Can people please stop apologizing for Chanukah?
Yes, I KNOW it’s “not actually the Jewish equivalent of Christmas” and that “American Jews just make it an important holiday so their kids don’t feel left out in December.” I KNOW it doesn’t have a very sound scriptural basis. I KNOW it celebrates an obscure military victory by a bunch of ruthless guerilla warriors over a hapless occupying army, which isn’t too politically correct these days. Call it the kvetching gene, but Jews just love explaining to everyone who’ll lend an ear that all that elementary-school multicultural crap was totally misleading, that having a menorah next to a Christmas tree on the National Mall makes about as much sense as drenching a stack of latkes in chocolate sauce and calling it a Yule log. “No, I promise,” we have a tendency to say, “Chanukah is really pretty pointless. Not a big deal. Who cares? I don’t care.” Howard Jacobson even had a lengthy column in the New York Times on Wednesday devoted to complaining about how lame Chanukah really is.
To all of which I say, you deserve a serious kick in the Antiochus. How can you complain about Chanukah? I had my hair set on fire by my parents during a childhood menorah-lighting and I STILL love Chanukah. There aren’t many holidays I’d forgive for singeing my flowing locks, but Chanukah? Of course. Any day of the year. Or at least eight days of the year. So right here and now, I’m taking a stand. I’m holding the line against all you Chanukah haters, dreidel despisers, gelt gremlins, and your ilk. To you I say, go suck a Syrian war elephant. My reasons are manifold or manifest, whichever one of those means plentiful — too much so to be contained in a mere 700 words — but here are a few of the most saline, or salient, whichever one means obviously salty.
First off, Chanukah is the only holiday that starts with a ‘ch’ sound. Okay, technically it’s a voiceless pharyngeal fricative, not a voiceless uvular fricative, but it’s close enough for me. The ‘ch’ sound, familiar from such all-time favorites as “loch,” “Bach,” and “L’chaim,” is itself something of the Chanukah of consonants — underappreciated, but truly excellent once you really bite into it. Constrict that uvula and cough it out. None of this “h” bulls–t — anyone not up for some glorious phlegm gargling can take those voiceless glottal fricatives and shove them where the consecrated lamplight don’t shine.
Moving right along — Chanukah is the only holiday dedicated to fried food. What an extraordinary concept! A semi-divine mandate to clog our arteries with scrumptiously unhealthy edibles, guilt-free not for their calorie counts but due to an ancestral decree — let them eat saturated fats! All Jewish holiday food has a spectacular quality of free-association — eat fish because there’s an ocean in this story! Make pastries in the shape of a hat because the bad guy wore a hat! And Chanukah is no exception — oil! They mentioned oil! Use lots of oil. But oil makes everything delicious, especially small patties of shredded potato. Pass the applesauce and sour cream, the former scripturally justified by King Demetrius’ gift of fruit trees to the Jews in 1 Maccabees 10:30 and the latter scripturally justified by being delicious.
Chanukah is also the holiday associated with one of the more badass events in Jewish history: the story of Judith and Holofernes (it’s a fairly simple story — the former, a nice Jewish girl, deftly decapitates the latter, a vicious and tyrannical goy). Just take a look at Artemisia Gentileschi’s stunning portrayal of the scene — che chiaroscuro! And because of this femme fatale’s handy knife skills, we’re also supposed to eat cheese during Chanukah. Why not?
I could go on, as Chanukah is wont to do. Along with other Jewish holidays, it shares a thrilling unpredictability — you start tomorrow? Damn you, lunar calendar! You were SO much later last year! Dreidels are great. Eating money is great. Fighting elephants is great, unless you’re poaching them for their ivory, which is NOT okay. Only if they’ve been enlisted, Mordor-style, into the armies of a tyrannical invader. Soft candlelight cast into the December dark is great, the steady accumulation of flames each night, rising with the prayer melody and warming our cold, overworked, but temporarily paused and humbled faces. All of this is great. Chanukah, don’t listen to the haters. You rock my ages.