Hanukkah, one of those Jewish holidays that float around the Julian calendar, comes early this year, at sundown Dec. 1 to be precise, which means that rather than stalling until the fortnight before Christmas, I spent Thanksgiving morning pawing through storage boxes in search of cherished holiday artifacts.
Talk about an eclectic mix: three menorahs (more about which later); 44 arty, hand-dipped tapers in shades of hot pink, turquoise and indigo; a couple of raucous klezmer CDs; and one ridiculous yellow rubber ducky, sporting a baby blue yarmulke on its head, a star of David around its neck and a blazing candelabrum improbably tucked under its left wing.
I should explain right off that I'm the child of not-so-observant Polish emigres who, although raised Orthodox in the old country, were mostly moral, cultural and culinary Jews as adults. Even back in their Eastern European shtetls
, however, Hanukkah was a minor holiday at best, marking the victory in 165 B.C. of the Maccabees over the Syrian oppressors. Tradition holds that the Jews' one-day supply of sacred oil burned for eight, which is why this celebration lasts a week and a day, and why in America the symbolic, miraculous oil is used to transform humble glops of grated raw potatoes and onions bound with eggs and matzoh meal into crispy, addictive latkes best topped with sour cream and homemade applesauce.
Gastronomes and vegans are wont to wax rhapsodic about latkes made with organic, heirloom parsnips, rutabagas, yams, carrots turnips, leeks, zucchini and umpty-ump other kinds of squash, while Israelis use their boiling oil to create pillowy jelly doughnuts. Yes, I digress, but hey, I come from a tribe that moves on its stomach.
Sometime during the past few decades, the quaint practice of giving children modest trinkets, a book or perhaps a bit of money -- aka Hanukkah gelt
, which in my working-class family usually took the form of mediocre milk-chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil -- went steroidal.
Affluent and aspirational parents alike began showering their offspring (or grandkids) with multiple pricey presents, perhaps as an inoculation against Christmas, or maybe just because they could, at least until the Great Recession thwacked some of them upside the wallet. How handy that this year's $1 billion bonanza known as Cyber Monday fell just in time for overnight delivery of Hanukkah loot.
Lest you think I'm just a cranky old dame, I should explain that I love Hanukkah in spite of all the kitsch-and-gift creep. My favorite part is the menorah itself,
about which I knew precious little until 2003, when I was a Washington Post staffer whose home design beat included antiques and collectibles. Over the centuries, it turns out, menorahs have ranged from primitive oil receptacles made of clay or even nut shells to exquisitely embellished masterpieces of silver and gold. President Obama's,
first Hanukkah celebration last year featured an elaborate 1873 sterling menorah confiscated by the Nazis during World War II but rescued by the Czechs. It's now displayed at the Jewish Museum in Prague, which kindly lent it to the White House.
Today the finest and rarest menorahs can fetch a hefty six figures at auction, and are prized by Judaica collectors the world over. At the same time, contemporary artists, architects and metalsmiths are creating tomorrow's treasures.
The first menorah I can remember, back in the 1950s, probably cost 19 cents at Posin's deli, near our apartment 55 blocks due north of the White House. It was made of stamped gold-tone tin and sat flat on a table with simple cylinders to hold the candles. It vanished ages ago, though I just found a variation of it at BargainJudaica.com
for a mere $1.75 each, minimum order 25.
Its successor was a low-slung brushed-aluminum modernist number from the '60s that my father kept until his death. Once I bought my first house, an Art Deco duplex in the old 'hood, I figured I should also have a menorah of my own. Truth is, I'd come to regard the candle lighting as both affirming -- like the doughty Maccabees, those in my extended family who'd outwitted Hitler survived and thrived on three continents -- and comforting: When it gets dark at 4:30 in the afternoon, it's awfully nice to see dancing flames, even if they last a mere 30 minutes. With just two short blessings to recite (plus a third on the first night), it's a ritual even I can manage, mostly from memory but always with a phonetic cheat sheet in hand since I never learned to read Hebrew.
Oddly enough, my search for the perfect menorah ended at a local Goodwill store. The Art Deco chrome candelabrum with squared-off branches cost $7.50, looked sensational in my 1937 house and appeared as if it were crafted in someone's basement machine shop. Oy vey! Hanukkah industrial chic.
The next one was purely hotel-motel-apartment house-office building-nursing home lobby commercial, meaning, for starters, it was electric, but with flashy panache. How else to describe its mirrored body, flat lucite "candles" and flames in a pastel rainbow that included pink, lavender, aqua, mint and buttercream, each of which could be turned on with the flick of a switch? It was worth every penny of its $55 price tag.
In a inexplicable stroke of ecumenical luck, I found that one at the Christ Child Opportunity Shop in Georgetown. My guess is that it belonged to an interfaith couple, and the Jewish spouse died first, freeing the gentile mate to move it along pronto to this charity boutique beloved by decorinas and visiting movie stars. After my father departed this earth in 2005, at the ripe old age of 100, I inherited the family menorah of my youth.
So now there are three, which I consider a mite excessive. Then I remember Gayle Weiss, a former Judaica curator at B'nai B'rith headquarters here, who by 2003 had already selectively collected more than 40 antique and contemporary menorahs, every one of which she and her family lit all eight nights.
Almost a decade ago, one of my Post colleagues -- a lapsed Mormon, I believe -- asked why the Hanukkah hues
were blue and white. I called a rabbi who surmised they were taken from the Biblically mandated colors of the prayer shawl. Someone else suggested there had been no Hanukkah "colors" at all until after Israel achieved independence in 1948 and created a blue and white flag.
But merchandisers, most notably Hallmark Cards, clearly couldn't abide such a limited palette, so in 2001, citing customer demand, one company flack happily described the season's new "trendier colors -- chartreuse green, yellow and orange -- especially in gift wrap for children. One is Mickey Mouse -- purple, blue, yellow and orange." Oy vey again.
Which brings me back to curmudgeon-ette mode. I know it's important to make religion and ritual accessible to children. You want to do this with a Noah's ark menorah? Fine. But the Rug Rats? Curious George? Winnie the Pooh's Hanukkah Picnic? Do not get me started on the Disney-fication of the Festival of Lights.
Actually there's a lot of blame to go around. Some years back, I was at a Manhattan street fair where a bearded guy was hawking a half-dozen prehistoric creatures with little brass candle cups marching down their resin spines. What's that? I asked. Guess, he commanded. Menorah-saurus? I ventured, thinking myself awfully clever. Nope, JewRassic Park, he said smugly. I cringed, absolutely certain things couldn't get any worse.
I was so very wrong. At 5:22 a.m. on Nov. 30, just for the hell of it, I Googled Harry Potter
and, yup, you guessed it -- for $27.99 you, too, can own an uncommonly tacky castle menorah with a painted-on lad astride an airborne muggle broom.
This was the handiwork of someone named Wynter Rosen, about whom I do not wish to know another thing.
But maybe, just maybe, I should run with this pop culture trend, and explore the possibility of a "Burlesque" menorah. I'm thinking Cher would be the lead candle-lighter, with Christina Aguilera and seven other babes doing an illuminated bump-and-grind routine.
Oy vey yet again. And happy Hanukkah.