Today marks the first night of Chanukah. Or Hanukah if you wish, I myself am not fussy about the spelling or pronunciation. Jews tend to complicate certain words, such as those starting with “CH” by saying them in a hard, guttural sound from the Hebrew or Yiddish translations. “Challah” and “chutzpah” are good examples, with most non-Jews preferring to pronounce them with an “H” sound rather than the crude, throat-clearing (but more authentic) hard “CH” sound.
However you choose to spell or say it, Chanukah is an important holiday. Stripped down to its essence, it commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, its menorah lit with a tiny bit of oil that miraculously lasted eight days after the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian-Greek Empire. And with that miracle, we celebrate this “Festival of Lights” each December by lighting our own menorahs.
We also eat potato latkes. Lots of potato latkes. So many latkes in fact that by the end of Chanukah, everyone is so completely sick of them that they swear them off forever. Until that is by the next visit to a Jewish deli, where in addition to french fries being offered, they also list latkes on the menu. When this happens your brain actually screams, “Hey, they have latkes!!,” even though it’s been perhaps two weeks since Chanukah ended. Jews love latkes.
Moral of the story? Never believe a Jew when she says she doesn’t want latkes. Just order them anyway because she’ll get incredibly excited when they’re brought to the table.
And speaking of latkes, I don’t want to waste too much time on this ridiculous argument waged in certain quarters about what’s more correct to put on top of latkes, sour cream or apple sauce? The answer is simple: Both are correct. But just one per latke, not both at the same time. Anyone who puts sour cream and apple sauce on a latke needs to have his head examined.
One thing Chanukah isn’t is Christmas. Christmas is a really important holiday to Christians, it being about the birth of baby Jesus and all. It’s basically a celebration of a Jewish battle victory. But because Hallmark, Amazon, Walmart, Target, Apple, et. al., absolutely thrive on making the distinction between the two holidays as narrow as possible, Chanukah is treated as an equal to Christmas in the eyes of retailers everywhere.
Growing up, my family always celebrated with presents on the first night only. My dad ran the shoe department at Sears, and the one cool thing he did in the weeks prior to Chanukah was to pull aside the best looking slippers when they arrived for the holiday season. So for many years my siblings and I received really cool slippers. And we also each got a present or two. These are good memories.
Somewhere along the way, however, and I believe it started at some point in the eighties, a new tradition began where kids celebrated Chanukah with a gift for each day of the holiday. A present every night!! I had never heard of anything like that. Even though it’s now apparently quite common, I still find it to be an aberration and gratuitously over the top. Humbug.
More than the latkes, more than the slippers, or even the spinning dreidels, what I loved most as a kid was the Chanukah gelt. Gelt is symbolic of money that the ancient rabbis approved of as gifts in celebration of the sacred oil miraculously burning for those eight nights. In 1958, the Israeli government issued commemorative coins for use as Chanukah gelt, which also displayed an image of the same menorah of the original Maccabean coins. The gelt we received as kids were chocolate coins but still had that same Maccabean menorah imprinted on it.
I could never get enough gelt. I even stole my sisters’ stash in order to get more. We had no “naughty and nice” provisions to worry about, after all.
Over the years Chanukah gelt has changed a bit. It’s now offered in major grocery stores, sometimes marketed as “Coins of the World” or something similar. Oh, okay, fine. I’m not exactly a purist in my own life, so I won’t quibble with yet another business changing things up for the sake of a profit. But on a recent visit to the Publix grocery store here in Florida, I had to laugh at the sack of gelt they were selling. Only three coins? Are you KIDDING me? I feel really sorry for the kid that gets that one. Save it for the naughty one?
Gorgeous was born in a household which blended rich Armenian, Hungarian, and Catholic traditions. But she’s embraced Chanukah on my behalf and brought out all the regular traditions that I enjoyed as a kid. She even bought me slippers this week. One cannot go wrong with new slippers.
So, tonight is the first lighting of the menorah, and there will be latkes made from scratch. There will also be the ceremonial Chanukah martini consumed after the menorah prayers are chanted. If they can come up with new traditions such as a present every night, I can make up my own too.
Happy Chanukah but please keep your mitts off my gelt.
And to everyone later this week, I wish you a very merry Christmas.
Until next time…