Tomorrow is American Thanksgiving. Or, as Canadians call it, Yanksgiving. Tomorrow is also the start of Hanukkah, a holiday spelled numerous ways but all of them refer to the same thing. This happens once every century or so. In other words you might want to take a moment to, at least, acknowledge it. And I mean by doing something other than buying the Rob Ford Sex Tape (parody). I’m not even sure how that relates to the holiday, but they are marketing it as such. Yes, there is something seriously bent with our world today. Nevertheless, the holidays converge and this year rabbis the world over are trying to use this fact as a teaching moment. Well, that’s what rabbis do, they teach. I should know. I once dated a rabbi’s daughter and my ex wife is Jewish. And Mexican. And that always required lengthy explanations that you’re not going to get today. And there are, if you squint, similar themes in the holidays. I’ve already written about how Hanukkah went from an afterthought to a juggernaut. What I haven’t written about is some of the odd traditions that have gotten attached to the holiday. I have done so for Christmas and Thanksgiving, so I see no reason to spare Hanukkah.
Religion writer Matisyahu and comedian Simcha Levenberg did a little research and, today, they’re sharing their knowledge with the class.
1. Chanukah – What does it even mean?
The eight day Festival of lights is called Chanukah. The word Chanukah means dedication. After Judah Maccabee and his band of revolutionary Jews defeated the Assyrian/Greek Empire they discovered that their beloved Holy Temple had been defiled and rendered spiritual impure. It was on the 25th of Kislev (the first day of Chanukah) that the Temple was purified and rededicated.
Alternatively the word Chanukah can be deconstructed to be, חנו כ”ה, which means, “they rested on the 25th.” The 25th of Kislev (the first day of Chanukah) was the last day of the war against the Greeks and the beginning of a pretty sweet holiday vacation week.
2. Maccabee – Who were they and why do they have a weird name?
The Maccabees (led by Matisyahu and his son Judah) were a small band of rebel fighters who battled against the Greek/Syrian Empire, led by King Antiochus. The name Maccabee is an acronym for the verse, “Mi Chamocha Ba’eilim Hashem” (Exodus 15:11) “Who is like you amongst the supernal beings, O’Lord.” This acronym emphasizes that this was not a war fought for land, wealth, or sport. King Antiochus wanted to secularize the Jewish faith and pull focus from G-d and place the emphasis on logic and reason. The Maccabees fought to keep G-d in the equation of Jewish life, and their name reflected that.
Alternatively, the name Maccabee is similar to the Aramaic word for hammer. Which was a non-subtle way for Judah to let everyone know he was a bad ass.
3. George Washington and Chanukah – WTF?
Jewish American lore and wishful thinking presents the following story. There is no way this story is, so some facts may have been embellished. Allegedly, on a harsh winter night, a dejected George Washington wandered amongst his troops at Valley Forge. At this stage in the war he was hated by his soldiers, but as he sauntered through the camp he encountered a friendly Jewish soldier sitting by a menorah. The young soldier told Washington the story of Chanukah, a small army’s victory over a great empire, Washington got inspired, turned the war around, blew up the death star twice, kissed his sister, and celebrated on on the forrest moon of Endor.
4. Chanukah at the White House – George Bush, party monger?
The first appearance of Chanukah at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was in 1951, when Harry Truman accepted a Menorah as a gift from the Prime Minister of Israel David Ben Gurion. In 1979 President Jimmy Carter was the first President to officially “recognize” Chanukah as an actual occurrence. Every president since has followed suit and attended a Menorah-lighting ceremony always making sure to give Christmas a shout out as well. In 1993, President Bill Clinton hosted the first Menorah-lighting ceremony in the White House. On December 10, 2001 while vacationing and war mongering President George Bush hosted the first ever Chanukah Party at the White House. For the rest of his presidency a Chanukah rager happened every year. However, keeping in step with the rest of his presidency, mistakes were made; in 2004 non-kosher food commingled with kosher food and in 2008 a Christmas tree appeared on the invitation.
5. Money as a gift – Tacky or Traditional?
On any other occasion giving money as a gift is considered tacky, gaudy, and an indicator that you don’t care enough to invest any time in giving a proper gift. However, for the past three hundred years, gelt (coinage, cash money) has been the norm for Chanukah. In America, where Chanukah faces off against Christmas people exchange presents as well.
6. Traditional Foods – It’s not just about chocolate gelt, or is it?
In addition to the ubiquitous chocolate coins (currently manufactured in Israel, advertised as food but better repurposed as gambling chips for dreidel) there are other traditional Chanukah treats. Since the miracle of Chanukah happened with oil, many people have the custom of eating fried delicacies such as latkes and doughnuts. In Israel the official Chanukah treat is sufganiyot, a poor man’s jelly doughnut. It’s a ball of dough, deep fried and injected with an insufficient amount of jelly. Some Jewish people, in direct flagrance against their well documented lactose intolerance, also have the custom of eating dairy food and excessive amounts of cheese on Chanukah.
7. Yehudis – A Jewish widow did what?
Picture this: a Greek/Assyrian general and his troops surrounded a small Jewish town. The situation looks bleak, until a Jewish widow named Yehudis went Uma Thurman and took care of business. Yehudis seduced the general. Alone in his tent she plied him full of wine and cheese until he passed out. Then she cut off his frigging head. When his troops discovered the decapitated body they were horrified. The Jews on the other hand, found new courage and launched a successful counter attack. Jewish people adopted the custom of eating dairy and cheese to pay homage to Yehudis’ hardcore maneuvers.
8. Jewish Children – Degenerate Gamblers or Secret Scholars?
When the Greek/Assyrians controlled Israel, it was forbidden to learn Torah. Children met up in secret (Goonies!) to learn Torah. If a Greek soldier happened upon their study session they would whip out their dreidels and pretend to gamble. Therefore on Chanukah we play dreidel to remember the dedication of those children, and also because most Jews actually are degenerate gamblers.
More proof that Hanukkah is becoming part of the social norm is the fact that it has a movie dedicated to it that’s just as demented as the movies dedicated to Christmas.
Because nothing says “Happy Holidays” like an ex con drunk who likes basketball. Well, it brought me to tears.
So, tomorrow, as you have your turkey & latkes and celebrate Thanksgivukkah with your loved ones, remember that gambling and cheese have gone together for thousands of years now so you may as well overindulge in both.
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