If I had a Hammer…

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According to Gabe Friedman of the JTA posted on November 7, 2017, the Hebrew Hammer is back…and this time, with a vengeance. As many may recall, Adam Goldberg played a quintessentially, and oft-times outlandish, Jewish superhero in a 2003 film by Jonathan Kesselman.  According to Friedman: “The film has become a cult classic, and its protagonist, who wears a yarmulke and a necklace with a machine gun pendant, has become a go-to symbol of Jewish toughness — something that’s rarely found in the pop culture zeitgeist.”

The Hebrew Hammer has been in retirement ever since. However, the recent political climate has motivated the team to reprise the Hebrew Hammer in a sequel. Golberg, Kesselman and producer Harrison Huffman have initiated a crowdfunding project to help bring the film to fruition:

see:  https://equity.indiegogo.com/offerings/hebrew-hammer-2/

For more about Adam Goldberg and his recent accomplishments as well as his recent on-line engagement with anti-Semitic twitter trolls, see: https://www.jta.org/2017/11/07/life-religion/a-hebrew-hammer-sequel-is-coming-motivated-by-trump-and-anti-semitic-twitter-trolls

 

 

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Bits and Bobs! Hanukkah With a Distinctly British Flair

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We generally address topics that are endemic to America Jewish culture at Christmastime; however, occasionally, an article or event catches both our collective eye and imagination!

Anyone who has spent time in London during the Christmas season knows that Hanukkah does not share the popular spotlight with Christmas in British culture.  When in London during a 2012 speaking tour, our then 12-year old New York City-bred son,  dazzled and somewhat bewildered by all of the holiday lights and decorations but aware that something was missing, noted: “Mom, where are the menorahs? Why don’t the pharmacies have Hanukkah gelt?”  Hanukkah was not to be found in public to be sure.

So, it is with great surprise and a bit of appreciation (with a raised eyebrow as it concerns a British tabloid) that I noticed a recent article by Leanna Faulkner in the the Mirror, entitled:  “When is Hanukkah 2017 and what is the story behind the Jewish Festival of Lights? Dates, facts and activities for kids. Here is everything you need to know about the story of Hanukkah and how to celebrate the special Jewish Festival of Lights.”

I must admit that I am completely taken with the 2007 photograph of the kippah-sporting Prince of Wales (Charles) and the Duchess of Cornwall (Camilla) lighting a Hanukkiah. [Fact-checking the tabloid photo, we did uncover a series of AP photos of the couple lighting a hanukkiah on December 12, 2007 in Hendon, northwest London.]

Noting that thousands of Jews celebrate Hanukkah in the UK, the article instructs readers about the holiday given that ”not many people know much about the celebration referred to as the ‘Jewish Christmas’.”

Ultimately instructive, the tabloid article does contain a few inconsistencies and what should be characterized as “what is that all about?”:

  • A reference to the menorah as an “eight-pronged candle,”
  • A description of the gift-giving tradition using a photo of a Christmas present with the following caption: “A man about to open a Christmas present. Almost two out of three people receive a Christmas gift they do not like, but many are too polite to ask for it to be exchanged for something else, a new study has found.”

And, in an endearing mash-up, the following Hanukkah facts:

  • Around 17.5 million oily doughnuts are eaten in Israel during Hanukkah, commemorating the miracle of oil.
  • The word Hanukkah means ‘dedication’.
  • Since Hanukkah is a Hebrew word, there’s not one proper translation [transliteration], meaning there are a whopping 16 different spellings.
  • Whether you spell it Hanukkah, Channukah or Hunnakah, you’re correct.
  • In Yemen, children went from house to house, tins in hand, to collect wicks for the Hanukkah menorah.

 So a proverbial hat’s off to the Mirror! And perhaps as we light our hanukkiot this year, we should all say “Next Year in London!”

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/hanukkah-2017-what-story-behind-11394061

And for those traveling to London during Hanukkah, since 2015, there is a menorah lighting in Trafalgar Square through the auspices of Chabad Lubuvitch UK.

https://www.visitlondon.com/things-to-do/event/40472517-menorah-on-trafalgar-square#f3IMwWpSXGpISkr7.97

 

 

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.

 

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!