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  • Blog Posts
  • Putting Books to Work

Putting Books to Work: Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins

by Aimee Rogers
 | Dec 17, 2014

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (25th Anniversary Edition).
Written by Eric A. Kimmel. Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. New York: Holiday House.
Grades: PreK – 12

Full disclosure: I am not Jewish. My knowledge of Hanukkah is basic. In addition, I am a strong believer in the idea of avoiding the heroes and holidays approach that is often used to integrate different cultures into our classroom. However, the 25th anniversary of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is worthy of notice as is the book itself. The author, Eric A. Kimmel, himself remarks his stories of Hanukkah are not meant to teach about the holiday. “They’re Hanukkah tales that make no effort to teach about Hanukkah,” he has said. His assertion allowed me to feel comfortable writing about this book.

On the first night of Hanukkah, Hershel of Ostropol is looking for a warm place to stay for the night and some delicious Hanukkah food. However, when he approaches the next village there are none of the bright lights and celebrations that he was expecting. The townspeople meet him outside to explain that the village has been tormented by goblins that don’t allow them to celebrate Hanukkah. Hershel quickly exclaims he is not afraid of goblins. The Rabbi tells him what must be done to break the curse. Hershel must spend eight nights in the village synagogu and the Hanukkah candles must be lit every night. However, on the eighth, and final night of Hanukkah, the king of the goblins himself must light the Hanukkah candles.

Readers of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins are treated to a description of how Hershel outwits the first three goblins. Each of the goblins is larger and fiercer than the one before and requires more to outwit. Hershel defeats each of the six goblins until the seventh night when the goblin king visits him from afar and gives him a reprieve, but warns him about his visit the following evening.

Although it takes all his strength, Hershel is able to outsmart the goblin king as well, which is difficult as the king himself needs to light the eight Hanukkah candles. However, Kimmel, using what he knows about bullies, relies on the goblin king taking great pride in his ability to scare. Hershel asks the goblin king to light the candles so he can see him better and fully appreciate the terror. The king, unaware he is actually lighting the Hanukkah candles, complies so that he may scare Hershel more completely. Needless to say, he is quite upset when he realizes he, too, has been outsmarted by Hershel. Hershel, through his quick thinking, is able to bring Hanukkah back to the village by defeating each of the goblin visitors.

The story of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins originally appeared in Cricket magazine Dec. 1985 and a few color illustrations from Trina Schart Hyman accompanied it. Kimmel had had no luck trying to publish the story previous to this, but once it appeared in Cricket there was no shortage of publishers interested in the story, particularly with more illustrations by Hyman.

In writing about Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, Kimmel reveals two interesting, but perhaps contrasting, inspirations for the story. He wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn, “My sources were not Jewish at all. The story comes from a Russian tale, ‘Ivonko, the Bear’s Son,’ in Aleksandr Afanasiev’s classic collection of Russian fairy tales.

Kimmel also found inspiration in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. “I wasn’t interested in explaining or defending the holiday. I wanted to find its spirit. My model was Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which ignores the religious trappings of Christmas to focus on a universal message of compassion, joy, and goodwill,” Kimmel wrote. I believe readers will agree Kimmel certainly represented the spirit of Hanukkah in Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins.

The beauty of this book and the following activities is that they work for all ages with some slight adjustments.

Cross-Curricular Connections: English/Language arts, art, and social studies/history

Ideas for Classroom Use

Goblins 4, 5, 6 and 7

Readers of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins are not told how Hershel outwits the fourth, fifth and sixth goblins. And no goblin visits Hershel on the seventh night of Hanukkah. In this activity, students write about the visits of one of these “missing” goblins. Make sure to remind students the goblins get fiercer and smarter as the nights progress so their story for their selected goblin should reflect this progression. This is an activity any age student can complete as the expectations of the story (and the possible accompanying illustrations) can be modified accordingly.

Goblins as a metaphor

In this activity, which can be modified for a wide variety of grade levels and purposes, the goblins are viewed as metaphors. The goblins in Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins can certainly be considered metaphors for Hershel’s—and our own—fears. However, the goblins could also be considered metaphors for the considerable hardships faced by those of the Jewish faith. Younger students can write about their own fears or the possible fears the goblins represent. Older students can conduct research on the many instances of persecution faced by Jews, for example the Holocaust, and compare these to the goblins faced by Hershel.

Luftmensch

Kimmel writes that Hershel is a luftmensch, which is “a character with no visible means of support who lives by his wits.” Children’s literature, particularly folklore, is filled with luftmensch or tricksters. In this activity, have students find other examples of luftmenschs in literature and compare them to Hershel.

Additional Resources and Activities:

9 Legendary Monsters of Christmas: Goblins are not the only evil creatures associated with the holiday season. This article from Mental Floss includes a short description of nine evil creatures from a variety of cultures that appear around the winter holidays. The nine creatures are: Krampus, Jolakotturinn, Frau Perchta, Belsnickel, Hans Trapp, Pere Fouettard, Zwarte Piet, Yule Lads and Gryla.

Eric A. Kimmel’s Webpage: Kimmel’s webpage is full of resources and interesting information about him and his books. Visitors to the website can even hear Kimmel himself read some of his books. His website includes a link to an interview he did on the 25th anniversary of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins.

A Haunting Anniversary: ‘Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins’ Turns 25: This is a short article from Publisher’s Weekly on the 25th anniversary of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins.

Aimee Rogers is an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota where she is a member of the reading faculty and teaches children’s literature courses. Aimee’s research interests include how readers make meaning with graphic novels as well as representation in children’s and young adult literature. She can be reached at aimee.rogers@UND.edu.

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