Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Jonathan Safran Foer Riffs on Hanukkah and Christmas (and Kwanzaa)

The author of the highly-acclaimed novel Everything is Illuminated, and most recently, of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is known for his tongue-in-cheek humor. Here's Jonathan Safran Foer's op-ed in the New York Times.

A Beginner's Guide to Hanukkah:

CHRISTMAS -- Christmas is a holiday that Christian children have been given to celebrate because they aren't Jewish. Instead of eight nights of presents, there is only one. And instead of getting to eat delicious and nutritious latkes, they are forced to drink something called nog, which isn't even a real word. They touch each other's sweaters while they sing together around pianos, they get into ''the spirit,'' and here's another bad thing about Christmas that should make Jewish children excited about celebrating Hanukkah: Christmas trees are terrible fire hazards.

SANTA CLAUS -- Santa Claus is an obese fictional being who supposedly ''visits'' Christan homes the night before Christmas for the alleged purpose of delivering ''presents'' to ''children'' who have been ''good'' the previous year. It's a bit pathetic that Christian chilldren are fed this lame make-believe, instead of having a really interesting true hero like Hanukkah Harry.

HANUKKAH HARRY -- Hanukkah Harry is a real person who drops in on Jewish homes each of the eights nights of Hanukkah to deliver gifts that are in no way dependent on children's good behavior. Harry spends the off-season in Florida, Keeping out of the sun and faxing missives to Jewish craftsmen in Vietnam to make more dreidels. On Hanukkah nights, Harry flies through the sky in a 1991 Volvo 240 wagon (Champagne exterior, mocha interior), pulled by his legal team of Schlepper, Pischer & Blintzes.

MISTLETOE -- It's hard for anyone, especially those of us who wore aviator glasses in high school, to find a problem with mistletoe. (Allergies aside.) Which is why Hanukkah Harry invented it in the first place.

LATKES -- Latkes are a kind of oil, into which small quantities of shredded potato have been infused.

HANUKKIAH -- A hanukkiah is like a menorah, but with room for eight candles. Or is it nine? An object of supreme importance, the hanukkiah is passed down from generation to generation and is sometimes the only item in a Jew's suitcase. If you don't have the firmest of grasps on the supreme importance of the hanukkiah, you should buy your children very expensive gifts this year. And if you don't have children, would it kill you to have some?Someone needs to inherit the hanukkiah.

TWICE-A-YEAR JEWS WHO ARE ONCE-A-YEAR CHRISTIANS -- There is a certain kind of Jew who, despite knowing that Christmas is simply isn't his holiday, and that it would severely distress his relatives (particularly the dead ones) if he acknowledged feelings of Christmas Envy, much less acted on them, get a Christmas tree anyway. And does the leaving-a-cookie-out-for-Santa thing. And the sweaters and nog. But of course he never lets any of it interfere with the Hanukkah celebrations, whatever they are. And you have to admit, ''Silent Night'' is a seriously beautiful song.

Then one day this twice-a year Jew who is a once-a-year Christian walks in on his children talking about Baby Jesus. So he sends them to Hebrew school, where over time, they learn Christmas Envy. And the cycle repeats itself.

CHRISTMAS TREE -- Christians chop down trees to make houses to put trees in. The absurdity of this need not be elaborated on. Which is not even to mention that they hang perfectly dry socks over the fireplace, and rack up enormous electricity bills with the lights they put outside their houses. That's right, outside their houses.

KWANZAA -- No one is quite sure just what Kwanzaa is.

DECORATING THE HOUSE -- While Christmas decorations are recognizable and straightforward -- mistletoe, a tree, red-and-green knee socks above the fireplace -- no one has figured out how to decorate a Jewish home on Hanukkah. Some might say that the hanukkiah is decorations, but it isn't; the hanukkiah is a ceremonial object, with specific, non-decorative purposes. Perhaps the Stars of David that many string about are appropriate Jewish decoration? They are blatant imitations of Christmas decorating. Dreidels? They're toys. Latkes? They're food. What does it look like to celebrate Hanukkah?

This poses the larger problem of Jewish decorating: What does a Jewish home look like? How can a Jew identify without resorting to imitation, kitsch or the display of ceremonial objects? With Chagall prints on the walls? With trinkets bought in Israel when it was hard to go to Israel? With the Philip Roth backlist on the shelf? This paper on the stoop every morning?

Is it necessary to decorate at all?

And if not, what do we do with that feeling of necessity?

CHRISTMAS SPIRIT -- The following Christmas carols were written by Jews: ''O Holy Night'' (Adolphe Adam), ''Christmas Song'' (Mel Torme), ''White Christmas'' (Irving Berlin), ''Let It Snow, Let It Snow'' (Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne), ''Silver Bells'' (Jay Livingston and Ray Evans), and ''Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer'' (Johnny Marks). The Grinch in ''The Grinch That Stole Christmas'' WASN'T Jewish, but the composer, Albert Hague, was. No one has contributed more to Christmas spirit than the Jews. We contributed the birthday boy himself, for God's sake.

Window displays are always more attractive than the gifts you receive -- even if you receive what was in the window. Jews engage Christmas in its ideal form: for the outside. Unspoiled by family friction, or commerce, or anxiety about the wrong gift, we can experience the purest spirit. Someone else's spirit that we compose music for. And look at from the other side of the window. Christians should envy us envying them.

HANUKKAH SPIRIT -- Hanukkah spirit is the Christmas spirit as experienced by Jews.

HANUKKAH GUILT -- You don't pay enough attention to your grandparents, or your parents, or spouse, or siblings, or children or dog. Or yourself, for that matter. Your life has no meaning. You can't even remember just what, exactly, a hanukkiah is, even though one was schlepped acre=oss an ocean for you.

HANUKKAH GELT -- The only known antidote to Hanukkah guilt.

THE GREAT MIRACLE THAT HAPPENED THERE -- In the second century before the Common Era, the Maccabees led a rebellion against the Greek occupiers. Against all odds, and outnumbered 20 to 1, the scrappy band of Jews was victorious. The temple in Jerusalen was reclaimed, and the hanukkiah (then known as a simple menorah) was lighted in celebration, using the scant oil that was found lying around. It shouldn't have been enough to burn through the night, but when the sun rose the next morning, the flame was still going strong. It burned through the third night, and the fourth and the fifth. The oil lasted eight nights. A great miracle happened there.

THE GREAT MIRACLE, CONTINUED -- It lasted a ninth night, and a 10th and a 20th. After a month, the hanukkian began to melt under the heat of the miracle it proclaimed. It spilled over the bimah and onto the floor. The fire spread, Hallelujah! The stained-glass windows were illuminated to those standing outside, watching the miracle engulf and swallow the building, and those trapped within it. The fore spread -- the chosen people, we are a light unto the nations! -- and has yet to be stamped out in many places. It is unknown just when we can be expected to get back to normal, non-miraculous living.

DREIDEL -- The dreidel is a spinning toy, painstakingly fashioned out of plastic polymer by Jewish craftsmen in Vietnam. Used for tabletop gambling games during Hanukkah, the dreidel often ends up on the floor and sometimes in the dog's small intestine. There is a Hebrew letter on each of the dreidel's four sides. These letters abbreviate the statement: Spin it again. You have no idea what is means. You spin it again. You try to make sense of it. Spin it again? You spin it again.

THE MYSTERIES OF HANUKKAH -- What, exactly, does the dreidel have to do with Hanukkah? Why is Hanukkah celebrated like this only in the United States? Why is Hanukkah a minor holiday and not a High Holy Day, and why are we proud of that, and why don't act we act as though it's minor, and why are we worried about decorating our homes? Is it possible to celebrate Hanukkah without succumbing to imitation, kitsch or commerce? Is there anything morally inconsistent, as Jews and as American, in celebrating a holiday that is ostensibly about the removal of occupiers? Could Hanukkah exist without Christmas?

Like all Jewish Mysteries, the mysteries of Hanukkah can be taken in one of two ways: they can serve either to undermine or sustain. The questions frustrate some to the point of walking away. Some find resolution in the questions themselves.

Is there any good reason to continue to celebrate Hanukkah?

If you have to ask, then no.

Is there any good reason to continue to celebrate Hanukkah?

If you have to ask, then yes.

Jonathan Safran Foer is the author, most recently, of ''Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.''

Here's the link to the December 23rd op-ed.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life.....

Ooooh see that girl, watch that scene....

Can you sing the next few lyrics?

If you can - and there's a strong chance of it - then you know the song that's been playing in my head for the last couple of days.

Okay, some history.

My childhood and teenage years revolved around a small Catholic girls' school in Singapore, graduating about 80 or so girls each year. Many of us in were in the very same class from ages 4 to 16. As Plato noted, "you can learn more about a [person] in an hour of play, than in a year of conversation." And so it was with us - besides classroom learning, we played sports, embroidered, sang in choirs, said rosaries, played pranks, and experienced our first kitchen disasters together. (Oh, all right - the kitchen disasters were MINE.) Together we went to camp, to woodwork and metalwork, acted in plays, debated, told jokes and conspired on April Fool's practical jokes. Yes, we got to know another very well indeed.

During my last couple of years there at Marymount, we all loved the songs of ABBA. At any opportunity you'd hear someone breaking out in one of those catchy tunes, only to be joined in a moment by a spontaneous a capella backup group. We all loved those songs! I remember one teacher, otherwise immune to the charms of the Swedish sensation, saying dryly: "Well, at least they know how to enunciate PROPERLY." There you go - ABBA had something for everyone! (Though I'm fairly certain this teacher's halting approval came before ABBA released Gimme Gimme Gimme!)

On field trips we'd entertain ourselves merrily singing these hits. It seemed we never tired of songs such as these:

I'd say the girl who knew the songs best was Christina, she with the encyclopedic knowledge of music in general, and an astounding memory for melodies and lyrics.

On Monday I flew to Las Vegas to meet up with her for the first time in over fourteen years.

Delays kept me from arriving until 6 that evening. When I got to the hotel, there was a message for me: "Be at the Mandalay by 7 - I have tickets to Mamma Mia!!!"

So I turned on my heels, marched out of the hotel and down the Strip, up one escalator and down another, weaving my way on foot and by city bus till I got to the Mandalay. More walking within that enormous complex before I found the theater. Searching the crowd, I spotted Christina and called out to her - and we ran to each other, squealing in the delighted way that two old friends would after a long time apart. (Okay, women friends - I doubt men would squeal!)

We know each other so well that right away we were chatting and laughing as if no time at all had passed.

In a moment we were in the theater.

As you probably know, Mamma Mia is the hit musical based on ABBA's hit songs. So here we were, us old friends, listening to the very songs that were the soundtrack of our teenage years. Not only that - one of the early scenes features old friends reuniting after a long absence.

We couldn't have choreographed a better setting for our reunion!!

Clearly, we were not the only people in that huge theater to lift our voices. Christina's formidable mental database of ABBA lyrics has not diminished in the least. It was the ultimate sing-a-long event.

The plot: On the eve of her wedding, a daughter tries to discover the identity of her father by inviting her mother's three old flames to the Greek island where they shared friendships - and obviously, somewhat more - some 20 years earlier.

It was nice to hear those songs again with fresh ears, and in some cases, different contexts and interpretations. Also nice to hear the lyrics now as as a fortysomething: The Winner Takes it All was surprisingly affecting. Lyrics of "Does Your Mother Know" were revised to give the song a totally new, post-Demi-Moore-Ashton-Kutcher face.

"Mamma Mia" was much like ABBA's music - by turns lively, sentimental, driving, introspective, corny, wistful - but always tuneful and FUN. Oh yes, it was wonderfully bawdy at times. And who doesn't love a musical that ends in a wedding?

I'm going to get myself some ABBA CDs. Good to remember the days of being a "dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen" - even if that particular ship of mine has longggggg sailed - and the port decommissioned, I might add.

Thank goodness one's friends and memories keep us young at heart.

Oh, by the way - the film version of Mamma Mia is due out in summer 2008, starring Meryl Streep. As we know from the film version of A Prairie Home Companion, she has considerable singing talent.

Meantime, to help you dance and jive and feel the beat of the tambourine, are two videos. The first is the original ABBA, the second features the cast of Mamma Mia on Good Morning America. enjoy!


How to Clean Up After a Flood

I was out of town when the devastating storms hit Western Washington last week and submerged parts of Lewis County. Walking through the Seattle airport, I stopped dead in my tracks in front of the newspaper vending machines, with front page pictures of I-5 under 10 feet of water.

Why did the national media give so little attention to such devastation? The main artery between Portland and Seattle was closed for days. Hundreds of homes were seriously damaged. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports in King County ALONE:

"...as of Friday afternoon, the county has received 192 reports from residents, totaling $4.25 million in uninsured damage or loss to primary residences. The county has also received 16 reports of damaged businesses for a total of $524,000." (More)

Some homeowners will find that their insurance does not cover flood damage; they have to hope for federal aid, and charity. Others could find themselves mired in battles with their insurance companies for weeks, maybe months, before they see any cash. And what will they do in the meantime?

Speaking from experience, they will be doing a lot of hard physical work.

From the pictures, it looks like many homes were filled mainly with water. Others were filled with mud, or even worse, raw sewage.

All will have to get rid of the water, mud or sewage, then haul their belongings out of the homes and try to salvage whatever they can. Face masks should be worn to prevent possible respiratory problems. They will have to get discard all carpets and padding, mattresses, and drywall, as well as upholstered furniture, cosmetics, stuffed animals, baby toys, pillows, foam-rubber items, books, wall coverings and most paper products. If their fridges and freezers were out of power for days, they'll have to get rid of all the contents. Some will find that even five washings will not get the mud out of their laundry. Then, time to wash things clean.

A pressure washer is so helpful at this point.

Once they have a bare, stripped-down space, they can commence with disinfecting, most likely with bleach or other antimicrobial products. Then comes the drying out and mold prevention.

It will takes gallons and gallons of bleach to wash down every surface and every washable item in the house. Now comes the drying-out phase.

Humidity is very low here on the Palouse, yet drying took a couple of weeks. Once I got clearance to switch on the power, I left fans running continuously for at least two weeks (I learned that dehumidifiers have limited efficacy in such situations.) This was not just in the basement: areas upstairs also needed serious ventilation, for even though they escaped flooding, the moisture percolated upwards, creating a cold damp that seeped into everything, smelling damp and dank.

I wonder, in the wet and humid west side, how much longer it will take to get completely dry?

After numerous trips to the dumpster or transfer station, it will be time to rebuild. New drywall, insulation, carpet, possibly wiring and plumbing, paint, maybe doors, appliances, bedding, food, clothing.

How can you help?

From Northwest Cable News:

The American Red Cross says financial donations are the most efficient way to assist families. The Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund allows the agency to provide relief to victims of disaster each year by providing water, food, shelter and mental health counseling. To designate your donation to a specific disaster, do so at the time of your donation. Call 1-800-REDCROSS.

You can make a donation at any US Bank branch in Washington. Be sure to tell the bank your donation is for Northwest Response.

In Lewis County, the United Way is the key contact point for donations of supplies, financial aid and volunteer time. Call (360) 748-8100 to help.

Items that are needed include:

  • Flat or snow shovels

  • Floor squeegees

  • Tarps

  • Cleaning supplies

  • Clothing

  • Food

  • Financial assistance

  • Face masks (cloth dust masks)

And what about the livestock in the affected areas?

Pasado's Safe Haven is responding to animals in need in Lewis and Mason counties. The public can help by calling in a donation to Monroe Farm & Feed (360-794-4663), donating a Costco or PetSmart gift card or making an online donation. Donations will support animal rescuers, who need to pay for hotel stays, gas and food. In addition, you can drop off dog and cat food and supplies at Barrier Motors, 1533 120th Avenue N.E., Bellevue, WA, 98005.

The Towns-End Cattle Co. is accepting donations to support flood victims. The business is delivering hay to Lewis County livestock.

The Washington Farm Bureau has created a Flood Relief Fund to meet the needs of farmers and ranchers impacted by flooding. To make a donation, call 1-800-331-3276.

In any event, flood victims should try not feel bad about accepting the help of others. It is much harder to receive than it is to give, but a lesson well worth learning.