Thanks for Thanukkah!

Posted: October 11, 2013

THERE ARE about 6.5 million Jews in the United States, and on Thursday, Nov. 28, they will do something they haven't done since 1888 - and they will not do again for 77,798 years, should they live and be well.

That Thursday is only the second time Thanksgiving will fall on the first day of Hanukkah (which actually starts the night before).

Jewish Americans, a piddling 1.8 percent of the USA, jump-start holidays to make themselves feel good (aside from the numerous Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes they rack up, plus Tony awards for Broadway musicals).

[Editor's note: Based on Genesis (the book, not the band) the Jewish day begins and ends at sunset rather than midnight. Nothing to do with wanting to "make themselves feel good."]

Usually, Hanukkah falls in the vicinity of Christmas, which leads some to think of Hanukkah as the "Jewish Christmas."

It is not. Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, which I will explain in a minute. First, let me address the amazing simultaneous arrival of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, which I'll call Thanukkah, although others are using Thanksgivukkah. Who can pronounce that?

Hanukkah is a minor holiday, but a happy one. Jewish holidays are either fasts or feasts. The typical feast theme: "They tried to kill us. They failed. Let's eat!"

Hanukkah (Hebrew for dedication) celebrates the failure of conquering Greeks (Alexander the Great was benign, his Syrian successor Antiochus IV was a pain in the tuchus) to extinguish Judaism. The oppressed (Maccabees) rebelled, kicked out the occupiers, then relit the temple's eternal flame. Uh-oh, there was only enough purification oil to last one night, but it miraculously lasted eight until more arrived. That is why today's Jews fry latkes (potato pancakes) in oil, even though the temple oil was not Wesson.

[Editor's note: Rabbi Avi Winokur of the Society Hill Synagogue says the connection between the temple oil and latkes is not historical, but "a culturalized expression of religious sensibility." Also yummy.]

Hanukkah lasts eight days, and in some households children get gifts each night when a candle (they are the Lights) is lit. Gift-giving probably arose so Jewish kids wouldn't feel like losers in the Santa sweepstakes. Some Jewish parents joke that the gifts come from Hanukkah Harry, Santa's make-believe kosher counterweight.

[Editor's note: If you believe, yes, Rachel, there is a Hanukkah Harry.]

Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are alike in giving thanks for survival and for the gastroenteritis descending like locusts following dinner. Dallas and Detroit on TV is not part of the official Thanksgiving observance, no matter what the NFL says, but if you want a Thanksgiving "game," that is it.

The Hanukkah "game" is a spinning top called a dreidel, with a Hebrew letter on each of four sides. The letters, according to Winokur, are an acronym for "Great Miracle Happened There."

For Thanukkah, I'd replace the Hebrew letters with early "American" symbols - a pilgrim hat with buckle, a Wampanoag headdress, a pillory, an ear of corn.

On Thanksgiving, the gentile meal centerpiece is turkey. On Hanukkah, for Jews it is Spam.

[Editor's note: What?]

Just kidding, you grouch. It might be turkey, it might be chicken, maybe a nice brisket.

There is the tradition of giving Hanukkah gelt (money), which has evolved into the chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil you see in many stores. For Thanukkah, swap the chocolate coins for wampum raisin cookies in the shape of loincloths.

On the first night of Hanukkah one candle is lit by the shamash, or servant candle. On the second night, two candles are lit, and so on. The candles are held by what many call a menorah.

It's impossible to stick nine candles onto a turkey, but you can buy a menurky, a menorah in the shape of a turkey. This was invented by a 9-year-old. (See what happens if you don't waste time on an Xbox?)

Oh! The recipes.

The website Buzzfeed suggested much of the following, which I have "improved": Yam latkes with cranberry sauce, Manischewitz-brined roast turkey, bourbon noodle kugel, challah chestnut stuffing, horseradish chive mashed potatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts with pastrami and pickled red onion. Dessert: pecan rugelach, rye pumpkin pie, cranberry cream-filled sufganiyot (doughnuts).

Don't forget the Pepto-Bismol.

Happy Thanukkah and shalom.


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky

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