A Rejoinder to “Hanukkah Sucks”

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When Emma Green of The Atlantic magazine contacted me to discuss Hanukkah for an upcoming article in the on-line magazine, I was initially excited by the prospect. She approached our discussion, which was quite enjoyable, with an open mind. We talked at length about the holiday’s symbolism and underpinnings. What struck me at the time was a statement made by Emma that Hanukkah was “theologically thin.” While I agree that Hanukkah is based on an historical foundation that later on incorporated a theological concept of a miracle, I should have been more attuned perhaps to Emma’s preconceived stance. The result of our conversation was my pop-in inclusion in an article in The Atlantic online that attacks American Jews’ celebration of the holiday while ignoring the thrust of my interview. [See Green’s Hanukkah, Why? Cultural Critics Often Blame Christmas for the Festival of Lights’ Commercialized Kitsch. The Real Story is Much More Complicated.]

Green’s article is deeply flawed.  I certainly did not fare as poorly as other scholars cited in the article; however, I am dismayed that the article failed to discuss the duel underpinning for Hanukkah’s ascension in the American vernacular. In my interview with Green, I repeatedly emphasized that the singular way to understand Hanukkah in America today is in connection with its juxtaposition to Christmas and its contemporary connection with religious liberty. In writing about and discussing Hanukkah, it is imperative to compare and contrast Hanukkah and Christmas on both a particular and a general level. I emphasized to Green that Hanukkah is the festival of light during what has been characterized as the season of light. Hanukkah is a holiday that has come to symbolize the fight for religious freedom, which coalesces with an important American value. Green chose to disregard this. Instead Green chose to highlight Hanukkah as a holiday of kitsch and “celebratory of violent nationalism.”

Perhaps the internet citation for the article signals the author’s preconceived perceptions:(http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/12/hanukkah-sucks-amirite/419649/) An interesting corollary is the search heading, which reads “How American Jews Ruined Hanukkah.” Perhaps these are merely attention-grabbing devices. Perhaps they are a reflection of the subversive irony of hipsterism. The Atlantic magazine article fails to portray the individual perceptions and behaviors of American Jews vis-a-vis Hanukkah.

I have written a direct email response to Green. It reads as follows:

I read your article again just now. To me it seems that while your reasoning is interesting, it is also flawed. As I write in my book, A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press, 2012), Hanukkah (in America) can only be considered and analyzed with respect to its contextual relationship to both Christmas and the December holiday season, both generally and particularly. Hanukkah, in fact, is certainly one of the strategies American Jews employ to respond to (and mitigate the effects of) Christmas. This is Hanukkah’s true importance to the American Jew. Your article avoids a discussion of the juxtaposition, correlation and interaction of the two holidays. If you read (or reread) my book, each chapter represents a different strategy of response, all of which are interconnected. Basically, your treatment of Hanukkah is in isolation of its historical and contemporary context to (and its magnification because of) the December holidays.  Lastly, for most American Jews, Hanukkah connotes a joyous affirmation of Jewish identity and religious liberty (as I mentioned to you in our recent discussion) during the month of December.

 

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Naughty or Nice? A Santa in Maccabee’s clothing!

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Maccabee-Santa chocolateA Hanukkah Brouhaha: Jennie Rivlin Roberts, owner of ModernTribe, an-online purveyor of holiday accouterments, gifts and treats, had an inspired idea: to order chocolate renditions of Maccabees to sell on her website at Hanukkah-time (or as HEEB called them “chocobees.”) When she removed the foil wrapper to taste the chocolate, what she found, instead of a Hasmonean, was….a chocolate Santa!

According to an online piece in the Forward, Rivlin Roberts stated: “The next thing I did was call our supplier, who are way more observant Jews than I, who basically said, ‘Yeah, what of it?’ They said they couldn’t afford to purchase a new chocolate mold and chose, instead, to use the chocolate company’s Santa mold. His question to me was, ‘is this blasphemous or offensive to someone, what’s the big deal?’”

Rallying the chocolate troops, Yo Semite asserts that Hanukkah “deserves better than second-hand Christmas mold….In the midst of this supposed ‘War on Christmas’ I keep hearing about, it looks like Christmas just launched an ICBM (Inter-religious Chocolate Ballistic Missile) preemptive strike against Hanukkah.” ” (HEEB, November 11, 2015)

The counter- opinion appears to be “so what?!  Yo Semite himself says: “Of course, delicious milk chocolate is gonna be delicious milk chocolate, no matter what seasonal holiday it’s molded for.”

The comments to the HEEB posting range from “oy, oy, oy!” to it’s a “Shanda!” to “Two. Two. Two holidays in One!”

Thank you to Rabbi Deborah Prinz for bringing this issue to our attention! For more on the historical nexus between Jews and Chocolate, see: On The Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals And Recipes To The Magic Of Cacao.

While Visions of Hopjes Danced in My Head!

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Hopjes

We all know that smells, tastes, sounds and other sensations in the present day can evoke memories of the past. Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, we were entertaining friends who are Dutch and make their home in Florence, Italy. We decided to break bread together on an early Sunday morning at the Russ & Daughters Café on Essex Street on the Lower East Side.  After a lovely meal and much discussion about the lack of Jewish fish purveyors in Amsterdam, we asked for the check. With the check came hard coffee-flavored caramel candy– Hopjes! Instantly, I was taken back to my childhood in a small rural town in Connecticut, where my American-born Hungarian Jewish grandmother always had a bowl of Hopjes on the coffee table in her home.  Our Dutch friends immediately recognized the candy…as it is Dutch. They, in fact, read the label in their native language. I, in the meantime, was overcome by nostalgia. It wasn’t until later that afternoon that I started to reflect on how and why my grandmother would have had these particular candies.

Curiosity led me to dig a bit. There is a bit of folklore that surrounds Hopjes! A Dutch candy, Hopjes supposedly originated in the eighteenth century when Baron Hendrik Hop was recalled from his posting as an envoy in Brussels when the French invaded Belgium in 1792. Apparently, he moved into rooms above the confectioners Van Haaren & Nieuwerkerk. As the story goes, the Baron, addicted to coffee, left his coffee with sugar and cream on the heater one night, where the liquid evaporated. The Baron loved the resulting substance! Advised against coffee by a doctor, the Baron asked the confectioner Theodorus van Haaren to make him some “lumps of coffee”. Whereupon, Van Haaren created a sweet made of coffee, caramel, cream and butter. Thus started the Hopjes tradition!

A Google search reveals plenty of references to Hopjes being eaten by Jews. (One European reference is in the book We All Wore Stars: Memories of Anne Frank from Her Classmates by Theo Coster about his encounter with a man who worked at the Rademaker Hopjes factory, an “exhilarating discovery for a child.”) As for America, the proximity of cultures in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century immigrations to New York City on the Lower East Side coupled with an amazing array of candy purveyors in the neighborhood contributed to this cross-cultural exchange.

 

A Feast For The Soul!

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Happy Hanukkah Union Square MarketFor a fantastic radio story-telling hour centered on Hanukkah, the holiday of miracles and light, check out NPR’s annual Hanukkah Lights special! NPR gathered a collection of stories from both iconic and unknown writers. Hosts Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz spotlight original work from Isaac Bashevis Singer, Kathryn Blume, Leah Lax, Eric Kimmel and Jonathan Safran Foer. See http://www.npr.org/2015/12/04/458032945/hanukkah-lights-2015

 

No Maccabee Ever Saw A Latke !

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Russ & Daughters Latkes

Photo: Russ & Daughters, Lower East Side, New York City

So what actually makes a potato pancake a latke? To us, American Jews, it is more than a pancake that we make from potatoes—it is a pancake imbued with symbolism, a pancake layered with the flavor of both tradition and history.  Latkes, so central to the celebration of Hanukah (which began this year last night on Sunday evening, December 6th), have a multi-faceted origin, one not necessarily rooted in Hanukkah cuisine.

Hanukkah commemorates, and in fact celebrates, the triumph of the Maccabees over the capture of the Israelites by the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus in 168 BC, who had plundered and defiled the holiest site of the Jewish people, the Temple in Jerusalem. The term “Maccabees” derives from an acrostic of the Hebrew “Mi Kamocha B’Elim Adonai” (Who among the mighty is like you, God?).

After the battle, the Maccabees purged the temple of idols and, finding a small amount of purified olive oil, lit the golden menorah. The oil, ostensibly enough to burn for just one day, lasted for eight days. According to tradition, this was a miracle. To commemorate the Miracle of the Oil,  Jews throughout the world eat foods fried in oil on Hanukkah.

Over the centuries, a spectrum of recipes has been developed using local ingredients reflective of local cuisines. Jews living in Mediterranean countries or in the Middle East had freshly-pressed olive oil available to fry their holiday foods, which coincided with the end of the olive-pressing season. Greek, North African and Turkish Jews also developed several kinds of olive oil-fried dough-based desserts.

Food historian Gil Marks credits the origin of latkes to somewhat modern times: “The Maccabees never saw a potato, much less a potato pancake.” Potatoes were brought from South America to Europe, where they were slow to be adopted as a food into the various cuisines. According to Marks, the concept of a pancake began with Italy, where Italian Jews fried pancakes in olive oil. They were later associated with Hanukkah by Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus in the thirteenth century. Pancakes at the time were ricotta cheese-based. After the expulsion of the Jews from Sicily in 1492, the pancake travelled to other locales, and, along the way, became firmly associated with Hanukkah because of its successful combination of two traditional food types—dairy and fried. Because of the reluctance to fry cheese in the traditional animal fat and, during winter months the scarcity of milk products in northeastern Europe, substitutions for the cheese were made. Most involved local grains. In the meantime, the potato was slowly gaining in popularity and reach. Eventually, the potato became incorporated into German cooking and, later, after crop failures in Eastern Europe in the early 1800’s, into the local cooking of that region.

The word “latke” is Yiddish in derivation, a German-based language fused with Hebrew and Aramaic, oft-spoken by East European Jews. For the Jews of the shtetl villages in Eastern European countries such as Russia and Poland, potatoes comprised the most abundant of crops. Grating and frying the potatoes, often in chicken fat (schmaltz) was the culinary vernacular. According to Tel Aviv-based food writer Phyllis Glazer, who researched the word “latke,” certain sources “claim it derives from the Old Russian oladka, and is a diminutive of olad’ya, from Greek eladia, the plural of eladion, which means ‘a little oily thing’ and comes from elaia, which means ‘olive’.”

Let’s face it, everyone has their own recipe, idea or version of what a latke should be. Family history and food traditions come into play here. Latkes can take form from coarsely or finely grated potatoes. Flour or matzah meal can be the binding agent. As creativity prevails, latkes can be made from potatoes with a bit of onion, or may take form from sweet potatoes, beets, carrots or even zucchini and feta cheese.

It is the method of cooking, the frying in oil, that renders a latke a latke!

Hanukkah Goes Mainstream!

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Hanukkah Lighting 2015Merriam-Webster’s word of the day today: Menorah! Hanukkah is in the public consciousness of America! How and why?!

Two significant historical events facilitated the growing awareness for Americans that Hanukkah was a major holiday for Jewish people and that it was fast becoming attendant to Christmas festivities. The first was the formal recognition of Hanukkah by the White House that was accompanied by a menorah lighting ceremony. On December 17, 1979, President Jimmy Carter became the first sitting American President to participate in the lighting of a public menorah, located across the street from the White House in Lafayette Park. Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Abraham Shemtov attended the presidential lighting ceremony and presented President Carter with a small menorah as a keepsake.

In 1982, the menorah lit in Lafayette Park was publicly referred to as the National Menorah by President Reagan, thereby equating its lighting with the National Christmas tree lighting. The first display of a menorah in the White House is ascribed to President George H.W. Bush in 1989, upon receiving it as gift from Synagogue Council of America. By 1993, the menorah lighting rite had officially moved into the White House when President Bill Clinton hosted a small ceremony for school children in the Oval Office. The first President to hold a White House Hanukkah party at which he actually lit a menorah was George W. Bush in 2001. This tradition has continued to the present.

The second historical factor that contributed to the presence of Hanukkah in the public domain was the campaign waged by Chabad-Lubavitch to place menorahs in as many public venues throughout the United States, from malls to city parks and halls. The drive was initiated by the late Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in the 1970s. In 1980, Rabbi Schneerson issued a directive encouraging menorah lightings in public places and initiated a movement by sending rabbinic emissaries to cities throughout the United States with the express mission of publicizing the miracle of Hanukkah to inspire pride in Jewish onlookers.

At first, public displays of menorahs began appearing in cities with large Jewish populations, such as Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.  Media coverage of the menorah lighting ceremonies in these cities often showed the local mayor and prominent government officials helping Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbis to light menorahs. The first such lighting, in 1974, occurred in front of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and involved a small group of Jews holding a small menorah. The following year, in San Francisco, the local Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi, Chaim Drizin, and public radio station KQED program director Zev Putterman, arranged for concert promoter Bill Graham to sponsor the creation of a twenty-two foot high mahogany menorah to be erected in Union Square. The menorah, affectionately called Mama Menorah, was erected next to Macy’s ornate Christmas tree, the largest public tree in the city. Bill Graham also underwrote an attendant festival, now called the Bill Graham Menorah Day Festival, which includes musical performances, arts and crafts, food, and is capped off by the Chabad-Lubavitch sponsored menorah lighting.

Perhaps the largest menorah lighting to take place in this early period was at Dolphins Stadium in Miami in 1987, when Florida Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Tennenhaus lit a menorah in front of 70,000 people. In this same year, Rabbi Schneerson launched a global Hanukkah menorah lighting campaign.

The lighting of public menorahs was not without controversy. Challenges to the constitutionality of the menorahs in the public square paralleled challenges to crèches and other Christological symbols.

Check out Hanukkah lightings all over New York City and throughout America tonight (and throughout Hanukkah). One in particular is at 35th and Park Avenue in Manhattan,where I will be leading the lighting!

 

Oy To The World! The Advent of the Ugly Hanukkah Sweater

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A rite of the Christmas season for many who participate involves the wearing of highly-decorative Christmas-time sweaters. The origin of this seasonal custom  probably is rooted in sweaters made by the hands of well-meaning older relatives to be given as gifts. Recently, and somewhat ironically, the trend was picked up by the so-called hipster generation resulting in what has evolved into the broad-based mass market appeal of the “ugly Christmas sweater.” Vendors were quick to leap upon this idiosyncratic bandwagon in order to mine what would become a multi-million dollar trend.

So, does this leave some of us non-celebrants out-in-the-cold, so to speak? Or as one Jewish entrepreneur asked: “why should Jews celebrating Hanukkah be denied the pleasure of giving ugly sweaters as gifts to friends and family?”

Not so, says Laura Rosenfeld of TechTimes: ”For those among us that celebrate Hanukkah, you too can have your ugly sweaters and eat your gelt, too.” In an apparent cross-over attempt, vendors are now marketing “ugly Hanukkah sweaters!” And people are buying it! One on-line comment posted on Amazon.com’s web site states: “At last I have the perfect sweater to compete with the ugly X-Mas sweater. I wore it during Hanukkah and got a lot of ‘Happy Holidays’ my way. Really changed my mood during this dreaded time of year when everyone says Merry Christmas constantly and all the stores are already jingling the bells and inciting consumerism.“

In an effort to tap into this burgeoning market, retailers of all stripes are entering the fray—although some with questionable success. Recently, high-end retailer Nordstrom was upbraided for marketing a sweater that vaunted the image of a menorah and was emblazoned with the words “Chai maintenance” and “Hannukah J.A.P.” Generating controversy and offense because of the verbal pun on the Hebrew word “Chai,” meaning life, combined with a derogatory phrase which stands for “Jewish American Princess,” public outcry resulted in Nordstrom ceasing to market the sweater and apologizing for its insensitivity.

The last word on the subject: For a full, but somewhat distracting, array of Ugly Hanukkah sweaters, check out a Hanukkah musical collaboration by Erez Cohen, Six13, A.K.A. Pella, & The Y Studs called “A One Direction Hanukkah” or “The Ugly Hanukkah Sweater Song” posted at JewTube!