Kimmel Creates Another Children’s Classic


Hayyim’s Ghost
Eric Kimmel
Illustrated by Ari Binus
40 pages. Pitspopany. $16.95
Ages 6 and up

When it comes to Jewish children's books, I've come to regard "Eric A. Kimmel" as a quality brand name, equivalent to my favorite boutique chocolate or Chilean kosher wine. If it’s by Kimmel, I’d say, without any of a reviewer’s usual reserve, just get it; you don’t need to flip through first. The kids will love it – that is, when you’re done reading it yourself and you let them look. That goes for this book too.

My respect for Kimmel surprises me, because he works a genre that I normally find suspect: the shtetl yarn. True, the Eastern European Jewish village, populated with characters with Yiddish names who all seem to live Orthodox lives, is a natural setting for Jewish tales – it’s the ancestral home, just like a small Midwest farm town might be for a writer from a different background. It’s also long ago and far away, and so potentially magical.

But too often in American Jewish life, the shtetl is sugarified by nostalgia. It’s so far away that some kids’ authors have used previous simplified versions of stories as their sources, producing tales that are twice watered down. Worst, writers sometimes pick the shtetl as setting so they can show a community – unlike that of the presumed reader – where everyone was religiously observant. The unintended but loud message is that Judaism is thoroughly past tense.

Kimmel keeps the sugar down to milligrams. He uses the shtetl setting because he has an obvious love for folktales, which he researches thoroughly. The author’s note in The Adventures of Hershel of Ostropol, for instance, sites not only oral sources and folklore anthologies, but also a Hebrew volume of Hershel stories and a rare Yiddish collection published in the Soviet Union in 1921.

Someone else might have turned that material into a dissertation. I can imagine the twelve-syllable folklore-department technical terms. Kimmel, though, is a storyteller. A teacher of mine, a cranky old battered poet and playwright, used to growl, “Bad poets borrow. Good poets steal.” (Editor’s Note: This was originally said by T.S. Eliot). Kimmel’s author’s note may tell you what house he raided, but when you read the stories, they don’t feel uncomfortably borrowed. You just want to know how Hershel is going to get away from that bandit, or trick the innkeeper into feeding him for free. When I got Adventures,  my son brought it with him to shul on a Shabbat morning. Adults sitting nearby glanced at the cover, then opened the book, then kept reading. The book practically sparked a silent brawl between eager readers.

Later Kimmel wrote a Chelm collection, The Jar of Fools. Writing Chelm stories makes most writers into fools, overcome by the twin temptations of shtetl nostalgia and slapstick. Kimmel leaves you wondering whether the Chelmites are really wise, or at least wise fools, or perhaps accidentally wise fools. In one tale, the Chelmfolk find a hayfork with nine tines and are sure it’s a Hanukkah menorah. When a farmer arrives and demands his pitchfork back, they all head for the Seer of Lublin – a famous hasidic teacher – who manages to explain in a few gorgeous sentences the kabbalistic doctrine of Rabbi Isaac Luria that everything contains sparks of holiness. A blind beggar could be an angel. The pitchfork is truly a menorah – and therefore Chelm’s Jews must pay the farmer a whopping 18 zlotys for it.

Hayyim’s Ghost, Kimmel’s latest,  is one of his stranger creations. As usual, there’s an authenticated old-country source – an oral story taken down in Grodno and preserved in a folklore collection. As usual, the sentences are sharp and fast moving, the timing just right, the plot twists bizarre. As usual, you want to know what happens – unless, like my grade-school daughter, you find the death of one kindly man by page 2 frightening, and the prospect that another has either been murdered in the attic or buried alive even more unsettling. Having taken the precaution of reading it first – all right, having grabbed it before she read it – I could reassure her that poor Hayyim could not be dead if he was gaining weight and that everything will be all right. So she finished it. Three times that evening, two of them after bedtime, I think.

The story, it’s true, shares a motif that shows up in some other shtetl tales: the small-town businesswoman who is rude and stingy and makes life miserable for her sweet nebbish of a husband. How much this figure is the product of old country misogyny, and how much it is the portrayal of a real type produced by old country poverty, I can’t say. If my kids were getting a steady diet of such characters I might have to devote a conversation to it, to go with the ones we’ve had about Barbie, the way women look in fashion ads, etc. As a one-time character in well-told tale, Kimmel’s Bayla Esther simply strikes a blow for equality: This time the villain is female.

So trust the brand name, and enjoy seeing Hayyim come to the town rabbi to ask if he is dead or alive, and return to the graveyard because “If the rabbi says I am dead, then it must be true,” and scare the baker into dropping his basket of bread, and wonder if a dead person needs to say a blessing before eating, and eat better dead than he did when alive, and finally, at the happy end, get a life. This is a great story. Kimmel did it. And by the way, Ari Binus has drawn it wonderfully.

More Kimmel

A Cloak for the Moon, illustrated by Katya Krenina. A retelling of a Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav story, stunningly illustrated, that leaves you quiet, awed and not quite sure what has happened –  as a Nahman tale should.

Gershon's Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year, illustrated by Jon J. Muth (Scholastic Press): A rarity: it’s about the High Holidays instead of one of the more child-friendly holidays; it’s about tshuvah; and it works, magically.