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.