Tonight, Hanukkah begins. And while I'm sure I'm supposed to
feel some inner call to bask in the glow of the menorah, I probably
won't. Sad as it sounds, I just can't get into it, and I'm not sure
I'm alone. As Howard Jacobson tells us in today's New York Times:
The word - Hanukkah -
is lovely, but what's the festival itself for? What does it do?
... 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.
Hanukkah has potential. First of all, it comes at a nice time of
year. Goodwill is generally pretty high, as we're all coming right
off Thanksgiving and holiday specials and Kay Jeweler ads.
Second, there are candles. Candlelight has a truly softening
effect; parents look more loving, and children better-behaved, when
lit by the menorah.
Finally, the gifts. While the materialistic zeal attached to
Hanukkah is probably an effect of its hastily applied reputation as
"The Jewish Christmas," everyone likes a nice gift swap. Growing
up, we never did the wishlist a child might send to Santa, but
everyone got presents and seemed to enjoy them.
There's chocolate (small "coins" wrapped in gold foil called
gelt), games (dreidl), gifts and the glow of
candlelight: So why isn't it a bigger holiday? Why won't I be
traveling the 1,100 miles back to my parents' house in
Pennsylvania, the way I might in a few weeks if we celebrated
Aside from the fact that I was just there last week, and I've
realized that everyone finds me a lot more charming if I space out
my visits home, Hanukkah just isn't that big a deal.
Religiously, it's on a different plane than Rosh Hashanah, when
we ring in the new year, and Yom Kippur, when we vacillate between
shame, fear and hunger. It lacks the tradition and pomp of
Passover, or the self-congratulatory partying of Purim.
Moving outside the religious realm, Hanukkah as some major PR
problems that keep it from being what it could - a nice time of
year for family to gather 'round the menorah and argue about who's
more likely, if given lighting privileges, to set the house on
For starters, no one can agree how to spell it. I've settled on
Hanukkah, which seems to be the most popular option, but there's
the two-n variety, the Ch- style, and the
rarely-used-but-definitely-defensible one-n-one-k option.
Can you blame Hallmark for not embracing it?
Secondly, it moves around every year. It's like trying to get
excited about your birthday and then realizing you've missed it.
The years I remember most thoroughly enjoying Hanukkah were the
ones it fell close to Christmas; we borrowed some of the palpable
holiday cheer and enjoyed a few days off school and work.
Third, it has a terrible soundtrack. Christmas music is just
terrific. The best Hanukkah has is "Rock of Ages," which has even
less panache in the original Hebrew, Maoz Tzur. "I Have a Little Dreidl,"
pardon the pun, can't hold a candle to "Jingle Bell Rock."
So tonight I'll call my parents and wish them a happy Hanukkah.
But then I'll settle in for "Modern Family" and "Law & Order"
and probably won't do much else to mark the passing of
Hanukkah. Except the chocolate wrapped in foil. That's always
a nice touch.
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