Tonight is the last night of Hanukkah. Since I missed writing about the first of the eight-night holiday, the least I can do is to wish everyone a Happy Hanukkah on the last. Ironically, when I was growing up, despite my mother being on our Temple’s Board of Directors for over 50 years, our family didn’t celebrate Hanukkah until I was ten which I’ll explain shortly.
However, for three years (ugh) I dutifully went to Hebrew School and not only did I have a Bar Mitzvah, it was on TV! Live for one hour on Sunday, KTLA replaced the long-running “Christ Hour of Power” with yours truly. Instead of viewers taking comfort in the words of their Lord Jesus, assuming they didn’t switch the channel when they saw me, an extremely nervous, high-pitched 13-year old not yet 5 feet tall, proclaiming, “Today I am a man.”
But when my family showed up at the studio at 7 am, we were informed there were “minor changes” in my speech. Concerned, my father asked why. I couldn’t make this up as the producer said of my speech, “It’s a little too Jewish.” (The program went off without a hitch other than when my Uncle Benny, who was carrying the Torah to me, froze, mesmerized by seeing his image on the monitor.)
As for why our family didn’t celebrate Hanukkah, it was because my father owned a men’s clothing store and the Christmas season accounted for a huge part of his annual income. During December he worked long hours and was under considerable strain. My mother, my older sister and I helped out at the store, which my father kept pristine.
My sister was a whiz at the cash register, my mother waited on customers and did the bookkeeping and I swept the sidewalk and wiped the cabinets. At noon, I also walked to the popular Jewish deli in this African-American neighborhood, to bring back lunch for everyone.)
The Christmas season was such a part of our consciousness that we even had a Christmas tree, much to the dismay of some of my Conservative and Orthodox Jewish friends. We belonged to Temple Isaiah on Pico, a Reform temple. (Which makes me think of Woody Allen’s joke about the Reform Jew who “was very reformed. He’d been a Nazi.”)
On Christmas Eve we had a family tradition that when my understandably weary dad came home after work we greeted him appreciatively and celebrated with a light dinner. On Christmas morning, rested and remarkably refreshed, my father made a giant pancake and sausage breakfast and then we opened the presents. (Praising my late father, I’m reminded of Mark Twain who wrote, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.”)
At Crescent Heights Elementary school, where most of the kids were Jewish, we nonetheless celebrated Christmas with no such Hanukkah festivities. I’m not complaining because in the auditorium every year we were treated to wonderful Christmas songs sung by perhaps our most beloved school employee. Mr. Finus was our janitor, an older African-American gentleman with a magnificent and soulful voice. I can still remember his mesmerizing rendition of “Silent Night.”
Then one year my mother brought out our seemingly antique menorah and led my sister and me in the prayers while lighting the Hanukkah candles. I loved the heroic story of Judah Maccabee defending his country against the Syrian Greeks and I also liked that we got a small present each night.
(These days all 8 presents might be bought at the 99 cent store.)
Strictly from a marketing standpoint, Hanukkah can’t hold a candle to Christmas. (Pun intended) First, there are 16 different spellings, the two in English being Hanukkah and Chanukah. Also, while Christmas is on December 25, Hanukkah, can be different dates each year on the Jewish calendar which this year is 5781. (No offense, but who can remember?)
Christmas features: Santa and Mrs. Claus; the North Pole; flying reindeer including Rudolph with a red nose, pulling a sleigh in the sky; Christmas trees; mistletoe where it’s okay to sneak kisses; and heartwarming Christmas songs. (Many written by Jews!) Other than Adam Sandler’s classic “Hanukkah Song” and the rap “Hanukkah Homeboy” the standard is the “Dreidel Song”which goes, “I have a little dreidel I made it out of clay/And when it’s dry and ready/Then dreidel I shall play!” Cute, but definitely no match for Bing Crosby’s 1942 classic “White Christmas.”
With Christmas in one week, may it be merry and safe. So, with one last spin of the dreidel, I say goodbye to Hanukkah with a heartfelt shalom aleichem to all!
Mazel Tov to Aleah Hurwitz, Geffen Academy at UCLA senior who received the best Hanukkah gift getting accepted to Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She’ll be rowing on the Connecticut River for Wesleyan under the direction of Coach Patrick Tynan. Jack who isn’t rowing or going anywhere is at: email@example.com