Saul’s Question

My friend Saul in North Carolina sent me a thoughtful question a few days ago. I thought my answer would fit better in my blog than in the Ask Eric section. Another alternative would have been to write back to Saul directly. However, he didn’t provide an email address. Here’s what Saul asked:

Hi Eric,
I have been a huge fan of your work since I was a kid (I’m now 24 and “Hershal and the Hanukkah Goblins” is still one of my favorite books). I’m interested in Jewish theology (although not super devout myself), and am wondering about the Jewish background of your work. Are you personally religious? Are your books intended to teach children important philosophical or religious lessons, or are they just meant to be entertaining?
Thanks for doing what you do!

My gosh, Saul! Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is older than you! I consider that a major compliment that a childhood favorite is still a well-loved book even after childhood is past. I have several books like that myself that I come back to again and again, reliving the pleasure they gave me when I encountered them for the first time.

To answer your question, I am not as observant as some imagine me to be. However, I could be if I chose. I had an excellent Jewish education when I was growing up. I’m proud to say that I am a graduate of the high school program at the East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn, NY. I didn’t quit after my bar mitzvah as so many unfortunately do. I continued my Jewish education until I went off to college. It didn’t stop there. It simply took a different form.

My favorite subjects—and still some of my favorite reading—is Jewish folklore, history, and literature. My modern Hebrew is barely adequate. I’d have a hard time telling a cab driver where to go in Tel Aviv. However, my Biblical and liturgical Hebrew is pretty good. I’m at home in the Bible and prayer book. In fact, I prefer Hebrew over English every time. After all, if you can understand Tolstoy and Gogol in Russian, why would you want to read them in English?

My favorite topic is Jewish history, especially from the time of the Hasmoneans to the end of the Jewish state. So much happened during this period. Yet we know comparatively little about it. It’s often called the Black Hole of Jewish history. How did we move from a Temple-based worship of animal sacrifice to a synagogue-based worship of prayer? What was early Christianity like? What brought about the split from Judaism? Was it inevitable? The earliest sources, the Gospels, were written nearly a century afterwards in a world vastly different from the one Jesus and his disciples inhabited.

I also was blessed as I was growing up with a unique experience. My grandmother lived with us. She was very much a 19th century person. She originally came from Austria-Hungary. She believed in evil spirits, bad omens, the efficacy of charms and special prayers. She did not like living in America. She thought it was a crude place where only money counted. She never bothered to learn English beyond a rudimentary level, although she spoke Yiddish, Polish, Ukrainian, and German flawlessly. She could get along in Russian if she had to, although she had no use for Russia or Russians. My parents worked, so my brother and I spent a lot of time with her. We never had a babysitter. Grandma took care of us. That’s how I became bilingual. My second language as a child was Yiddish. I slipped into it when I came home from school and didn’t slip back into English until my parents arrived.

As a result, the rhythms of Yiddish and the works of its great writers always meant a great deal to me. I came upon Sholom Aleichem and I.L. Peretz when I was in junior high school. For the first time I felt that a writer actually knew about me. I could connect with them in a way that I never could with Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and the Grimm Brothers, although they were favorite writers as well.

I bring all of that to my writing, as well as what I learned from my teachers from elementary school through college as well as from other writers whose work I admire. To answer the second part of your question, I run from the idea that children’s books are meant to “teach” something. That turns them into propaganda. Kids smell the “lesson” right away and run from it, as they should. Grown-ups are always trying to “teach” them, “mold” them, “inspire” them—and when all else fails, bully them into doing and believing what’s “right.”

I call that “Socialist Realism,” after Stalin’s idea that art should serve politics. Thus the glowing paintings from that era of smiling workers and farmers walking shoulder to shoulder through bounteous fields overflowing with grain when the reality was that the grain was stolen, the farmers were left to starve, and any worker who complained about anything would end up in a slave labor gulag. Lies! Disgusting, inhuman lies. That’s what goes through my mind when someone suggests that we write to “teach” children.

I don’t claim to teach anything. All I do is tell a story. If there’s a lesson, I’ll leave it to the children to figure out. They show truths; they don’t preach lessons.

Let’s try this to clarify the point. I love asking kids, “What’s the lesson of Puss-In-Boot?” They’re often left confused because it really is an amoral tale: robbery, dishonesty, and total success at the end. And that’s the lesson. Or at least it was for the court of Louis XIV where the story comes from. Young man, if you want to succeed in life and win fortune and fame, look good, dress well, find a good agent, and follow the script. Guess what! It works just as well today in our celebrity culture.

And that’s the lesson, although preachy parents and teachers might not want to face that fact. But kids get it. That’s what counts.

What’s the “lesson” of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins? Kid, the world is full of goblins who are bigger, stronger, richer, better connected, and more powerful than you are. They won’t give you an inch. They have no pity or compassion. They don’t even know what those words mean. But here’s what makes the difference: they don’t hold all the cards. If you’re clever, smart, true to your beliefs and what you know to be right, you can beat them. Their arrogance leads to their own downfall. And frequently, they’re stupid!

I once came across an article comparing Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins to How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The Grinch changes. His problem was that his heart was a little too small. The king of the goblins has no heart, just like Eichmann and Himmler. And he didn’t disappear or change. He just went somewhere else at the end of the book.

That, I think, is the lesson of the story. He’s real and he’s still around. Keep your eyes open for him.

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