Hershel of Ostropol (also known as Hershele Ostropoler), is a prominent Jewish folk hero and trickster figure from Ukraine who is known for his humorous quips and daring adventures and is in many ways similar to the previously discussed English-American folk hero Jack. A vagabond who survived via his wits alone, Hershel played pranks on both the rich and poor, Jew and Gentile.
One of Hershel’s funnier bits tells of how he once attended a Passover feast at which he was given the dubious honor of sitting across from a self absorbed rich man who proceeded to amuse himself by making derogatory remarks about Hershel. However, despite his taunting Hershel remained unfazed. Frustrated the rich man addressed Hershel directly inquiring as to what separated a vagabond like Hershel from a lowly pig? A question to which Hershel quickly replied; “The table.”
Children’s book author Eric Kimmel has written two books featuring Hershel; The Adventures of Hershel of Ostropol and Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, the latter of which is a Caldecott Medal winner. Seeing that the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins tonight (December 21st) it seemed appropriate to share the story of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins which I first discovered at my public library as a small child. At the time I knew nothing about Hanukkah, but what I did know was that artist Trina Schart Hyman’s illustrations of the seven demonic “goblins” were some of the most frightening specters my young eyes had ever seen.
The story tells of Hershel of Ostropol arriving in a small Jewish village where no one celebrates Hanukkah. When Hershel inquires as to why, the villagers explain that the old synagogue on top of the hill is haunted by a band of goblins that hate Hanukkah and won’t allow any one to light the menorah, play with their dreidels or bake traditional potato latkes. The only way to free the village of the goblins is for a person to spend all eight nights of Hanukkah in the synagogue and keep the menorah lit. In addition to this on the eighth and final night of Hanukkah the King of the Goblins (i.e. the devil) must light the candles himself.
Hershel, of course, volunteers to spend Hanukkah in the synagogue and brave the goblins. The villagers decide to let Hershel try; though they are sure he will neither succeed nor survive. Armed with a menorah, a hard-boiled egg and a jar of pickles, Hershel makes his way to the synagogue.
On the first night Hershel lights the menorah, an imp like goblin appears to threaten him. However, using his wits, Hershel frightens the goblin off by threating to crush him with his bare hands. To show off how strong he is Hershel crushes the hard-boiled egg, telling the goblin it’s a stone. On the second night a slightly larger goblin appears. This time Hershel tricks the goblin into getting his hand stuck in a jar of pickles, humiliated the goblin leaves. On the third night an even bigger and uglier goblin appears, but Hershel challenges this goblin to a game of dreidel in which he manages to steal all the goblin’s gold. This pattern continues with each succeeding goblins being bigger and uglier and Hershel outwitting each and every one.
Finally on the eighth and last night the King of the Goblins himself arrives. When the king attempts to frighten Hershel (who is already frightened beyond all reason by the mere presence of the king) away Hershel tells the king that he is not scared because he can not see the king’s face in the low light of the synagogue and suggests the king light a candle. The King of the Goblins, wishing to show Hershel how truly terrifying he is, strikes a match and lights a nearby candle, but Hershel still complains that it is to dark. The king continues lighting candles until at last he has lit all nine candles atop the synagogue’s menorah, thus lifting the curse. Defeated by Hershel’s wit and bravery the king and his goblins leave the town allowing its denizens to once again partake in the celebration of Hanukkah.