Listener Essay - The Maccabees And Me: The Miracle Of Reinventing Hanukkah
Tina Lincer is a writer living in Loudonville, NY.
I never believed, like some people do, that Hanukkah can’t hold a candle to Christmas.
Angels, elves, turtle doves, dancing nutcrackers; the whole Yuletide thing flew right over my head, even higher than Rudolph. It didn’t bother me to say “nothing” when asked, “What’s Santa bringing you for the holiday?”
Santa, Schmanta. Jolly, Schmolly. We had Uncle Solly at our Hanukkah parties back in the day when the Siwek-Pollack Cousins Club gathered, 100-strong, at a veterans’ hall in Queens. We kids O.D.’ed on greasy latkes, cream soda and Hanukkah gelt (chocolate coins encased in gold foil), while gambling with raisins and pennies in competitive dreidel games.
Besides, Christmas was impractical for the Jews in my housing development. Who had a chimney in a four-room, ground-floor apartment? Santa would have to be Harry Houdini (born, by the way, Erik Weisz, son of a rabbi) to get past the four front-door locks, not to mention the peephole, a real perk for spotting imposters in bulky crimson suits.
Hanukkah’s another story. After Syrian-Greek soldiers seized the Temple of Jerusalem in 165 B.C. and dedicated it to Greek gods, a ragtag group of freedom fighters, the Maccabees, turned them away. With only a day’s worth of ritual oil, the menorah used to rededicate the temple burned brightly for eight days.
Two millennia later, we mark this miracle by stuffing ourselves with killer oily foods, like latkes.
Making these supreme spuds with my mother and grandmother was a labor of love, and after grating bowls full of Idahos and onions, we had the bloody knuckles and burning eyes to prove it. The pancakes sparked and sizzled in the frying pan, casting droplets of oil across the stove and infusing our kitchen with a hunger-inducing burnt smell. Messy, mouth-watering, potentially hazardous; what more could a kid want? The real miracle was avoiding gastronomical distress.
Though potato pancakes and spin-the-dreidel marathons might be no match for the hoopla of Christmas, I never hankered for Dec. 25. We were Jews, through and through, and that was that. When I was five, as our Hanukkah candles glowed, my mother pointed to the lone apartment window across our courtyard where an evergreen glowed and explained, “That family’s Christian. They celebrate Christmas.” In my mind, they were other.
As a teenager, more curious about life beyond my Jewish ghetto, I’d drive around Queens with friends, ogling Christmas lights. After college, I was the only Jewish reporter in the local newsroom for a time. Guess who was assigned to be Santa Claus at a local mall and write about it? Plumped out in my fur-trimmed red suit and enormous white beard, I listened to little ones’ wishes in earnest, trying not to make promises I knew I couldn’t keep. Even if I was the nation’s only 21-year-old, female, 100-pound Ashkenazi St. Nick, I liked to think I put some oy in other people’s joy.
Some years later, after my husband and I had moved to suburbia, ours was the sole house for blocks without a Christmas tree. I bought my first electric menorah and displayed it in the living room window. Now I was the other. With books and hand puppets, I also became the self-appointed Hanukkah storyteller at my children’s school. Though a pacifist at heart, I never tired of sharing the military victory of those mighty Maccabees.
After my divorce, Hanukkah took a new shape. My Jewish ex soon found someone else, not Jewish, and Christmas blew into my kids’ lives with real gusto. For the first time, I felt competition between the holidays.
These days, my partner and I prefer a low-key Hanukkah. Latkes have evolved (sweet potato, parsnip, Cajun, curry), but with children grown, off to other cities, he and I mostly embrace the holiday’s essence: extra light during the winter solstice, togetherness over a lovingly prepared meal, some quiet time to reflect upon miracles in our own lives.
Last year, with no children in town, we invited our Italian neighbors. Though Catholic, their two sons attend a synagogue preschool, and the boys arrived proudly carrying menorahs they’d made from wooden ABC blocks. I loved how their sweet voices rang clear with the Hebrew blessings over the candles, and how Hanukkah illuminated their little faces, no less joyous for not being Jewish.
This year, the first night of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving eve, an unusual collision of observances that’s been dubbed Thanksgivukkah. My daughter and I already are planning our menu. Along with our traditional turkey, roasted vegetables and mushroom-celery stuffing, we’re thinking of serving latkes topped with cranberry sauce and squash-the-oppressors soup.
Call us the mighty Thankabees.