Last weekend we had a wonderful visit from Eric Kimmel, one of the leading Jewish children’s book authors. Eric visited the Timberland Library on Saturday evening, then spent Sunday morning with our Beit Sefer families before concluding his time with a lunch with community members.
For a tradition that loves storytelling, Eric continues that tradition with retellings of old tales as well as new storiess. He draws upon well-known and not-so-well-know figures from Jewish folklore and also gives new life to holidays through his imaginative tellings.
One of his most popular books, which has become a classic, is Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. He read it as part of his visit, and it was a delight to see so many people bring their own personal copies (some quite well-worn) for him to sign. The book tells the story of Hershel of Ostropol, who, while visiting a town, agrees to challenge the Hanukkah goblins who haunt the synagogue. These goblins prevent the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah, and each night Hershel tricks them into letting him light the candles. The last night, the king of the goblins is similarly tricked, and heads off into the night.
At the lunch last Sunday Eric shared some of the stories behind the stories, as well as his own approach to storytelling and education. He provided some valuable insight, including the idea that Jewish storytelling is first and foremost about teaching values, and that is something he looks for in every story he writes.
Another powerful and poignant fact is about the reality of evil, and that it is necessary not to shield children from that fact. When he was talking about Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, he mentioned a speaking engagement at a synagogue where the cantor showed him an article he had written. The article compared the story of Hershel with the commonly known Dr. Seuss tale, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
The difference, wrote the cantor, is that in the latter book, evil is vanquished by being completely overcome. The Grinch is revealed to be simply uninformed or inexperienced in the joy of Christmas, and that is what causes him to be so mean. At the end of the book, after experiencing the joy, the Grinch is converted from his evil ways.
In contrast, at the end of Hershel, the goblins still exist. They haven’t been turned to good, they have simply been temporarily defeated. As Eric pointed out, the king of the goblins will simply move on to the next town. Evil was vanquished this time, but evil continues to exist.
This is truly a powerful observation, and astounding to think about absorbing this message, both for children and adults alike. When so much of our time–and children’s literature ink–is spent pretending that evil doesn’t exist, an admission of its reality is both terrifying and a relief. Yes, evil exists. Yes, we can defeat it. And yes, it will continue to manifest itself in one form or another.
Sometimes evil is made manifest in ways we can not control–as when a child is struck by cancer. And sometimes evil is human-created, as in the many ways we continue to oppress and harm one another.
This month, we remember one such manifestation of evil perpetrated against the Jewish community. 75 years ago this month the German government launched a pogrom against the Jews of Germany and Austria in what has commonly become known as Kristallnacht, or “Night of the Broken Glass.” Synagogues burned, Torahs and books destroyed, Jewish-owned shops were vandalized and looted, and Jews themselves rounded up and sent to camps. It is sometimes seen as the “beginning of the end,” the move from subtle laws and cultural biases against the Jews to outright and blatant action. (We will remember Kristallnacht this Friday at our Erev Shabbat services at Temple Beth Hatfiloh.)
In the scope of Holocaust remembrance, perhaps we don’t remember this period and event enough. And perhaps it is even more important that we remember this period of time. When we mark Yom Hashoah (“Holocaust Remembrance Day”) in the spring, we recall the enormity of the destruction of European Jewry and say, “never again” to genocide and mass murder.
But we also need to say “never again” to the subtle biases, the weighted laws and the community acceptance which can potentially be a prelude for greater destruction.
There is evil in our world and we need to face it. As we gather around our own menorahs this week to usher in the celebration of Hanukkah, we will be lighting up the darkness. Le us use that opportunity to, like Hershel, identify our goblins and seek to vanquish them. And when they move on, we’ll seek to do it again.