We have a holiday tradition at my house: Every year, on the first night of the Festival of Lights, my wife makes the traditional potato pancakes while I read “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” to our little girls.
I should mention that the older of these little girls will turn 30 next year, and the younger is 25.
It doesn’t matter. On that particular night every year, their father becomes Hershel of Ostropol, the hero of Eric Kimmel’s award-winning story. He happens upon a village where Hanukkah cannot be celebrated because of a band of evil goblins who occupy an abandoned synagogue. Hershel must outwit the goblins, including their terrifying king, to restore Hanukkah to its happy place on the calendar. And for the past 25 years he has done so.
I have developed my own set of voices for the characters of Hershel, the village rabbi and the various goblins in the fairy tale. This is part of a larger tradition in our family, which is that books are not merely read aloud; they are performed.
I read bedtime stories to my older daughter until she was in seventh grade. Then I got myself fired because I started to push into books that were longer and slower-paced than she cared to experience at that time. Maybe I was a little more sensitive with our younger child, or maybe she just had more patience. I read to her until she was in high school, when the deluge of Advanced Placement and other college-prep courses squeezed our ritual out of her schedule.
But with both girls, the many hours spent together in the evening, working through books as humorous as “Cheaper By the Dozen” and as serious as “Running Out of Time” (which is about a Midwestern pioneer girl who overcomes a modern conspiracy to rescue her village from a diphtheria outbreak) provided us with priceless bonding time and a shared literary experience that we draw on in our conversations to this day.
We especially liked some of the great children’s series, such as the Little House books, the Chronicles of Narnia, and Edward Eager’s magic books, including the spectacularly inventive “Half Magic.” In that novel, set in the 1920s, four siblings find a coin that grants exactly half of every wish. The story throws a new slant on the saying “be careful what you wish for.” In order to get what you want, you have to wish for twice as much as you expect. My favorite line is that of the frustrated youngest child, who inquires: “What would twice as much as never having to learn fractions be?”
I don’t know how common it is these days for adults to read storybooks to their children, of whatever age. The conventional approach in a column like this would be to bemoan the fixation on screen-based devices, from game consoles to smartphones, as the death of reading of all sorts, including storybooks read aloud. There is no shortage of people ready to express such fears. But I have heard predictions of the death of reading since I was a boy, when bedtime stories had to compete with “Gilligan’s Island.” I think the worries are probably overblown.
There is just nothing like a good storybook read aloud or, better yet, performed by an adult who is willing to get into character. It helps if the adult has a stunted sense of personal dignity.
Hershel and I took our act on the road last week. I was visiting friends in Utah who have three children, ranging from a second-grader to a ninth-grader. This is a family of musicians, and during a separate visit last summer, the children (and their parents) had put on a private concert for my benefit. Since it was still Hanukkah when I came to their house, Hershel gave me a chance to return the favor.
Being Mormon, the children had no knowledge of Hanukkah customs. I handed them chocolate coins wrapped in shiny gold and silver foil - Hanukkah “gelt” - and told them how we light candles on each of the festival’s eight nights. I explained that the ancient Hebrews had a temple in Jerusalem that was as special to them as the Salt Lake Temple is to families like theirs, who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After recapturing their temple from foreign conquerors who had desecrated it, the Jews found that it would take eight days to make a new supply of sanctified oil to light their candelabra; in the meantime they only had enough for a single day. Yet that limited oil supply lasted the necessary eight days, in the miracle that Jewish people celebrate in today’s holiday.
After that orientation, together with a discussion of dreidels and the potato pancakes called latkes, I launched into Hershel’s saga. And for the first time in quite a while, I had the chance to see the reaction of children who had never heard this story before. Or maybe it was the reaction upon seeing their parents’ staid businessman friend try to make himself sound like a tiny horsefly-sized goblin, another goblin who is an ignoramus, and an evil king who is sorely in need of anger management counseling.
Anyway, Hershel worked his magic as always. The children were rapt and their parents and grandfather were entertained, too. There were plenty of hugs for Hershel - well, me - when the story was over. After admiring their beautiful Christmas tree and wishing all the happiest of holidays, Hershel and I stepped out into the cold Utah night. But he will be back at my house next year. Until then, may we all live happily ever after.