Hanukkah

Remixing Hanukkah

(Eric Molinsky)

For those of you who are faithful (or even semi-faithful) listeners of our weekly Vox Tablet podcast, this music ought to sound weirdly familiar.

It is the Vox Tablet theme song, originally composed by Jewlia Eisenberg and re-conceived here by remix masters Cedar AV. They did it on assignment from Marc Weidenbaum, founder of the popular music and sound blog Disquiet, who himself took on a much more ambitious assignment from Tablet Magazine: Commission eight songs for a Hanukkah remix album. The results are in, and we’ll be posting the album for free download on Monday. Plus, also on Monday, Vox Tablet’s Sara Ivry interviews Weidenbaum about the project. Get psyched!

Children of the Book

As Hanukkah approaches, a look at the year’s best Jewish picture books

(Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine)

Perhaps you’ve heard: We Jews love books. And we like to indoctrinate the little Jews. So, why not give a kid a picture book for Hanukkah? It comes early this year, which means my annual rundown of the best Jewish children’s books of the year is early too. Behold your idiosyncratic gifting guide: Some of the choices will appeal to the littlest kids; some are for older elementary schoolers, and next week we’ll look at the year’s best Jewish chapter books and graphic novels.

Beautiful Yetta, the Yiddish Chicken

My favorite Jewish picture book this year, by far, is Beautiful Yetta, the Yiddish Chicken by Daniel Pinkwater and illustrated by Jill Pinkwater. This multi-culti immigration fantasy is funny and sweet. Written in simple, poetic sentences, it is the story of Yetta, who will not be soup. After being delivered to Phil’s Poultry World, she escapes and finds herself on the streets of Brooklyn. The pigeons are unhelpful schmucks. All seems lost until she rescues a parrot from cat-related disaster, and suddenly Yetta has friends to show her the ropes of city life. She speaks only Yiddish and her new parrot friends speak only Spanish (there are translations), making this book hilarious to read out loud, especially if you speak neither language. My 6-year-old now wanders around the house exclaiming “Gevalt!” and cooing “Meyn teyehreh kinder!” at her stuffed animals. The Yiddish feels organic to the plot, not grafted-on. (Recommend for ages 4-8).

The Rooster Prince of Breslov

(more…)

Bright Spots

The best of this year’s chanukiahs, the menorahs used for Hanukkah, are beautiful, sometimes clever, and occasionally poignant

Candlesticks United, by Reddish, an Israeli design studio. (Reddish)

God is hard; stuff is not.

Throughout the vagaries of my connection to religion, I’ve never once had doubts about my connection to its material culture—the challah knives, washing cups, mezuzahs, etc., of Jewish life. Of this stuff, and it is stuff, none has been more alluring for me than our various candle holders. That these pieces occupy the particularly female realm of our religious universe is relevant, but that the point of these accoutrements is to hold fire is even more so. The Hebrew word shamayim—the heavens —is comprised of two words: aish, or fire, and mayim, which means water. As rabbi Shlomo Riskin, among others, has noted: “[While] fire has the ability to bring warmth, it can also devour and destroy. … [C]loud and fire—the lack of clarity expressed by a cloud and the inability to gaze directly into a flame—likewise express one of the deepest truths of the Jewish message: religion is not so much paradise as it is paradox. God demands fealty even in the face of agonizing questions and disturbing uncertainty.”

Sabbath candles certainly fit the bill, as they demand our weekly attention to the challenge of this uncertainty. But what of the chanukiah, the nine-armed fire-holder that represents, in addition to Judaism’s essential paradox, the assertion of a miracle—an alleged interruption into our earthly landscape by the Divine? And here we are, back at the original problem: God. (more…)

Meet Your 2009 Major League Dreidel Champion

You don’t need to be Jewish to be a great spinner

Congratulations to John Heywood—spinning name: Jonny Hei-z (“Hei” as in Nun, Gimel, Hei, Shin)—who won the honor last weekend in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, despite the arguable disadvantage of not being Jewish. Heywood told Tablet Magazine that the competition, which is run by friends of his, rates how long spinners can keep their dreidel spinning, rather than which letters their dreidels land on. Moreover, the tournament is decided via a March Madness-style bracket, so it’s all about performing under pressure: Heywood eked out victory even though his (admittedly impressive) 16-second high was not the best of the night. “This is my first year doing it—I’m a rookie spinner,” he said, adding: “I’m the first non-Jew to win—I found it funny. I think it’s great that everyone can be involved. I had friends who were Jewish growing up, so we had dreidels around.”

Festivismukkah!

The Annotated Child: Coping with the December dilemma

The Annotated Child: Festivismukkah graphic

(more…)

Diamond Does Sandler

Neil’s cover of ‘The Chanukah Song’

Neil Diamond recently released a Christmas album—his third Christmas album, in fact. But a closer look at A Cherry Cherry Christmas’s track list reveals that after 13 holiday standards (“White Christmas,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” etc.), Diamond closes the album with … “The Chanukah Song”. That’s right, folks: one of the great Jewish-American songwriters (and, as Nextbook Press’s A Fine Romance shows, that is quite the list) has adopted Adam Sandler’s classic early-‘90s recitation of “people who are Jewish—just like you and me.” Adopted it, that is, and turned it into something of an ‘80s power ballad. Put on your yarmulkes, and enjoy!

Related: A Fine Romance [Nextbook Press]

Hanukkah FAQ

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Festival of Lights

WHAT IS HANUKKAH?

Hanukkah, aka the Festival of Lights, celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in the 2nd century BCE and the Maccabees’ uprising against the Greeks.

WHEN IS HANUKKAH?

Hanukkah 2013 begins at sundown on Wednesday, November 27, and ends at sundown on Thursday, December 5.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?

Hebrew for “dedication,” Hanukkah is an eight-day-long celebration commemorates just that: the purging and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BCE after the Jews’ successful uprising against the Greeks.

ANY BAD GUYS?

Absolutely: Antiochus IV, one the best villains in all of Jewish history. As his nicknames—“the Illustrious” and “Bearer of Victory”—suggest, the ruler of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire was fond of waging war. He was engaging in that pastime in Egypt when a rumor circulated in the region that he’d been killed. Meanwhile, Jason, a Hellenized Jew who’d been deposed as the Temple’s high priest, heard of Antiochus’ death and saw an opportunity to reclaim his position, so he marched on Jerusalem with 1,000 men. Antiochus interpreted the clash in the holy city as a full-fledged Jewish revolt against the foreign rulers, and, in 167 BCE, he attacked Judea and punished its population by outlawing all Jewish rites and practices and mandating the worship of Zeus.

By so doing, most modern scholars agree, the king was simply intervening in an existing civil war between those Hebrews who called for a strict adherence to tradition and those, like Jason, who preached assimilation to Hellenism. Antiochus’ involvement, however, aggravated the internecine struggle and prompted the traditionalists to launch a genuine anti-Greek revolt, led by an aged priest, Mattathias the Hasmonean, and his five sons—Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah—the latter nicknamed HaMakabi, or the hammer, for his combat skills. Followers of the fighting family eventually became known as Maccabees. Two years later, led by Judah, the Maccabees succeeded in defeating Antiochus’ troops, recaptured the Temple, and set out to purge it of idols.

According to the Talmud, the Maccabees wished to light the Temple’s menorah, a traditional candelabrum that customarily burned through the night in Judaism’s holiest place, but discovered just enough oil to last for one day. Miraculously, however, the oil burned for eight days, a wonder we commemorate by lighting candles for eight nights.

Given its themes of Jewish nationalism and rebellion, the rabbis downplayed Hanukkah’s importance throughout the centuries in exile, fearing it might inspire their flock to imitate the Maccabees and take up arms. More recently, however, the holiday has experienced a renaissance: Celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev—and therefore usually falling somewhere between late November and late December on the Gregorian calendar—Hanukkah has emerged as a Jewish equivalent to Christmas.

ANY DOS AND DON’TS?

As far as Jewish holidays go, Hanukkah is a lenient one, as it is not a Sabbath-like holiday and therefore forbids no particular practices. The major ritual of the holiday involves lighting the hanukkiah, the proper name for an eight-flamed menorah, which should be completed each night no later than half an hour after nightfall (except on Fridays). The Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat, specifies that unlike Shabbat candles, Hanukkah candles must serve not for illumination but for the sole purpose of reflecting on the Hanukkah miracle. This is why we light them with another candle, called the shamash, meaning servant, and why we place them on a windowsill so they advertise the holiday’s miracle to the world entire. As we light the candles, we recite two blessings: “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah light[s],” and “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, Who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.” On the first night of Hanukkah, we also recite the Sheheheyanu prayer, traditionally said whenever a happy occasion is celebrated for the first time in a new season. Hymns and poems are also sung, most notably “Hanerot Halalu” and “Maoz Tzur,” both retelling the Hanukkah story. There are also several additions to the daily prayers, including “Al HaNissim” (Hebrew for “about the miracles”), a special recitation that is added to the silent devotion prayer and that celebrates the Maccabees’ unlikely victory.

In a more earthly realm, there’s the tradition of playing with a dreidel, the Hebrew letters on which stand for “a great miracle happened there” (or, in Israel, “a great miracle happened here”). There is also the habit of giving gelt, or money, to children and young adults. Although there are several explanations concerning the origins of this custom, the most commonly held one dates to the 17th century and explains that with miracles and the elation of the historic victory on everybody’s minds, young, impoverished students would visit the homes of wealthy Jews and receive a few coins in return. More recently, nimble chocolatiers presented their own gold-foil-covered alternatives. Whether cash or cocoa, however, giving gelt fits in nicely with the overall spirit of December’s gift-giving mania.

ANYTHING GOOD TO EAT?

It’s traditional on Hanukkah to eat fried foods like latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts)—a natural choice for an oil-themed holiday.

ANYTHING GOOD TO READ?

The Hanukkah texts are considered part of the apocrypha and not included in the Hebrew Bible. They include the two books of Maccabees, which tell the story of the rebellion and subsequent victory, as well as the Book of Judith. The sister of Mattathias, and therefore Judah’s aunt, she is believed to have tempted Holofernes, a conquering Assyrian general, with her beauty, giving him wine and cheese and, when he was drifting off to sleep, decapitating him. The assassination emboldened the Jews, terrified the occupiers, and saved the town of Bethulia from falling into foreign hands. To commemorate Judith’s bravery, some communities eat dairy on Hanukkah, hearkening back to Judith’s feeding cheese to Holofernes. The heroic act is also the reason for women’s participation in the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah candles: unlike other commandments, this one commemorates, in part, the bravery of one Jewish woman, therefore requiring Jewish women everywhere to partake in the ritual.

ANYTHING ELSE TO DO?

• Learn more about Hanukkah from that preeminent Jewish scholar, Elmo.

• Take that, Irving Berlin! Rock out with Sen. Orrin Hatch’s Hanukkah song.

• Build a Droidel, the only dreidel fit for a Jewish Jedi.

• Get swept up in the great Latke-Hamantash debate.

• Watch D.W. Griffith’s classic take on Judith.

A Dreidel for the Blind

The letters are in Braille!

In time for this year’s holiday season, an Oregon-based artist with a degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary has created the Braidel—a rather oddly shaped dreidel whose lettering is written in Braille. (The shape, and the Braidel’s ability to stay spinning for an exceptionally long time—see below—are in part due to the rounded bottom, designed to prevent blind players from injuring themselves.) Marsha Plafkin Hurwitz conceived of the Braidel as both toy and art work: “This is something for Jews, Christians, Muslims, anyone who wants to engage how their tradition has treated disability,” she said. Well, sure. But we imagine that for those who are both blind and Jewish, the simple fact that they can now gamble the way Judah Maccabee wanted us to is the minor miracle happening here.

Winter A-Go-Go

Merry-making at a Yo La Tengo Hanukkah concert

Yo La Tengo Hanukkah show
A 2007 Yo La Tengo Hanukkah show

The members of rock trio Yo La Tengo have long inspired an embarrassingly pretentious-seeming ardor in their devotees; but if you like them, it’s hard to resist using words like “art” to describe them—without air quotes for a change.

Since 2001, almost every year, the band has performed a concert each night of Hanukkah at Maxwell’s in their hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey. In such an intimate space, their sound comes close to replicating the headphone or car stereo experience, via which I would venture to guess a large portion of the band’s fan-base first fell in love with Yo La Tengo’s music. This circumstance, unusual for such a cult act, combined with the special-occasion appeal of the holiday theme, makes these shows momentous events.

According to guitarist/keyboardist Ira Kaplan’s official blog, on the first night of this year’s series, opening band Oneida performed a song called “Hanukkah, Bitch,” comedian Paul F. Tompkins performed Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” with an added verse telling the story of the holiday, and Yo La Tengo themselves performed one of their seasonal staples, “Eight Day Weekend.” Naturally, I assumed that if I went to the Christmas eve performance, I was sure to get even more creative takes on the festival of lights. As it turned out, I mostly heard more uses of the word “Jewy than I ever thought possible. But in a way, it was a perfect tribute to the Jewish holiday, which, on this night of nights for Christians, bubbled along below the radar.

I got to Maxwell’s a little before the show, with a friend who was hoping quixotically to find carrot cake—instead we found take-out menus on every table from Istana Chinese and Japanese Cuisine. We had already eaten our official Asian food for the evening, but we sat down to get a drink. Georgia Hubley, Yo La Tengo’s drummer, turned around from her seat at the next table with the rest of the band to retrieve a box of seaweed salad sitting on one of the chairs at our table, smiling beatifically. Starstruck, I managed to ask if they’d done shows on Christmas in the past, and Kaplan answered that they’d done Christmas day, but that this would be their first Christmas eve show. “This one will probably be more Jewy than usual,” he said. (more…)

Get the 411

From the archives: Investigating the meaning of Hanukkah

(Photo: IMG_1971 by newyork808 / Sun Brockie; some rights reserved.)

By all appearances, Hanukkah seems to have earned a seat at the winter holiday table. Chances are good that a storefront window festooned with tinsel, elves, and pine wreaths also boasts an electric menorah and a dreidel.

Which made us wonder—what do people really know about the celebration of Hanukkah?

Hadara Graubart hit the streets of Manhattan to find out.

 

Small Miracle

A new album tries to change Hanukkah’s reputation

cover of 'Songs in the Key of Hanukkah'

For any self-respecting cynic, it’s de rigueur to despise Christmas music—primarily for its relentlessness, and the forced irony it creates in many, many otherwise joy-free environments (malls, car repair shops, pharmacies). Hanukkah music has been saved from this fate by its obscurity, and as a result, the general public probably doesn’t realize just how limited and infantile the catalog really is. Then again, why shouldn’t it be? Winter holidays are under no obligation to have larger or more adult musical repertoires than other festivals—and Hanukkah is most definitely a children’s holiday. Still, there is certainly no reason why its songs cannot be transformed into more pleasurable fare, or some new ones added to the mix. Along with a cadre of talented collaborators, Erran Baron Cohen (that would be neither Borat, nor the neuroscientist, but a third talented brother), has taken on the task, producing the new album Songs in the Key of Hanukkah.

Baron Cohen seems to be banking on the possibility that at the root of some Jews’ distaste for Christmas music is the fact that, by definition, it’s not ours. We may even envy the celebratory mood that the endless seasonal loop of Christmas music seems to engender in some people. But we don’t have a soundtrack to amplify those emotions in ourselves. Hanukkah music can never compete when it comes to sheer volume, but if it were done well enough, we might actually listen to it. Don’t we deserve the opportunity to bask in our own nostalgia (not to mention a tiny dash of elitist superiority over impeccable production values and the multiculti cachet of Sephardic music)? (more…)

Miracle on New Jersey Avenue

From the archives: An unexpected profusion of gifts for six Brooklyn siblings

illustration of a man and woman with folded arms, with two dishes of ice creamIllustration by India Amos

Let me begin this Hanukkah story by saying that my parents endured a miserable marriage from day one, my father solacing himself over the years with increasingly strict religious practice and long hours at his business, and my mother distracting herself with as many children as she could bring into the world to need her. By 1958, when this Hanukkah story takes place—and thirteen years into the marriage—we were six children, ranging from age eleven (me) to one, with intermediate stops at ten, eight, six, and two, and we lived in a row house at the far end of Brooklyn, within an Orthodox Jewish community whose members seldom saw a need to leave the neighborhood except to visit Manhattan for work, the Catskills for summer, and Queens to be buried.

Within this self-sufficient enclave, of the thirty-plus holy days and fast days and festival days observed each year, the eight attached to Hanukkah were among the least consequential. From a devotional perspective, the holiday asked little of us: no canonical text to interpret, little more than standard liturgy to deal with in shul, and no need to wear a white shirt with a starched collar or refrain from radio-listening or subway riding. What Hanukkah did compel was an obligation to light menorahs at sunset and keep them lit until thirty minutes past star-rise, which, the rabbis said, began something like fifteen minutes after sunset—the precise interval being a matter of theological dispute dating back to the twelfth century and which had not (and to date has not) been resolved, an ambiguity that one could hardly imagine withstanding the rabbinical attention paid to Rosh Hashanah or Simchas Torah or opening day at Shea Stadium. (more…)

Rock of Ages

From the archives: Love among the menorahs

Rock of Ages, illustration by Aaron Artessa

Illustration by Aaron Artessa

Every Hanukkah, the choir at my Jewish day school performed twice: once at the school’s annual Hanukkah Celebration, and then the next day at the neighborhood’s local public school, to bring a little Hanukkah spirit to “lost” Jewish kids who were inundated with Christmas marketing and knew nothing about the miracle of Hanukkah but were more than happy to tolerate our singing if it meant missing some class. Our choir was composed of about thirty girls and twelve boys from the sixth through eighth grades.

Fact: Most kids possessed of a functioning set of testicles did not join the choir.

* * *

But I did, for the same reason that boys and men have always done stupid things: because of a girl. There were eleven other boys in the choir, and while I never confirmed it, it’s a safe bet that they were all similarly motivated. Except for this kid named Aaron Berkowitz, who could sing in a high, prepubescent mezzo-soprano that brought tears to the eyes of anyone over sixty, and whom we made fun of mercilessly because, as a general rule, mezzo-sopranos fight like girls. Also my friend Joey Weitz, who years later, to no one’s great surprise, would be the first member of our grade to officially come out. Joey’s voice had already begun to change; it squeaked like Peter Brady when he sang, and he knew it. He had joined to be ironic. But I have to believe that the rest of the boys, like me, were in it for the girls. Where else but at choir practice could an acutely shy, libidinous kid like me stand shoulder to shoulder, swaying as one, with thirty of the better-looking girls in the school, joined with them, into a single musical orifice, united under our common objective of singing complicated Israeli songs in three-part harmony and not sucking? It was the closest I would come to sex for quite some time.

The girl was Tara Wahlberg. She was a year older, already in eighth grade, but she had a learning disability that put her in some of my seventh-grade classes. I thought it was cool that she had a learning disability, a sexy bit of damage, like a butterfly tattoo. When a woman is out of your league, she has to be damaged in some way for there to be any hope. Tara had short, messy blond hair that she was growing out from last year’s ill-advised pixie cut, intense brown eyes, and full, frowning lips that parted provocatively when she sang. Her voice was nothing special, was actually a little shrill, but she could carry a tune and she sang with no fear, and thus was awarded solos regularly. When she sang, I would watch the rushed expansions of her back ribs through her polo shirt as she took her breaths, and the soft, liquid flex of the calf muscles under her skin as she rocked ever so slightly from side to side. When you’re twelve years old, that’s really all it takes, some small, unarticulated aspect of beauty you can excavate like a secret and call your own. Tara had smooth, well-formed calves and those full, creased lips, and I was in love, and you don’t need any better proof than the fact that I was willing to stay after school every Tuesday to be subjected to the steady abuse of our fat, sweaty choir director, simply to be in the same room as Tara.

(more…)

Week at a Glance

Pornographic vegan cupcakes and other highlights of a West Coast Hanukkah

I.

It’s simultaneously the first night of Chanukah, my Papa Irwin’s 98th birthday, and Christmas, the last week of 2005. I am home in L.A. for a visit, my first in a good long while. It’s a celebratory cluster-fuck, and my mother is hosting a party.

“We light one candle tonight, for the first night, and this other candle is called the shamash,” she explains in a voice usually reserved for kindergarteners.

Present are my father and stepmother, my brother and his wife, some cousins, my mother, Papa, and me. Things are a wee bit tense, for many boring and complicated family-issue reasons, all of which boil down to I don’t want to be here.

My brother’s wife is invited to light the menorah, which is pretty straightforward since it’s only the first night and there is therefore only the one single candle to light. My brother is wearing a pair of two-hundred-dollar jeans that first appeared around the time he and his beloved miraculously found each other on JDate. I’m feeling fairly homicidal, but I sing thinly along with the bracha. (more…)

Sophie Says

A young critic weighs in on three new novels

Sophie Apple, illustration by Samantha Hahn

With Hanukkah upon us, Nextbook picked three gift-worthy books for younger readers, and discussed them with Sophie Apple, a 12-year-old critic who lives in Brooklyn. Two of the novels Apple appraises—Jake Wizner’s Spanking Shakespeare; and Dana Reinhardt’s A Brief Chapter In My Impossible Life;—follow high school students dealing with age-appropriate questions of identity, responsibility, faith, and romance. Though set during the violent and faraway Spanish Inquisition, the third novel, Alice Hoffman’s Incantation, deals ultimately with the same thorny questions.

Sophie offers her takes on all three and tells us which she would most likely recommend to a friend.

Illustration by Samantha Hahn. 

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.