When you drive through Marin Circle in Berkeley, your eyes are probably fixed on the traffic that streams through the busy roundabout. But if you look closely at the historic fountain that sits in the middle, you might notice four little bear statues nestled under the top basin.
And if it’s Hanukkah season, you’ll see those bears wearing kippot.
Decorating and dressing the grizzly bear cubs is now a holiday tradition, one that inspired Berkeley resident Hope Alper to write a children’s book. “The Chanukah Bears of Marin Circle” is Alper’s imaginary telling of how the statues got their headwear, involving a curious bear who investigates twinkling lights in the window one holiday season.
“I just thought it was a story that would delight people and resonate with people in the area who go by the fountain,” she said.
In the book, the smallest bear follows her eyes and nose to Hanukkah and latkes, meets a welcoming family and returns to the fountain with kippot for her friends. The real story is less magical but still fascinating. The Marin Circle fountain is a landmark of the Berkeley Hills, but it has had an up-and-down history. The fountain with its bear statues was completed in 1911 as the centerpiece of ongoing real estate development in the area at the beginning of the 20th century.
“They wanted something magnificent in the middle,” Alper said.
Back then there were hopes that Berkeley would be named the state capital, and the fountain and circle were conjured as a grand entry to the imagined Capitol building. Bears, as the symbol of California, seemed appropriate. Though hopes were dashed, the fountain remained a local landmark.
Decades later, disaster struck. “In 1957 a truck came down Marin and crashed into the fountain,” Alper said.
It sat in rubble until the 1990s, when residents began raising money to re-create the fountain and renovate the entire circle.
“Shortly after the fountain was restored, the Friends of the Fountain started decorating it,” Alper said. That included a holiday outfit of red Christmas bows for the bears.
The bears became Jewish bears later. Alper was at a Hanukkah party about 20 years ago when a friend’s son, then 12, decided that Christmas garb for the bears wasn’t fair.
“He said, we’re going to climb over to the fountain and put kippot on the bears,” she said. “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Residents loved the newly decked-out bears so much that kippot became part of the regular holiday decorations for the fountain. And Alper always thought the story would make a wonderful book. Then, earlier this year, she spotted a class on writing picture books offered at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC Berkeley, taught by author Dashka Slater.
“I thought, this is it, it’s bashert,” she said. “I’ve got to take this class.”
Alper developed and then self-published the book, which is illustrated by Jennifer Silverman. So far, her main critics, two granddaughters who are 4 and almost 2, have approved. Alper also has another granddaughter due Dec. 22 this year. That’s the first night of Hanukkah, and perfect timing as the bears don their holiday outfits.
“The Chanukah Bears of Marin Circle” will launch with a reading by Alper at 11:30 a.m. Dec. 8 at Afikomen Judaica, 3042 Claremont Ave., Berkeley. The book is also available at the JCC of San Francisco gift shop, Congregation Beth El in Berkeley and three stores on Solano Avenue in Berkeley: Pegasus Books, Fern’s Garden and Yves’ Judaica. You can also get a copy by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.