December 1, 2010


Hanukkah, Rekindled (HOWARD JACOBSON, 11/30/10, NY Times)

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Hanukkah doesn’t draw on events described in the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Maccabees, from which the story comes, is in the Apocrypha, the non-canonical, more esoteric books of sacred scripture. There’s a reason it never made it out of there: I won’t say it’s spurious, but it doesn’t quite feel authentic.

Isn’t there something a touch suspicious, for example, about our defeating the Syrian-Greek army? It lacks equivocation. Escaping from bondage in Egypt by dint of magic and smart talk is comprehensible: Exodus played to our strengths. Similarly, Esther — who had married out of the faith, remember — turning the tables on Haman. In our best stories, we lose a little to gain a little. We use our heads. Trouncing the Syrian-Greeks sounds worryingly like wish fulfillment, and the story of the oil that should have run out after one day actually lasting eight feels too much like parable.

I’m not suggesting that lighting the candles isn’t fun. A menorah can be beautiful and calling the ninth candle — with which, in ascending order, you light the other eight — the “shamash” has a nice edge of wit to it. A “shamash” is a servant, usually the person who looks after the synagogue, and there is something about personifying this humble candle as a beadle that amused me as a child. There is even a lesson in it: sometimes we do not burn for ourselves alone. But then again you don’t want that to turn into one of those excruciating rabbinic banalities that Hanukkah encourages because there is so little else for the rabbi to talk about.

I’d like it if we had better songs to sing at Hanukkah, too. Something to rival the Christmas oratorios or passions, the hymns, the carols, the cantatas, Bing Crosby even. But all we ever sang was “Maoz Tzur,” compared to which “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” seemed musically complex.

And there’s another way — for it is supposed to be a children’s festival, after all — in which Jewish children celebrating Hanukkah feel short-changed alongside their Christian friends gearing up for Christmas. The presents. Or rather, the lack of presents. No train sets or roller skates for Hanukkah, no smartphones or iPads. Just the dreidel, the four-sided spinning top with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet on each surface.

How many years did I feign excitement when this nothing of a toy was produced? The dreidel would appear and the whole family would fall into some horrible imitation of shtetl simplicity, spinning the dreidel and pretending to care which character was uppermost when it landed. Who did we think we were — the Polish equivalent of the Flintstones?

The cruel truth is that Hanukkah is a seasonal festival of light in search of a pretext and as such is doomed to be forever the poor relation of Christmas. No comparable grandeur in the singing, no comparable grandeur in the giving, no comparable grandeur in the commemoration (no matter how solemn and significant the events we are remembering), in which even the candles are small and burn out pretty much the minute you light them.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 1, 2010 3:27 PM
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