Rosh Hashanah–the Jewish New Year–began at sundown today. I am not Jewish, nor do I observe the Jewish New Year, at least not as an official adherent of the faith. But every single year I re-read this beautiful children’s story, Gershon’s Monster, on Rosh Hashanah. It is a universal story of redemption, and anyway this particular book is so gorgeous cover to cover and the story so appealing, one needs no excuses to open its pages. I believe it is my favorite piece of children’s literature ever, and that is really saying something. I love children’s books and have a great excuse to use them in my professional life, as I have said before.
I first learned about this story on public radio, listening to Scott Simon read it aloud along with Daniel Pinkwater–a reading so delightful I dropped what I was doing to listen. I immediately found a copy of the book, with gorgeous watercolors by Jon Muth. If I were a painter, I think I would want to paint exactly in this soft, evocative style that is still real.
Gershon is a badly behaved man, but worse still does not care about his treatment of others. (In other words, he is someone you know.) He sweeps his misdeeds to the basement and once a year puts them in a huge bag–especially huge, it turns out, because his behavior is especially intolerable–and drags the bag down to empty into the sea. The problem is that he makes no effort to be truly sorry about his misdeeds. He simply gathers them up and disposes of them. When he and his wife decide they want children Gershon consults a Rabbi, who warns him away from parenting. Gershon presses the Rabbi who finally gives him a charm for his wife to wear for a year, after which time he prophesies she will bear twins.
But the Rabbi also hints that something tragic will befall the children when they are five years old. After Gershon urges the Rabbi to reveal details of the tragedy, he at last concedes it will occur on the day Gershon puts both his socks on the same foot. Gershon is ecstatic for this bit of forewarning, but the Rabbi dismisses him, saying it will make no difference–Gershon will go on with his life as always, behaving badly and being inconsiderate of people around him.
And of course, this is exactly what comes to pass. Gershon and his wife have twins–a boy and a girl. One morning Gershon awakens disoriented by the summer heat and (you guessed it) puts both socks on the same foot. The children have gone to play by the sea as they do every day, and Gershon rushes after them in a blind panic. He finds them confronting a horrible sea monster whose scales are inscribed with every awful thing Gershon has done in his life, just at the moment the monster is about to snap up the children.
At last Gershon is truly, humbly repentant and beseeches the monster to take him–and not his children. The monster, along with Gershon’s lifetime of transgressions, vaporizes, and Gershon is a changed man. It’s the way you wish every scenario of this sort would end, isn’t it?
Every time I read this I think of the people I know who are like Gershon. And then a nanosecond later I think about the times in my life I have behaved like him. But there is always hope for redemption before it is too late, isn’t there?
At the very end of this book there is a page-long description about the retelling of this story and its place in the Hasidic movement. There is also an explanation of the tradition of “casting one’s sins into the sea,” metaphorically, at the beginning of the New Year. And then there are instructions, as the author says, for erasing our mistakes and returning to our “true moral nature:”
- Admit that we have done wrong.
- Feel remorse.
- Resolve in our hearts never to act this way again.
- Make every effort to right the wrong we have done.
- Apologize and ask forgiveness from those we have wronged.
- Make every effort to relieve whatever pain or distress we might have caused others.
Then, he tells us, we will have returned to our best selves.
Happy New Year.
Gershon’s Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year, Retold by Eric A. Kimmel and Illustrated by Jon J. Muth, 2000, Scholastic Press, New York