This column was first published in December, 2010. We’ve always gotten positive feedback for it and enjoy re-publishing it each year. Nothing is altered below except the opening sentence for obvious reasons.
The “Festival of Lights,” Chanukah, begins this year after sundown, on December 24th. No doubt, many non-Jews are unfamiliar with the holiday, its origins and traditions. In the spirit of the numerous books out these days that explain seemingly complicated things in a simple fashion, we offer this tongue in cheek, “A Gentile’s Guide to Chanukah.”
Q. Is Chanukah is just a holiday that Jewish people came up with so they could have a holiday similar Christmas in December?
A. No. The historical events that Chanukah commemorate actually took place 165 before Jesus was even born. The evil Greek-Syrian King Antiochus conquered the land of Israel, put up a really yucky statue of himself in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and tried to put Judaism out of business. The Jews responded as they always have when threatened with extinction: praying, fighting, eventually winning and creating a new holiday complete with yummy foods. The re-dedication celebration at the Temple went on for 8 days.
In fact, I’m willing to bet that Joseph and Mary were unable to find a room in Bethlehem because it was during Chanukah. All the out-of-town parents and grandparents who didn’t want to impose on their children had booked all the rooms at local inns. And all those gifts the baby Jesus received? Chanukah gifts of course!
Q. What’s with those greasy fried potatoes Jewish people eat on Chanukah?
A. Hey, if prepared correctly, latkes are not greasy and are worth every single indigestible calorie! Because of the parable of a single flask of olive oil miraculously burning in the rededicated Temple for 8 days, its customary to eat foods cooked in oil on Chanukah. In addition to potato latkes, many Jewish people, especially Israelis have the practice of eating sufganiyot, donuts during the holiday.
Q. Does spinning the Chanukah Dreidel lead to compulsive gambling?
A. God forbid! The Dreidel is a four-sided top that has a different Hebrew letter on each side: Shin, nun, gimmel and hey. The four letters spell out the Hebrew phrase: Nas gadol haya sham: A great miracle happened then.
- If you land on the shin you have to put a coin in the pot
- Land on the nun, do nothing
- Land on the gimmel, you win the whole pot
- Land on the hey and you can collect half the pot
Once upon time, kids did play for actual coins which how is how the custom of parents and grandparents giving their kids Chanukah-gelt (money) probably got started. But over time, poverty and practicality made it is more desirable to give kids chocolate coins instead. So at worst, a kid may end up with a sticky fingers and a new cavity.
Legend has it though that one Jewish kid named Benji from Brooklyn in the early part of the 20th Century was the most successful Dreidel player of all time. No matter who’s Dreidel he used, he always spun a gimmel and cleaned up. His reputation preceded him and after a while, no one would dare play Dreidel with him. In frustration, the kid headed west to create a place where no one would know him and he could play Dreidel 24/7. Maybe you heard of him, Bugsy Siegel, the founder of Las Vegas?
Q. Is it true that instead of toys, or fun things, Jewish parents like to give their kids practical gifts on Chanukah like socks?
A. That depends, do you consider guilt a practical gift? Last year my mother gave me a blue and red tie. A week later when I went over for dinner. I thought I’d make her happy by wearing the red tie. When I walked in the first thing she said was: “So you don’t like the blue tie?”
My cousin, Shirley Shmaltz told me that when she arrived at her mother’s house for Chanukah, the first thing her mother wanted to know was whether or not she was feeling better. “Why would you think I was sick, Ma? Shirley asked. “Well” her mother responded, “you haven’t called or visited in so long I just assumed you were deathly ill.”
Q. Is it a coincidence that the founder of modern psychiatry was Jewish?
A. Is it a coincidence that the Pope is Catholic? Oy vey. With what I’ve spent on antacids and shrinks, the Navy could launch a new carrier-battle group.
If you are not Jewish but took the time to read this column, thank you. By the way, I love all the lights and Christmas tchotchkes on your house.
That is your house that’s causing all the car accidents, isn’t it? Considering how you’re dressed, it’s amazing how nice the decorations came out. And so what if all those Christmas lights are redirecting planes from the airport, it’s not your problem. Have a happy, joyful, bright Chanukah, everyone! Don’t forget the Tums before hitting those latkes!
If you haven’t chuckled yet, check out these videos: