Chanukah 2015, or How Come Jews Don’t Know How to Spell Their Own Holiday’s Name?

Chanukah is coming. It doesn’t start on Sunday. It starts on Sunday at sunset.

Tomorrow, Hannukah (or Chanukah, or Chanuka, or Chanukkah, or Channukah, or Hanukah, or Hanukkah, or Hanuka, or Hanukka, or Hanaka, or Haneka, or Hanika, or Khanukkah) begins at sunset.  Given the recent unpleasantness of the Donald Trump speech before the Republican Jewish Coalition (an organization whose name has as many disconnects as “Jews for Jesus” so far as I’m concerned), I thought it appropriate to mention a few things about juice Jews today.  I’m somewhat of an expert, having been raised as a chosen person and even going so far as to receive a degree in the education thereof (before I went full proselytizing atheist, which is tied to the former, has nothing to do with Jews for Jesus, and is a story for another time).  Incidentally, “juice” is what you get when you squeeze a Rabbi, but seriously folks…

First of all:  we do know how to spell the name of our own holiday.  This is what it looks like – חנוכה.  That’s Hebrew, btw (actually modern Hebrew).  It’s read from right to left and has no vowels as letters (those being added as diacritical marks above or below the letters).  Those are all consonants.  Spelled properly in English, it would look something like this: chnkh.  You can see why so many big box stores have chosen to have their greeters say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Chnkh” since most of their customers would think they were being spat upon.  Which is generally not good for business during the “happiest time of the year” (and may be equally offputting at less than happy times).

As a fannish aside:  I’m pretty sure that Hebrew’s lack of vowels was the inspiration for Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s disemvoweling thing on Making Light.  It’s yet another example of the many things that Judaism has contributed to fandom.  Another is the argumentative nature of fans.  That expression “ask ten fans for their opinion and you’ll get 20 answers” used to be a Jewish joke (ask ten rabbis).  It remains true.  For both rabbis and fans.  But seriously, folks…

As a contemplative aside:  “I find your lack of vowels disturbing.”  As do most 8 year olds when they’re first introduced to the language in Hebrew school.  But what I find most disturbing about it (intriguing as well) is wondering just what exactly Moses brought down from the mountain.  Maybe it said what we all think it said.  Then again, maybe not.  But seriously, folks…

Hannukah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is not really a gift-giving holiday.  Jews – contrary as always – have an entirely different holiday for that, at an entirely different time of the year.  It’s called Purim.  Like Hannukah, it’s a celebration of Jewish victory over persecution (we’ve got a lot of holidays that celebrate freedom from slavery, survival of holocausts, escape from ethnic cleansing…).

The historical basis for Hannukah goes something like this: Greeks ruled the region.  They had a civil war.  One side prevailed and, after conquering Jerusalem, allowed the Jews to continue their practices.  However, when the next Greek generation came to power, they defiled the temple and forbade Jewish religious practices.  Eventually,  Mattathias, a priest, and his sons (who were destined to be priests as well) revolted.  One of his sons – Judah –  became known as “Judah the Hammer” (pretty awesome name if you ask me) or, in transliterated Hebrew “Judah the Maccabee”.  (Israel’s soccer team, that is not allowed to play in many FIFA events, is called the Maccabees (although of course there are alternative spellings, like Maccabi.  Vowels again.).

The Maccabees won their revolt, cleaned and rededicated the Temple, but discovered that there was only enough oil to keep the Eternal Light (a fixture of all Jewish Synagogues and Temples, a remembrance of the Temple in Jerusalem and a symbol for God) burning for a single day.  It’s supposed to burn ALL the time (like, God is ALWAYS with us – symbolism), so this was a major problem.  Fortunately, God kept the lamp burning for the eight days it took to obtain more holy oil (or a priest familiar with the benefits of propaganda surreptitiously refilled the lamp with not-so-holy oil) and thus the Holiday of Chanukah was born.

It’s not quite the winter solstice story that Christmas is, but I did just fine growing up with the Americanized, gift-giving version, copping both a Marx Cape Canaveral and Marx Fireball XL 5 playsets along the way.  The only annoying part was, I had to wait through all the prayers and candle lighting before I could get to the presents and let me tell you, the wait on that eighth day was interminable!  (You light an additional candle each day, so, eight candles on the eighth day.)

Much of the preceding is one of the reasons I get so annoyed when people, egged on by the faux War on Christmas rhetoric, wish me “Merry Christmas” at this time of the year.  My response used to be “Happy Hannukah” (which usually draws a sour expression in response).  This year I’m using “Allahu Akbar” (God is the greatest – a sentiment that most Christians ought to be happy with but that seems to annoy them for some inexplicable reason) and getting equally sour expressions. The ignorance, arrogance and presumptuousness of this practice makes me want to pick up a hammer and emulate a certain ancient freedom fighter.  Despite my atheistic inclinations.

A couple of other things just for the record:  Jews do not own or control the banking system or the entertainment industry in the US (maybe in Israel), although comedy in the US can’t get along without them.  We do not have horns or tails.  We did not “kill Jesus” (we convicted him of blasphemy and the Romans killed him for treason).    We do not sacrifice Christian babies during Passover (although my family’s Passover tradition was to invite a Christian to join us and then hint that the rumors were true…).  Despite Mr. Trump’s popularity, “Jew you down” remains an unacceptable phrase (although it may come back into popular use if he’s elected).  “Yid”, “Kike” and “Hebe” remain fighting words.  The Holocaust did happen (slaughtering about 6 million Jews and another 3 million other ‘undesirables’).  People who question Black Americans obsession with slavery in America should be reminded that the Jews escaped slavery in Egypt nearly 3500 years ago, and we still sit down once a year to remind ourselves that being free is better than being enslaved;  as a people, we still have not gotten over it. Jews are not miserly or obsessed with money (the only reason I ever picked up a penny rolled at me was so I could throw it back at the roller), but they do tend to be frugal.  Has something to do with the justified concern that the Cossack’s return is just around the corner (yes, like many, I too have a great aunt who was supposedly hidden from the Cossacks in the proverbial pickle barrel).  The Ark of the Covenant is probably not hidden in Carlsbad Cavern.  Swastikas or near equivalents still have very negative connotations for Jews and ought not be used in advertising for television shows in the city that has the world’s largest Jewish population outside of Israel;  about the only acceptable usage for such symbols is when they’re being carved into the foreheads of NAZIs (Inglorious Basterds, thank you Quentin).

Take it from an atheist Jew, there’s a lot about this Jewish stuff you just don’t know.  Fortunately, as the comedian Lewis Black as said “There are Jews among you…” who’ll be happy to explain. Some of them will even say “Allahu Akbar” at certain times of the year.

*Note:  the featured image is a frieze in Rome and depicts Judah Maccabbe, hammer and all.

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