkah don’t just exist in the pages of a picture book; perhaps today’s goblins, are the trappings of adulthood that make us forget the special glow that the Hanukkah of our youths possessed, that turn Hanukkah into just so many days on the calendar. The plastic dreidels. The menorah in the mall food court. The presents we had to brave the holiday shopping crowd to buy.
If you’re like me, you probably have a copy of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins lying around your house somewhere. It’s probably in the basement, and the cover is probably missing a corner and the pages are likely a little frayed at the edges. Take it out this year, along with the wooden dreidel that’s hiding in one of your drawers and the cast iron skillet you never use. Enjoy Hanukkah the way you did as a kid: goblin-free.