Arts and Culture | Chanukah

CHANUKAH FEATURE: Celebrating Eric Kimmel’s Hershel, meeting new characters

BOSTON (JTA) — Back in 1984, when Eric Kimmel was an up-and-coming children‘sbook author, he tried his hand at a Hanukkah hershel and the hanukkah goblinsstory, one featuring goblins. Overly cautious Jewish editors rejected the manuscript, not knowing what to make of it, Kimmel recalled.

“It was strange. It didn’t look like any other Hanukkah books and didn’t fit into any neat category. It wasn’t a folk tale and it was kind of creepy,” he told JTA with his signature sense of humor and tell-it-like-it-is manner.

Kimmel tucked the story away in a drawer for a while.

Years later, some keen-eyed editors, first at Cricket magazine and later at Holiday House, took a chance on Kimmel’s offbeat tale, “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins,” illustrated by the late acclaimed artist Trina Schart Hyman.

The book was recognized with a 1989 Caldecott Honor and went on to win a place in the hearts and homes of Jewish and non-Jewish families, schoolteachers and librarians across the country. “Hershel” has been in print ever since.

Now, in time for Hanukkah, the eight-day Festival of Lights that begins this year on the evening of Dec. 16, Holiday House has issued its 25th anniversary edition of “Hershel and Hanukkah Goblins,” with a new afterword by Kimmel and Holiday House publisher John Briggs, who brought the book to light.

And Kimmel has a new Hanukkah tale out this year, “Simon and the Bear.”

As “Hershel and Hanukkah Goblins” opens, a wandering poor Jewish man named Hershel arrives in a Jewish village on a snowy day at the start of the holiday. For years, the townsfolk have been scared off by goblins from celebrating Hanukkah, they tell him. The evil doers blow out the Hanukkah candles, break the dreidels and throw the latkes on the floor, they bemoan.

But Hershel tells the rabbi he is not afraid.

“If I can’t outwit a few goblins, then my name isn’t Hershel of Ostropol,” Hershel says.

Each of the eight Hanukkah nights, Hershel outwits the goblins, one more menacing than the next. In the end, with clever maneuvers and quick thinking, he breaks their evil spell and returns the Festival of Lights back to the townsfolk with a triumph to match the holiday’s own miracle.

Growing up, Kimmel enjoyed hearing stories of Hershel of Ostropol from his storytelling grandmother. He sees the folk character as a hero among the people, the opposite of the fools of Chelm. 

Hershel has street smarts, is practical and takes on the mighty and powerful.

“He’s surviving day to day and using his wits,” Kimmel says.

The book was hailed as a perfect match between the master storyteller and Schart Hyman, whose vibrant paintings set the tone with darkened scenes illuminated by the golden glow of the Hanukkah candles and shiny gelt coins.

In addition to the strong pairing between art and story, “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” is considered a classic because of Kimmel’s ability to tell a mesmerizing story, says Anita Silvey, the author of “100 Best Books for Children” and “Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children‘s Book.”

“Readers from different backgrounds learn about Jewish culture, but what pulls them along is a story,” Silvey wrote in an email.

Kimmel, 68, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., has gone on to win two National Jewish Book Awards and the Sydney Taylor Award for Jewish children‘s  books.

He recalls a letter from a young reader with a Latino background who said Hershel was his favorite Halloween story. Kimmel says he receives many requests for permission to turn the story into  theatrical productions.

“I am always flattered,” he says.

Kimmel says “Simon and the Bear” (Disney Hyperion; ages 3-6) may be his best work. It’s a charming, witty, feel-good adventure based on a sad story that Kimmel read about the sinking of the Titanic. The book was illustrated by Matthew Trueman.

Here are some other new Hanukkah books for children:

Beautiful Yetta’s Hanukkah Kitten

Daniel Pinkwater, illustrated by Jill Pinkwater
Macmillan ($17.99), ages 3-8

A fun-filled collaboration between the Pinkwaters — the humorist Daniel and his artist wife, Jill — will enliven Hanukkah in this new Yetta the Yiddish-speaking chicken tale. Yetta’s flown the coop from a Brooklyn poultry market and takes up with a cast of nest mates who jest in English and Yiddish translations. A lost kitten in need of care leads them to celebrate Hanukkah with a warmhearted grandmother. The large-format pages sparkle with brilliant and entertaining color illustrations. 

The Dreidel That Wouldn’t Spin
Martha Seif Simpson; illustrated by Durga Yael Benhard
Wisdom Tales ($16.95); ages 5 and up

In this beautifully illustrated tale set in the old world, the keeper of a toy shop offers a mysterious dreidel to a young boy from a poor family. The boy’s humility emits a small miracle from the special dreidel. An author’s note explains the holiday, dreidels and how to play the dreidel game.

Here is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays
Leslea Newman; illustrated by Susan Gal
Abrams Books for Young Readers ($18.95); ages 4-7

A lavish and brightly illustrated book by the award-winning writer Leslea Newman lyrically rhymes its way through the Jewish holidays, including Hanukkah. End pages explain Jewish customs and holidays and include recipes, including fried potato latkes for Hanukkah. A perfect Hanukkah gift for young readers.

Latke, the Lucky Dog
Ellen Fischer; illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke
Kar-Ben ($17. 95 hardcover; $7.95 paperback); ages 2-7

A newly adopted dog from a shelter is a family Hanukkah gift that delights a young brother and sister. Latke, the dog, feels very lucky to be living with the loving family, but in innocence he gets into mischief and threatens to spoil the Hanukkah celebrations. The story, told from Latke’s perspective, will delight dog-loving kids.

The Night Before Hanukkah
Natasha Wing; illustrated by Amy Wummer
Grosset & Dunlap ($3.99); ages 2-5

This rhyming Hanukkah story for young kids is Natasha Wing’s newest entry in her best-selling series of “night-before” books. Rhymes and illustrations are lively as the story follows a family celebrating Hanukkah and retelling a simple version of the holiday story.

Miracle for Shira: a Chanukah Story
Galia Sabbag; illustrated by Erin Taylor
Available on ($12; also ebook through; ages 4-8

This entry in a series by Galia Sabbag, a longtime Jewish educator, features the spunky and curious Shira searching for her new unusual dreidel sent by her aunt in Israel that is lost at school. Hebrew words, written also in English, are sprinkled throughout the text. Erin Taylor’s large format, animation-like illustrations enliven the story that’s a good read for kids in Jewish and religious schools.