Please, if it means that much to you, just say “Merry Christmas.” It’s your most important holiday. Chanukkah is our least important holiday. It’s barely worth noticing.
Isn’t Hanukah the most important Jewish holiday?
No. Channukah — the Jewish festival that takes place in December — is the least important holiday on the Jewish calendar — even if it’s the only Jewish holiday most people know. There’s little celebration or tradition associated with the holiday other than lighting some candles. It’s post-Biblical and has little religious importance. Until the 20th century when American Jews picked up on the holiday, it was little more than a blip on the Jewish calendar — like Tu b’Shvat or Shmini Atzeret.
Note: We can’t decide how to spell Hannukkah, so I’ll attempt to use all of the spellings and then explain why they’re all wrong, including the one AP recommends for newspapers in its Stylebook.
What does Hanukkah celebrate?
Channuka celebrates a war victory that took place in 161 B.C. With about 4,000 men, the Jewish Maccabees beat the crap out of the Assyrians who had about 40,000 soldiers. The Maccabee tribe lived in Modi’in. Today the area is best known for its Elvis shrine in nearby Abu Ghosh — not to be missed on any trip to Israel.
Over the years, Israelis have invented quite a few things — bluetooth, gays in the military, voice mail, thumb drives, instant messaging — but in the 160s B.C., they invented and fought the first recorded guerilla war, which is how 4,000 beat 40,000.
Years later, when the Romans took over the area, the Jews were celebrating this little holiday commemorating a small band of renegades outgunning an army 10 times its size. That didn’t sit too well with the conquering Romans.
So to be allowed to continue practicing their religion, Jews made up a story about having only enough oil for the lamp in the temple to last one night when a great miracle happened. The oil lasted eight nights until the caretaker of the temple had time to get to Walmart, which wasn’t located in every town back then, pick up more oil and get back to temple in time to keep the lamp burning.
Why eight days? Because Jewish eating holidays are always two days or eight days. (Fasting holidays are only one day).
That makes Hannukah the only holiday that celebrates something we actually know didn’t happen.
The Passover miracle that Moses parted the Red Sea, for example — did it actually happen? Probably not. But we don’t know that it didn’t happen. It could have, even though there was no Suez Canal and the Jews could have easily walked around the Red Sea like they did when Jacob’s sons first drove to Egypt.
The miracle of Purim is that Queen Esther told her dopey husband the king that she was Jewish so he saved the Jews and killed Haman, the bad guy who had convinced the king to kill the Jews. Did Haman or Esther ever exist? Probably not as described. There’s no record of them other than in the Book of Esther. But it could have happened. And we celebrate by getting dressed up as Queen Esther making it the gayest holiday on the calendar, so who couldn’t love that?
But we know that this Channuka miracle of the oil was a story made up 150 years later.
And because the Chanuka story takes place after the (Jewish) Bible was completed, religiously, it is the least important holiday on the Jewish calendar.
Even Shmini Atzeret, a holiday mandated in the Bible that takes place on the eighth day of Sukkot that celebrates — well we don’t know what it celebrates exactly — is a more important holiday than Hannuka. Shmini Atzeret is so unimportant that it takes place the same day as another holiday — Simchat Torah as well as on the eighth day of Sukkot — and it’s still more important than Hanuka that has its own whole week. How do we know it’s important? Well, that’s the one thing the Bible does tell us about that holiday, in addition to telling us it’s a joyous holiday. Good thing because Simchat Torah is also joyous and it would be a schizophrenic day if it weren’t.
How do Jews celebrate Hanuka?
We light candles, one additional candle for each night.
And this is one of the ways we know this holiday isn’t significant. That’s it. Light a candle.
And every Jewish holiday has food associated with it. Lots of food. Hannukkah not so much.
The Passover Seder is not just a service but a meal. A big meal. The Seder includes four cups of wine and a feast with a variety of food specialties unique to that holiday.
Even Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and a day of fasting, ends with a breakfast that includes bagels, lox and pastry.
But Channukah offers just latkes — fried potato pancakes. And while they’re delicious, they’re a side dish at best, not a holiday-worthy meal.
Jews partake of their traditional December meal on Dec. 25 when they make a pilgrimage to the local Chinese restaurant. Most Jews consider pork kosher when it’s wrapped in a wonton.
Note: This year, because one of the members of Congregation Beth El Binah opened a Thai restaurant in Oak Lawn, the synagogue will spend the fifth night of Hannukka — better known as Christmas Eve — having Thai food instead of Chinese. Beth El Binah Rabbi Steve Fisch declared Thai kosher for Christmas.
What is a dreidel?
While Jews have written most of the popular Christmas songs (you’re welcome and we’ll be playing some of them on Christmas Day on the Jewish Music Hour on 89.3 KNON-FM at noon), we’ve come up with one song for this holiday — the dreidel song.
Even though the song says, “I have a little dreidel, I made it out of clay,” they’re made of wood or plastic. And like most chatchkes these days, they’re made in China. So the one Hannuka song we have is inaccurate.
But what is a dreidel? It’s a four-sided top. Each side has a Hebrew letter on it. The letters stand for “Great” “Miracle” “Happened” and “Here.” Kids spin with the top and bet on which letter will come up. So the lesson we teach kids at Channukah is gambling.
I’m not sure that kids spin an actual dreidel anymore. Most just have an iPhone app for that. But the gambling part remains.
How did Channukkah become so popular?
Celebrating Hanuka as a major holiday is very recent and very American. Many people say they celebrate Hanukka so the Jewish kids don’t feel left out on Christmas. That’s idiotic. I never felt left out of anything. When I’m celebrating Rosh Hashanah, do Christians feel left out? Why not? Because it’s not their holiday.
More likely, NorthPark and the Galleria didn’t want Jewish kids to feel left out of the Christmas shopping season. And Jews are very good shoppers. Many of my friends and relatives shop competitively and have won medals.
What to do? What to do?
Rather than making this war celebration into something it’s not, I much prefer helping my Christian friends celebrate their holiday.
In the early days of AIDS, when Resource Center Dallas had to be open 365 days a year to comply with certain grants, I spent the day answering phones at the center on Christmas with other members of Beth El Binah so that Resource Center staff could take the day off.
At KNON where I host a couple of radio shows, I always offer to cover anyone’s show on Christmas who wants to take the day off.
And my Christian friends have always helped me celebrate my holidays — the important ones — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that take place in September or October — either because they understand that those are the holidays that are meaningful to me — or because they don’t want to get an earful from me about what shit-asses they’re being when they give me crap about taking those days off.
So what’s the correct spelling of Hanuka? AP says it’s Hanukkah and they’re wrong.
The Hebrew spelling is חֲנֻכָּה — khet-nun-kof-hay.
Hebrew doesn’t have double letters so we know Hannukka or any version spelled with 2 n’s or 2 k’s can’t be it. Which means that Maccabees מקבים is wrong too. It would transliterate to Makbim.
And the first letter of Hannukah is a gutteral “kh” not a soft “h.”
So the correct transliteration would be gutteral kh, one n, one k and an h at the end because it’s there in Hebrew — Khanukah — about the only spelling we never use.
So Merry Christmas to all of our readers who celebrate Christmas.
And to those of you celebrating Christmas who were wished a Merry Christmas by Jews, remember, next Sept. 17, to wish your Jewish friends a happy Rosh Hashanah or happy New Year. And if you don’t remember the name of the holiday or what it celebrates, a simple happy holiday is just fine and always appreciated.
Note: The greeting that is NOT appreciated that time of year but the one I hear most often: “You goddamn Jews have so many holidays.” Sheesh, and Fox News is getting all pissed off just because some of us said happy holidays.
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