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My children believe in Christmas elves. And leprechauns. They also believe that there are little elves who live in our backyard. Last year when spring came, the elves moved in to our pine tree and set up a mini Adirondack chair, a white picket fence, and a miniature watering can outside. And they nailed a small 12-inch door into the tree trunk. Last weekend, while everyone was taking a nap, they left a little note on the counter announcing they were back and leading the kids on a scavenger hunt around the yard. These are our stretelech, Yiddish for magical little people.
My husband discovered the stories of stretelech at the Conference of American Jewish Educators conference after seeing David Arfa speak. Later he asked his Yiddish-speaking grandmother about them. She confirmed that as a child she was scared of the shtretelech. Like many fairy tale creatures over the past century, they have morphed from evil trolls into mischievous pranksters.
So who are these little Jewish elves? Apparently they live outside for most of the year, but relocate behind our stoves during the winter. Children are excellent at spotting stretelech in the woods, but adults have trouble identifying their tracks. Some stories identify them as musicians. Others as shoemakers. One Yiddish folk teller says the Elves and the Shoemaker story about the poor shoemaker who wakes one morning to find that someone has mysteriously made a pair of exquisite shoes, is a stretelech tale.
One of the things I really loved as a kid were fairy tale creatures. I remember chasing the end of a rainbow with a very real belief that there would be a pot of gold, guarded by a mischievous little leprechaun. And even though I never really believed in Christmas elves, I loved the idea of tiny people making toys and singing Christmas carols. So I was excited to learn about the stretelech, and since there is so little known about them, I could make their story whatever I wanted. I read (in the Encyclopedia Britannica) that Jewish fairy tales are “conspicuously absent” from Jewish legends, “because fairies, elves, and the like are foreign to the Jewish imagination, which prefers to populate the otherworld with angels and demons subservient to God.” Well! This just isn’t true, not when I know there are a group of stretelech who live in my backyard.
For a picture of what a stretelech might look like, click here. Otherwise, you’ll have to search for one on your own.
Yom HaShoah starts on Sunday night and ends on Monday at sundown.
I haven’t taught the kids about the Holocaust yet. Other than in the most general of terms – they know about WWII, and they know that Hitler and the Nazis were terrible, terrible people, and they did awful things to the Jews. They even know that a lot of Jewish people died during the war, and that’s part of why Jews are such a minority.
But the details… yeah, I can barely bring myself to think about them, how do I talk about them with my kids? And by kids, I’m talking mostly about my ten year old, Jessica. My six year old and three year old are still little enough so it’s not an issue.
I wonder how old I was when I read the Diary of Anne Frank. Junior high? I feel like I remember some sort of presentation down in the cafeteria. I’m guessing it was seventh or eighth grade.
Jessie and I were talking earlier on the way to her slumber party, and I told her that she was going to be going to the religious school class on it on Monday. She knows about the Holocaust, but really has no idea. She asked if it was as bad as 9/11. Worse, I said. It was much worse. Then she asked what they did all day in the concentration camps, and I really stumbled over my answer. I don’t even know exactly what I said… something about it being like a prison, and that it was horrible beyond words. I started to think about the pictures I’ve seen, and actually started to say that people starved, and then I stopped. Remembered that she’s only ten.
I don’t know that I’m old enough to really understand the Holocaust. Are you ever really? And if you aren’t – then when do I tell her? How do you tell your child what happened? This was her family. If we had been alive then, and living in Germany, it would have been us. That’s terrifying – and for a sensitive kid, for any kid, hell, for any adult, that’s … I don’t have words.
We’ll light the candle together on Sunday night, and we’ll talk a little about it. General terms, avoiding any graphic descriptions, and reassure her, and her brother and sister, that we live today in America, and that we’re safe. And we’ll tell her, and her brother and sister when they’re old enough, that they have a special obligation to remember, to make the world better, in whatever way they can. To make the world a place where the Holocaust never happens again.