Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Polar Bear in a Hannukah Tale? It's A Miracle!

Simon and the Bear
by Eric Kimmel (illustrated by Matthew Trueman)

Most children's Hanukkah stories have: latkes, menorahs, maccabees, and dreidels!

Author Eric Kimmel's Hanukkah stories have all these and then some: goblins, magic, miracles, and bears.

Kimmel's first book. Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, appeared 25 years ago (republished this year to mark the occasion) to critical acclaim and a cult following cutting across cultural audiences.

The quirky tale was initially rejected but won the Caldecott Honor in 1989.

Kimmel's current Hanukkah story, Simon and the Bear, also offers a fresh take on the conventional telling, piquing popular and critical interest.

When we meet him, Simon is setting off from his Russian village, or shtetl, and heading to America, where he hopes to find work so he can eventually bring his family to this promised land to live a better life.

I and the Village
by Marc Chagall

For the journey, his mother packs salt herring, brown bread, hard boiled eggs, plus special supplies for the upcoming festival of lights-- a menorah, matches, candles, and a dreidel. Close to tears as they part, she also parcels out advice: 

  "Wherever you are, Simon, don't forget to celebrate Hanukkah and its miracles. Who knows? You may need a miracle on your long journey."

Somehow, mothers just know, for this indeed was the case. Though Simon lucked out and got the very last boat ticket, tragedy soon struck; the boat hit an iceberg and sank. 

Simon did a great mitzvah (good deed) and gave up the last lifeboat seat to a man who had a little boy waiting for him in New York. Just in time he jumped and landed on an the iceberg.  Heeding his mother's sage advice, Simon took out his tiny menorah. No sooner had he lit the first Hanukkah candle, than he found himself face to face with a huge hungry polar bear. Talk about needing a miracle! Fortunately, this bear liked latkes, herring and brown bread. She may have been a mama bear, as she instinctively wrapped her furry paws around Simon as though he were a cub, keeping him warm that night.

The next day, and each day after, the bear swam off and returned with a fish, which she shared with Simon. With their bellies full, Simon would light the menorah then regale the bear with Hanukkah stories and songs. On the seventh night of Hanukkah, Simon realized that he'd been blessed with seven miracles:

"This is truly a miracle. And not the only one," Simon said to himself. He counted the miracles on his fingers. He'd gotten the last ticket. He'd found a place in the lifeboat. He'd saved a man's life. He'd jumped on the iceberg, not in the ocean. The bear didn't eat him. She brought him food. She kept him warm.
Seven miracles! Simon looked out across the sea. "It will take another miracle for me to be rescued. Is one more too much to ask for?"
On the eighth night of Hanukkah, as Simon prepared to light the menorah for the final time, he realized that he would soon be in the dark, literally--after tonight he'd be out of candles, matches, and latkes. The bear could very well swim off and leave him alone and cold and hungry. 

As if reading his thoughts, the polar bear suddenly sniffed the air, then jumped into the water. Though Simon feared the worst, she wasn't deserting, she was investigating an approaching vessel.  The Hanukkah candles, it turned out, had helped the crew spot Simon, and bring him an eighth miracle. He was rescued!


In New York, Simon made the front pages and met the Mayor, who was, it turned out, the man he'd given a seat to on the life boat. Asked what he would like as a reward for his selfless deed, Simon replied that his wish was for a job so he could send for his family to join him.  

The Mayor purchased first class tickets for Simon's family and found him the perfect job, Polar Bear Keeper at the Central Park Zoo!
   "Which goes to show that miracles aren't just for the Maccabees," Simon told his friends and family every year at Hanukkah time. "They can happen to anyone, anywhere, even in the darkest times. You just have to believe."

Simon and the Bear, like Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, seems to have carved out a distinctive niche in the Hanukkah story genre, one which expands upon, enriches, and broadens the main holiday themes. Kimmel beautifully weaves other elements of Jewish history and culture into the story. 

The elements of iceberg and lifeboats may render the tale too intense for younger children, yet this story line will definitely appeal to many older youngsters, who frequently seek out books about the Titanic disaster, and may introduce a whole new group of readers to the Hanukkah story.

The Brooklyn-born Kimmel has written over 50 children's books which draw on Jewish as well as African and other cultural folk tales for inspiration.
Illustrator Matthew Trueman is a commercial artist born north of Venice, Italy who has contributed to a number of children's stories, including Erica Silverman's retelling of a Sholom Aleichem story, The Day the Chickens Went On Strike: A Rosh HaShanah Tale. His distinctive style has been said to evoke artist Marc Chagall, whose early 20th century paintings depicted the tapestry of Eastern European Jewish village life as Aleichem's stories did.