Friday, December 07, 2007

Eight Days a Week
a Chanukah ramble from Simon

Thanks to devoted VHJ reader Julietta Appleton for passing this pic along.

I suppose it's a measure of my feelings about Chanukah that it's taken me this long to do a post about it for our ostensibly Jewy blog. This is not the kind of holiday that inspires great passion in me, though I've softened a bit – there was a time, not long ago, when I bored the pants off my inner circle with my patented "Chanukah is bullshit!" rant.

It went something like this: What a lame holiday! We had more oil than we thought? Swell! What is this, some ancient fundamentalist-Jew military thing? Compare it to Christmas, which is so freakin' excellent, except for the Jesus part ... why try to compete? Why do we have to have a Jew-mass holiday just to have an excuse to give Jewish kids presents? The rest was incomprehensible, even to me, though it did involve some excellent foaming at the mouth, teeth-gnashing, my head spinning around 360 degrees and, occasionally, doing that Curly Howard running-while-lying-down routine.

I had a lot of anger, I guess. As I said, I don't feel that way now. Or at the very least, my reaction to the whole thing is less Linda Blair-ish. But I should say a few words about the goyische elephant in the room first.

I still think Christmas is a superior holiday. Except for the Jesus part. (And really, why ruin a brilliant gift-exchanging seasonal party with a religious bum-out?) I mean, maybe it's because we didn't have it as kids, but I love the Xmas vibe. The smell of spice and vanilla. The lights on the houses. The tinsel-strewn, ornament-studded tree, with all those parti-colored packages arrayed at its base. The mistletoe. The way people mellow out and drink eggnog and play games. Those insane cookies. That kind and charitable mien you see on people's faces. Even the goofy sweaters.

There's something about Christmas that kinda crystallizes (not to be confused with kristallnacht) the metaphysical essence of being a Jew, particularly in America. Because the reason for the season, if you will, is that Messiah has come and all is well. This is naturally not a view that we Chosen-ites can embrace, given our traditional view of the New Testament as a sort of unauthorized sequel. But here's the thing: Tons of gentiles get way into the Christmas spirit without an ounce of religious belief. Therefore, I feel, so can I.

Still, the spiritual component of the season is hard to resist, even to an old implacable heart such as mine.

Thought exercise for you non-believers: Imagine a messianic figure (doesn't have to be Jeebus) has waved a magic wand and made everything OK. No more atrocities in Darfur, no more racism, no more waterboarding or Alzheimer's or Elizabeth Hasselbeck. Everything glows. Everyone feels sparkly and loving and there's no guile in anyone's eyes. This is the ideal of the holiday, and it exists so far over the rainbow from the non-magical, social-Jew cosmology I live that it holds an exotic allure.

Since I'm apparently in full disclosure mode, you know how a lot of Jews bristle when someone says "Merry Christmas" to them? I can't lie, y'all. I like it. Maybe it's because I'll take whatever merriment I can find.

OK, moving on. In my secular upbringing, Chanukah was when we lit candles and ate chocolate coins and spun the occasional dreidel (not keeping score, though, since none of us kids could read Hebrew). We spoke vaguely about the tradition, but I don't remember much context. Unlike Pesach, which was filled with intense, largely bleak historical significance, Chanukah felt like holiday lite, the Xmas surrogate.

I've certainly never enjoyed the yearly barrage of lamely recycled Chanukah "humor" found in so many cards, e-cards, and novelty songs, with their cut-rate Yiddishkeit and ain't-Chasids-hilarious punchlines.

Antiochus, as pictured on his very unsuccessful line of Chanukah gelt.

It turns out, though, that what this holiday celebrates is an instance of Jews doing some ass-kicking, the asses in this case belonging to the ancient Zeus-worshipping fuckwads (led by the extremely douche-like Antiochus) who punished the practice of the Jewish faith with death. Said fuckwads happened to be Syrian, but history has supplied an international potpourri of sanctimonious asshats bent on extinguishing the Torah and its fan club.

Unfortunately, the secular Jews of the classical age frequently serve as secondary villains in the telling of this tale (plus ├ža change, right?). And a certain strident minority of contemporary Jews (who harbor certain draconian geopolitical views as well as exclusionist social beliefs) would like to tell us modern secular Hebes that we don't count. As far as I'm concerned, they too deserve a stomping.

So let's make a deal: Chanukah is worth celebrating as an example of our people defending our faith and traditions. But let's reserve at least a single candle on the menorah for those of us who are part of the tribe but not part of the temple. When the next Antiochus comes along, you won't win the battle without us.

'Nuff said. Merry Christmas, everybody!


Daniel said...

beautiful, if somewhat eerily parallel to my own seasonal rant. But you do bring to my mind a moment that glows with more channuka light for me than even the perfect gorgeous latkes I made a few nights ago: My sister and her husband were visiting for the holidays and hit up a local supermarket during the festival of lights. No one at the checkout counter was visibly jewish - in fact, they were visibly likely something else. As she tells it, the bag boy, a swarthy youth with a hispanic name, greeted them with a big smile as he checked them out with their candles, potatoes and gelt. "Hey, have a happy holiday!" he enthusiastically told them. They returned the sentiment, to which he replied, "I'm just keepin' it real with my chanukah bruthas." If I can do nothing else this season, I aspire to that goal: keepin chanukah real is so simple, that sometimes it's almost impossible!

vikkitikkitavi said...

Baby, you know what a strident atheist I am, and yet I am the world's biggest sucker for Christmas. I love, love, love it! For all the great reasons you listed, but also because for all us WASPs in the world, we have one day a year when we can hug and kiss our families and tell them what they mean to us without being ostracized from the club.

I can get behind that.

Simon Glickman and Sera Gamble said...

Dan: Oh, to have tried your perfect gorgeous latkes. My dad's were hearty and extra-well-done, as usual, and Julia and I padded our insides with not-very-short stacks (Julia, sotto voce, after eating three, having earlier in the day agreed that three was as many as she wanted to eat: "Can I have another one?" Me: "Wait five minutes and see if you still want it." Julia, after 35 seconds have gone by: "Has it been five minutes?").

Vikki, our circumstances are quite different, as my family gets together about every 18 minutes for hugging and cake, but I've certainly observed the warming effect of Xmas on even fragmented gentile families, such as my former in-laws.

And may I add that I love your blog, Bells On, and that your strident atheism is a balm to my soul?

brazilian girls said...

i hear ya Simon - glad you like xmas. i totally dig the holidays for the community aspect of it. and the lights - i love the lights all over the houses and downtown building. so pretty. and i just like the fact that for a few days, it's cool to like, care and shit. oh, and the silk soy (nonegg)nog.
seasonal soy nog with vodka swigged from a nalgene bottle while wandering the neighborhood in the snow with friends looking at the pretty house lights through our frozen breaths. so friggen great.

i actually dig being a jew on christmas - a bunch of us jews take over the meals-on-wheels operation in this town, as the regular cooks and drivers want to be home with their own fam. i'm cool with being out on the 25th - quiet dead streets, appreciative home-bound folks that need some good grub and a convo or two.

also. i haven't been able to get the song 'Christmas Time for the Jews' out of my head for the last few days. It's a classic:

jewgirl said...

I love this blog. I love this post. Well, I love all of your posts.

More dish later. Just had to pop in.

I hope your weekends are faaaabulous.

Rachael said...

I am right there with you, Simon. I'm all about celebrating the secular joys of Christmas with a large portion of my family. Merry Christmas and happy New Year, Simon (and Sera)!

And even though I'm in rural South Carolina at the moment, where down the street at the corner store there is a huge jar of pickled pigs feet right next to an equally huge jar of kosher pickles and they share the same serving tongs for fishing said feet and pickles out of their briny homes (and no one but me sees anything at all ironic, strange or wrong about this - after all, the tongs usually dry between uses for this or that), I'm confused by the Chanukah special on ham. Really. That's kinda weird.