Friday, November 29, 2013

Happy Chattanooga!

     Three blog posts in a row on Thanksgiving, and not a murmur about Hanukkah, which began Wednesday night. "What's the matter?" the reader might ask, "ashamed?" No, indifferent. Hanukkah is a minor holiday for children that got blown out of proportion ... well, I have an old chestnut that explains it. This piece is noteworthy for where it first appeared—on America Online in 1996. Once upon a time, when the Internet was new and dial-up, if you clicked on the AOL logo, it would give you a surprise, a cartoon, or an essay. The editor of the AOL surprise feature was John Scalzi, who went on to a successful career as a science fiction novelist. I wrote the very first one, in fact, and a number to come, including this one. It hasn't been seen since. Its title is an allusion to the strangled way some mangle the pronunciation of what is also spelled "Chanukah" and I was dumbfounded to get emails from people in Tennessee, confused and angry because they suspected their city was being mocked by a Jew. The first glimmer that when you write online, you also write for readers beyond your intended audience. But they remind you.

     Imagine you move to Mars.
     The Martians are a pleasant lot. Not too different than you, really. They have holidays, just like back on earth. The biggest Martian holiday is called the Grand Galloon; it comes at the end of April, around the time Arbor Day takes place in the United States.
     We won't go into the details of the Grand Galloon—let's just say it has to do with the Martians' deepest religious beliefs. They make such a fuss about it that Martian society addresses little else in the weeks before the Grand Galloon and everyday life grinds to a halt when the great day finally arrives.
     Of course the Martians are curious about you, who have no Grand Galloon. Poor you. How do you live?
     Lest they dwell on this misfortune, the Martian ask about Arbor Day, which takes place at approximately the same time. Tell us about Arbor Day, they say. It's sort of your Grand Galloon, isn't it?
     Well, no, you answer. Arbor Day is not Galloonish at all. It's about planting trees. No big deal.
     The Martians ignore this explanation. At school, they pause from their Galloonery and demand that you stay a few words about trees. You try to point out that Arbor Day isn't that meaningful to you. The Martians smile and give you saplings.
     That's Hanukkah. A tiny Jewish festival. I can think of half a dozen more important dates on the Jewish calendar. Hanukkah marks a Jewish uprising against the Greeks in 168 BCE.* Jews decided to commemorate the event by lighting candles and eating potato pancakes.
     And that's it. Except that Hanukkah occurs in the vague proximity of Christmas—the two holidays are a measly 19 days apart this year. So Hanukkah, or Chanukah, as some spell it, in a futile attempt to capture that garbled Hebrew sound that is neither "H" nor "ch" but a little of both, gets conflated into something it isn't; a rival to Christmas.
     When in fact it really is the Jewish Arbor Day (not literally. There is a Jewish Arbor Day—Tu B'shvat, that never gets talked about since it doesn't arrive around Christmastime, even though it is as significant a holiday as Hanukkah, if not more so).
     There are problems with making Hanukkah into Christmas' Semitic twin. First, Hanukkah doesn't have enough stuff. No good songs, to start. Christmas carols are beautiful—"Oh Holy Night" and "Silver Bells" and "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire." I can get choked up just listening to "Little Drummer Boy" and I've never celebrated Christmas in my life.  
     There is no good Hanukkah literature. Christmas has Dickens and the Waltons and "It's a Wonderful Life."
     And Hanukkah? Hanukkah has a song about dreidls, those little tops associated with the holiday. ("I have a little dreidl/I made it out of clay/And when it's dry and ready/Dreidl I will play...") It's a dumb, grating song with only one note in it, and there's no more horrifying, humiliating experience a Jewish child can have than, 50 minutes into a music class filled with the lovely tunes of Bach and Irving Berlin, to have some solicitous music teacher clap her hands together and say, "Okay, now we're going to sing a Hanukkah song," while gazing at the one Jewish child, who is trying to dig a hole in the floor and hide.
     Hanukkah literature consists of a few grim Eastern European tales and Jospehus, the traitorous ancient Jewish historian, recounting his self-serving version of the uprising that he managed to both lead and betray.
     Getting back to dreidls. Dreidls are a strange addition, anyway. They're a gambling game that somehow got grafted onto the holiday and, in an attempt to have something to toss at Christmas, got puffed up into an icon as well. It's as odd as if Easter were associated not only with bunnies and eggs, but with roulette wheels, or pairs of dice.
     This is not to pooh-pooh Hanukkah. Taken on its own merits, Hanukkah has some wonderful qualities, the first and foremost being latkes, those potato pancakes fried and eaten with applesauce or sour cream or, in my case, both.
     Latkes are one of the great philosophical creations of mankind—hot sand salty and starchy and just delicious.
     If given the choice between the Maccabee story and latkes, where I would decided which would be preserved for future generations and which consigned to oblivion, I'd pick latkes in a heartbeat.
    Who knows? Maybe the latkes came first. But Jewish kids were too embarrassed to say that we had an eight-day celebration of potato pancakes. thanking God for them and crowing that we, as a people, had brought them into the world.
     So we tagged the story of the Maccabees and the miracles onto it, and added a menorah ad a dreidl and a few other trapping to obfuscate its real purpose. I wouldn't be surprised. History can be quite cunning that way.

* In the original, I had the uprising a) occur in 70 AD, b) be against the Romans and c) fail, three jaw-dropping errors whose origin I can only speculate (we had a new baby at home, the festival is indeed as minor as I say, so much that even guys like me, fairly well-schooled in my religion, have a loose grasp on the particulars). Not wanting to propagate error, I fixed it in the text, but figured I should own up to the gaffe here.


  1. I’ve always thought of Hanukkah like myself as Jew-ish.

  2. A Gentile to the core, when I moved into a Jewish neighborhood I was invited at age 12 to a new experience, a dinner at Passover. It was there I had my first taste of gefiltefish with a hefty dose of horseradish. There were other dishes too. I never forgot them, and look forward to the holidays every year!

  3. Gosh, Hanukkah always seemed like a bigger deal than you claim — especially since there are 8 days of it. Are you sure you aren’t missing something particularly since you say you don’t practice the religion other than eating the latkes. No 8 days of Christmas — it gets only one day. But okay, yeah, folks typically spend many days in preparation. By the way, are there onions in traditional Jewish latkes?


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