Last year, City Paper interviewed Eric Kimmel, the author the beloved children's Hanukkah book Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins and it sparked a conversation about the market/lack of market for children's Hanukkah books in general. That led to a purchase of an inexplicably conceived children's book called The Mohel from Mars. Now a year later, CP writers/Hanukkah celebrators Hannah Lynn and Alex Gordon look back on the impact of this bizarre intergalactic tale of circumcision and aliens, as well as Jewish children's books in general, and memories from Hanukkahs past.
In addition to correcting the multiple spellings of "Hanukkah," the conversation has been lightly edited for clarity, length, and eloquence.
Alex Gordon: Can you give me the simplest possible synopsis of The Mohel from Mars by Miri Ariel?
Hannah Lynn: You ask a great, yet impossible question. Motti is a mohel in a family of mohels, who gets chosen by intergalactic Maccabees to fight gooey green monsters. He hides his side-gig from his family, who is disappointed in how much he's slacking on his mohel duties. Only when they see his fighting in action do they accept a career path other than snipping hundreds of baby penises. Also it takes place on Mars.
AG: Feels like alliteration is doing a lot of the heavy lifting there. Mohel, Motti, Mars, Maccabees.
HL: Feels like someone had a fever dream and then pitched it as a book.
AG: Having read excerpts and flipped through the pages, Motti's eyes are perpetually dewy. What's up with that?
HL: Not only are they dewy, but he is almost always shedding a single tear, even if the scene isn't sad. It's also curious that he has blue eyes, and he and his whole family have tiny noses!
AG: Yeah, not only did they avoid potentially offensive caricatures of Jews, but went entirely in the opposite direction.
I was thinking about the Hanukkah book I read as a kid, Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins. I got to interview the author Eric Kimmel last year and he talked about how happy he was that the story has such a diverse, secular audience. Whereas Mohel from Mars seems to aggressively pursue the smallest audience possible. We've had to explain the word "mohel" to several coworkers, for starters. And the story is batshit.
HL: Plus Mohel calls itself "a Hanukkah story" even though a bris and Hanukkah are totally unrelated.
AG: Is there even a Hanukkah scene?
HL: No, just space Maccabees.
Do you feel like generally the Jewish books you read as a kid were read by a non-Jewish audience?
AG: Like Philip Roth? Yeah.
HL: You read Phillip Roth as a child?
AG: Well aside from Herschel, I can't think of many particularly Jewish books from my childhood. Maurice Sendak was Jewish.
HL: Oh yeah.
AG: But I don't know if Where The Wild Things Are really qualifies. Herschel has universal appeal. It's a trickster/monster/mischief story more than anything. It takes the format of Hanukkah’s eight nights and turns it into like a video game boss-level ascent. And everyone loves that shit.
Most Jewish kids’ books on Amazon aren't nearly as exciting as MfM or Herschel. Elmo, Clifford, Curious George, "Latke the Lucky Dog" and The Count's Hanukkah Countdown. They're all kind of just like, "this exists."
HL: It's like there are a thousand children's books on Christmas, so they're like, "here's Hanukkah too!" But there's really not much to say about the holiday.
On an Amazon review of the Curious George Hanukkah book, someone wrote, "Too complicated of a book for my 18m old."
AG: That's amazing.
Do you have any pitches for a Hanukkah book?
HL: A young Jewess announces to her fourth-grade class that she will bring latkes to the holiday party, but her parents are out of practice, so she visits her great aunt who lives on a potato farm and imparts wisdom about life, and fried potatoes.
AG: Are these bad parents? Or just busy/absent-minded/too caught up in their (architecture/law) firm. "I don't know honey, I've got this opening statement to write!!! ask your Aunt Gertrude."
HL: Architect/law, they are too busy and usually buy them frozen.
AG: That's good.
HL: What would your book pitch be?
AG: It's roughly about four brothers representing the four sides of a dreidel. Gimel is boastful and greedy. Nun is a depressed loser. Hay just wants everybody to get along. Shin wants revenge against Gimel. But in the end, they all learn to love their lots in life. Like each personality trait has its upside. Shin is selfless, Hay keeps the peace, Nun ...
not sure what Nun does. Maybe Gimel learns modesty.
AG: Is [your boyfriend] Shawn Jewish?
HL: No. Last Hanukkah, like a month into dating, I made him come over along with a bunch of my friends and made everyone latkes. And it was my first time making them.
AG: Was it his first Hanukkah?
AG: My parents let me invite friends when I was a kid. For one of the nights at least. You?
HL: I don't remember but I assume so.
AG: I just remember my friend kinda grinning when we did the blessings. Not maliciously. But I think the first time you hear it, it's so rote and we kinda had the rhythm of it down.
HL: Oh yeah.
AG: The sort of one-two-three-beat of baruch. atah. Adonai.
HL: It's weird 'cause I say that thing without a second thought but also can't translate it really.
AG: One time when I was a kid I asked my dad for a translation and he was like, "umm, God is good. King of the universe."
HL: Did you have one menorah in your family?
AG: Oh yeah. It looks like something Indiana Jones would find, but I think my mom got it at TJ Maxx or something.
HL: Me and my sister each had our own and then my parents had one and we'd alternate which one got lit.
AG: Do you think there are families that buy a new one every year? And keep like a scrap book?
Cuz I do!
HL: I bet also like fancy people who get tired of the same menorah/don't wanna clean the wax off it.
AG: Did you read Christmas books as a kid?
HL: The only one I can remember is The Polar Express, but my family is all Jewish on both sides so we never really did Christmas books or movies.
AG: Not even Home Alone?
HL: Nope. Most Christmas movies I saw were at friend's houses. Like my parents didn't forbid it or anything we just didn't really have any interest.
AG: When I was a kid the South Park episode about being Jewish on Christmas was very popular
and it was one of the first storylines I remember about that.
HL: I remember the Rugrats being Jewish and having a Passover episode or something
Did you read Christmas books?
AG: Yup we did The Night Before Christmas. but Herschel was huge for us. My mom gave it to everybody in every corner of our family.
HL: Were they stoked when you interviewed the author?
AG: Oh yes. [The author] told me that Herschel is actually an old Yiddish folk character and
there are some good stories about him.
During the feast of Passover, Hershele once sat across from a self-absorbed rich man who made derogatory remarks about Hershele’s eating habits.
- “What separates you from a pig, is what I’d like to know,” the man said derisively.
- “The table,” Hershele replied.]
AG: He's a rascal.
HL: Did you have a Christmas tree?
AG: Yup! When I was a kid, I made a Star of David out of popsicle sticks as an ornament and my parents still break it out every year.
HL: My best friend when I was little lived across the street and I’d go over and decorate theirs and I think made a little Star of David ornament for it. At one point in elementary school I heard of someone else having a Hanukkah bush and I was like "Mom, I want one!" and she said "absolutely not," which, in hindsight, is fair!
AG: Had to google that. Wikipedia is sassy about it "It may, for all intents and purposes, be a Christmas tree (without any Christian ornaments)."
Last question: Are you stepping it up and trying matzoh ball soup this Hanukkah? Or sticking with latkes?
HL: Probably just latkes but last year a friend came to visit (in January not even on a holiday) and we made matzoh ball soup together from my grandma's recipe, which is pretty laborious. But it turned out so good. I was very impressed with myself.
AG: You go for dense or fluffy?
HL: Fluffy, I think
AG: I was a vegetarian when I was a kid (not for moral reasons, I just thought it was gross) and I refused to eat matzoh balls because they looked like meat.
AG: Finally my dad was like "Alex, it's like bread."
HL: They couldn't be less meat.
Have you ever made them?
AG: No, but I plan on trying this year. Any tips?
HL: I like a lot of dill in the soup and when I made them I put a little in the matzah balls and they were good
I’d also saved and froze a leftover chicken carcass/bone and threw that in with rest of chicken, it added more flavor.
AG: K I'll keep you posted.