I’ve been so busy with work and family stuff that I feel like I haven’t posted on here since the days of Judah Maccabee. To quell the rioting in the streets over my absence, I will pause from my obligations to wish any readers I have left a Happy First Day of Hanukkah! Or is it Chanukah? The two accepted spellings of this holiday (and I’ve seen about a dozen other variations) are yet another schizophrenic aspect to being a Jew in America.
For many of our holidays and rituals, we seem to have two ways of doing things: one when we are amongst ourselves, and then a more Americanized, goyified way that is more suitable for mass consumption. Hanukkah’s spelling problems obviously come from the challenges of transliterating Hebrew sounds that don’t exist in English. When I looked up the two different spellings of the word in the Los Angeles Times archives, I noticed that almost all pre-World War II references to the holiday spelled it Chanukah, which I consider the more Jewish way, and then suddenly, in the late 40s and beyond, the spelling switched to Hanukkah (and the number of articles about it quadrupled). I guess that’s the price of assimilation and increased attention. If we’re going to pit our holidays against the Christian ones, we better make sure they are easily digested by the non-Jewish populace. Better avoid those hard gutteral “kh” sounds that are so hard for many goyim to pronounce (Kendall converted years ago and still has a hard time getting that sound out of her throat). It must have been all the non-Jews pronouncing Chanukah with the “ch” sound used in “church” that led to the new spelling. (In my Hanukkah meme from last year, I talked about the great “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which uber-shiksa Mary Kay Place attends her Jewish friend Gilda Radner’s holiday celebration: “Bobbie, these Chanookah decorations are out of this world!”)
While many Yiddish words have crept into daily usage, another tactic in presenting our practices to the outside world is the Anglify the words we use at home so that outsiders can understand. This is a courtesy that makes sense in certain cases, but sometimes popular culture goes too far, in my opinion. I don’t think a single Yiddish word was used in the movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof” and many of the English translations seemed bizarre to Jewish viewers. Calling a yarmulke a beanie or skullcap or a chuppah a bridal canopy, or even the character called Yenta the Matchmaker which led many viewers to mistakenly believe that the matchmaker’s first name was Yenta. How could they know that the word yenta means matchmaker in Yiddish (no it doesn't, see comments below) so her name in the film was basically “Yenta the Yenta.” Did the producers really think that Gentile viewers would have freaked out if they heard a Yiddish word and not have been able to understand some of them in context?
Hanukkah brings its own euphemisms. Want to spot a goy at a Hanukkah party? Look for the guy talking about potato pancakes, candelabras, and spinning tops rather than latkes, menorahs, and dreidels. I’m not criticizing these folks, we had several at our table last night who used these words and they couldn’t have been more charming, respectful guests. In fact, this year the goyim outnumbered the Jews at our house and they slaughtered us in a cut-throat game of dreidel, winning most of the chocolate gelt. I then noticed that the gold foil-wrapped gelt I bought earlier in the day also suffered from an identity crisis. Half of the coins were shekels with Hebrew lettering and the other half were Euros and South African krugerrands. Oy, at least there were no Nazi Reichsmarks with Hitler’s image embossed on the foil!
Hanukkah seems much more “popular” today than when I was growing up. I hate the fact that it has come to be a true competitor to the commercialization of Christmas (an accident of the calendar and a marketing ploy of the toy companies), but it has, and the holiday products are no longer relegated to a single dingy shelf at the back of the card store. The first time I heard any mention of Hanukkah on television was in 1963 on my favorite Sunday morning program called “The Magic Door.” Produced by the Chicago Board of Rabbis, this wonderful TV show featured a Peter Pan-like elf character named Tiny Tov who lived inside of an acorn house in the city of Torahville.
I never missed an episode of this show. It featured the only Jews visible on TV when I was young, except for a few assimilated characters (usually played by Catholics) such as Bernie on “Bridget Loves Bernie” and later Mary Tyler Moore’s friend Rhoda Morgenstern. Apart from the captivating Tiny Tov, the characters on “The Magic Door” included puppets Booby Beaver (!) and Deedee and Scrunch, and a few human friends. The residents of Torahville celebrated all of the Jewish holidays, read stories from the Old Testament, introduced Hebrew words and phrases, and explored Jewish values. Every week, Tiny Tov would enter into his magical world by singing the following song (if there any Baby Boomer Chicagoans out there, let me know if I’m remembering these words correctly):
A-room zoom zoom
A-room zoom zoom
Gily gily gily gily gily
Come through the Magic Door with me
Just say these words and wondrous things you'll see!
How I’d love to see this show again. The funny thing is that countless Gentile Chicagoans also loved the show without knowing what they were watching. Many kids, including my Polish Roman Catholic friend Dana, used to watch it “religiously” every Sunday when they got home from church, never realizing that the show was aimed at Jews. Without their parents' knowledge, these kids were being indoctrinated into the ways of the Hebrews for half an hour every week. Getting them right after church? Brilliance! Proof of the plot? Dana ended up marrying our very Jewish friend, Chuckie Cherney. Go, Tiny Tov, another one for our side!
Okay, before anyone takes offense, I’m just kidding! Dana did marry Chuckie, but it’s not the Jewish way to proselytize and persuade Christians to convert. Maybe that’s why all the Christmas/Hanukkah comparisons rub me the wrong way: