Part of the way through the holiday-season classic Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, I pause and ask myself, What do goblins have to do with anything in the first place? And while we’re at it, what do enchanted dreidels or golem latkes have anything really to do with the festival of lights? Yes, Eric A. Kimmell, the famed children’s book writer responsible for Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, in addition to a number of other Hanukkah stories involving demons, goblins, and golems, hits the Hanukkah dreidel on the head. The question isn’t whether goblins are part of the canonical tale of Hanukkah, but whether there really is a canonical tale at all.
Hanukkah is a holiday with so many different origin stories, so many different traditions, rituals, practices, that ultimately its most fitting bard is a children’s book writer. Not just because Hanukkah isn’t really in the Torah, but because you don’t have to buy tickets to go to temple on Hanukkah, you don’t flock across state lines to eat with relatives, you don’t bring girlfriends or boyfriends home for Hanukkah, you don’t invite lonely Jews into your home because they don’t have a place to go for Hanukkah. It stands out because it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly the real story of Hanukkah is to begin with. Is it that they tried to kill us and we won, or the miracle of the oil, or the story of Jews refusing to practice in secret?
With Hanukkah, we aren’t really celebrating just one thing, and so it inevitably becomes a holiday of naked projection. Which is to say, the best Hanukkah literature has always been children’s books, and sometimes you get to write about goblins.
Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is about a traveler who comes across a town that cannot celebrate Hanukkah because goblins have taken over its synagogue. Hershel must go through a series of herculean tasks and use duplicity in order to oust goblins and return Hanukkah festivities to the village. He hunkers down in the old synagogue and waits each night for a different goblin to appear, out-maneuvering each before finally being confronted by the goblin leader.
Can you imagine goblins on Yom Kippur? Even Kimmell’s Passover children’s book is a sensible illustrated holiday companion text. Passover, the heart and soul of the modern Jewish experience, shows up in canonical Jewish literature precisely because its meaning is so distinct, because it is so special. It is the story of how we as a people do not belong here, wherever here is.
Passover and Yom Kippur are sacred literary refrains because we understand the fundamental framework of these holidays. They are touchstones in our lives. Every Jew knows what it feels like to be Jewish on Passover. But to be Jewish on Hanukkah? What that means is more or less up to us.
If Hanukkah gives us a chance at inventing how we wish to celebrate our Judaism, Hanukkah also offers writers a blank canvas. Hershel is not a fantasy interpretation of a holiday, but a reimagining of its true origin story. It was almost as if the holiday sprung not from the story of Maccabees but from Hershel himself.
The villagers give Hershel a few meager supplies and provisions (sadly no latkes) and send him off to the synagogue, convinced that he’ll never make it out. Using wit and ruses worthy of an Upper West Side Jewish matriarch, Hershel gives the boot to the goblins and restores Hanukkah celebrations. And even though the synagogue is destroyed in a final confrontation with a goblin, the menorah stands and the town bursts with celebration. And in each window, Hershel sees a menorah.
Kimmell does what no other author could do with Hanukkah. He tells an entire story of survival without expounding on the virtues of courage, or moralizing about the traditions of our ancestors. There is no ham-fisted attempt at teaching us the received meaning of Hanukkah. What Kimmell’s Hanukkah stories do is participate in one of the greatest storytelling traditions, which is available only to stories that are largely unwritten. He understood that because Hanukkah is about a moment when the practice of Judaism was forced underground its stories should inevitably be a variation on a theme—a foggy campfire interpretation, elastic and forgiving, necessarily different every time. And so what if one of them has goblins?
Read Alexander Aciman’s Bookworm column in Tablet magazine on Mondays.