Hillel President Eric Fingerhut chats with a student. Flickr: Hillel News and Views.
Hillel, the ancient sage, was famously impossible to insult. The Talmud portrays intellectuals, rebellious students, passersby and would-be converts as offering jokes, specious arguments, and outrageous claims — all to rattle the unflappable teacher. But in the face of faulty arguments, Hillel prevailed with a calm demeanor, taking it all in and returning volley with an equanimity and integrity that won him wide acclaim as one of Judaism’s greatest teachers.
Elisha ben Abuyah, a first century sage and contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, quit Judaism in a moment of personal crisis, denied the existence of God, and left the Jewish people entirely. And yet, the Talmud preserves his story, too, even sharing tales of his rabbinic colleagues seeking his insights to Torah while riding horseback on the Sabbath. While the Talmud says that Elisha “pulled up the shoots,” uprooting his essential connection to Jewish identity, his story is nevertheless preserved.
In the case of Hillel and Elisha (and many others), the ancient and venerable Jewish literary tradition upholds the value and centrality of debate within the Jewish community.
It is therefore troubling to read about the recent controversy taking place between students at the Swarthmore Hillel and Hillel International over the alleged attempt by Hillel International to censor Swarthmore Hillel for joining the “Open Hillel” movement and allowing for non-Zionist or anti-Zionist campus organizations to debate Israel under the Hillel umbrella.
Rabbi Yaakov and Devorah Cohen have run out of medical options to save their six-year-old son Raphael Elisha, who suffers from a malignant brain and spine cancer.
Desperate to save their son, the Cohens have turned to the internet. The couple posted a petition which asks the FDA to authorize a compassionate exemption so their son can undergo an experimental treatment that the government has shut down research on. Over 40,000 people have signed the petition since it was posted to the White House website on December 3.
“The fact that people are so concerned is really heartwarming and really the greatest sense of comfort that this family can get at this difficult time,” said Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe, executive director of TORCH, a Houston-based Jewish outreach program run by Orthodox educators which has employed the Cohens for the past two years.
Online supporters have donated over $74,000 to assist the Cohens through youcaring.com, a fundraising website.
“Money is coming in from all over the country and it’s not just [from] Orthodox Jews,” said Randy Barnes, a friend of the Cohens, who has spearheaded the fundraising efforts. “The story is starting to go viral.”
Money raised on the site is primarily used to cover Raphael Elisha’s mounting medical costs, many of which are not covered by insurance. The boy’s health is deteriorating and he cannot walk or swallow.
The Cohens also have five other children, which the funds have helped support. “We want them to be focused on helping Raphael Elisha and not have to worry about how is rent going to be paid,” Barnes said.
The Cohen’s petition to the FDA still needs almost 60,000 signatures before it reaches the 100,000 threshold required for a response from the federal government. Even if that happens, the likelihood of the FDA being willing to assist is quite low, according to Yaakov Cohen.
In recent years, the Israeli left has argued strongly for freedom of expression and open debate, often in the face of calls from the right for the silencing of such-and-such an NGO, conference, or political event. But it seems that open-mindedness isn’t universal across the left.
Einat Wilf, a former lawmaker for the Labor and Independence parties, says that she has just been uninvited from an upcoming Peace Now conference on the grounds that she serves on the International Advisory Council of NGO Monitor.
NGO Monitor is a self-appointed watchdog group that looks in to the operation of Israel’s non-profits, mainly those on the left. It is highly critical of many of the groups, including Yesh Din and B’Tselem, close allies of Peace Now, and constantly criticizes the fact that they receive funding from foreign governments.
Some of NGO Monitor’s supporters are strongly right wing. Others, such as the American law professor Alan Dershowitz who serves alongside Wilf on the International Advisory Council, embrace call for a two-state solution. But seemingly as far as Peace Now is concerned, membership of a group that locks horns with its allies puts even a left-leaning politician beyond the pale.
“If the Israeli Left has no place for those who support a two-state solution and who also wage battle against those who seek to delegitimize Israel, it will not return to lead the country,” Wilf said.
Yariv Oppenheimer, director of Peace Now, told the Forward that leadership of NGO Monitor is a “red flag” for Peace Now. He denied that this is because of “ideological dispute” and said it is rather because the group “tries to silence human rights organizations and civil society organizations.”
The Knesset’s speaker has just confirmed that he will lead a delegation of Israeli lawmakers to Nelson Mandela’s funeral, following announcements that the Prime Minister and President will skip it.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s office is saying that he has Israeli taxpayers’ interests at heart in his decision to skip the burial — it would simply be too expensive. And Shimon Peres’ office says that he is getting over a bout of flu. And so, the country will be represented by a cross-party delegation of lawmakers.
Let’s cast our minds back a few months, and remember the passing of a Margaret Thatcher. She was less of a uniting figure than Mandela. In fact, in the UK and elsewhere she was a highly divisive figure. But back then there were no hesitations about the cost — Netanyahu attended the funeral. And compared to South Africa the UK is hardly a budget destination.
Why is honoring Thatcher’s legacy worth costing the Israeli taxpayer but not honoring Mandela’s? Does the extra sensitivity to cost have more to do with recent negative press about Netanyahu’s spending in various items including wine, flowers and water than the real cost the economy? Or is there something deeper going on here?
It’s quite conceivable this is a strategic decision on Netanyahu’s part (one is tempted to take the health-related decision of the elderly Peres at face value). Today’s South Africa is hardly a hospitable environment for an Israeli leader — particularly a leader of the right. His office may well have taken a decision to avoid confrontation with protestors and demonstrators; to avoid negative press images of him being denounced by people who claim to be honoring Mandela’s legacy. What is more, staying away keeps a lid on discussion of the history of Israel relations with the apartheid regime.
Netanyahu would seem to realize that, at this time and this atmosphere, respectful tributes from afar are the best and safest way of honoring Mandela’s memory.
Few people have had the impact on their community that Nelson Mandela had on the history of a continent. Often compared to Mohandas Gandhi or to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the South African leader demonstrated throughout his lifetime how compassion and forgiveness could go a long way in divided societies. Mandela’s legacy of peace offers vital lessons for the human race as a whole, and specifically for the Jewish world.
“He raised the moral imagination of humanity in terms of what was possible to do in order to change the world for the better, and was an extraordinary inspirational model for people involved in social justice work,” said David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC). “I think that struck a particularly strong cord with the Jewish community.”
Last week, the Connecticut State Attorney issued a long-awaited report on the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. The report painted a clearer picture of the events of last December 14, and also provided details of shooter Adam Lanza’s life — his untreated “Asperger’s characteristics,” his love of Dance Dance Revolution and his obsession with the deadly school shooting at Columbine High.
What it didn’t include was the detail I needed to know: the number of times six-year-old Noah Pozner was shot.
I recently interviewed Yehudah Glick for the Forward. He’s, an Israeli Jewish activist who went on a hunger strike after being banned from the Temple Mount.
While writing the introduction for the Q&A, I tried to dot all my i’s and cross my t’s, making sure to mention that the Haram al-Sharif (as the Temple Mount is known to Muslims) is administered by the Muslim Waqf. I explained that although Israeli law enshrines free access to religious sites, the Israeli police are given discretion to control that access, and also why the Waqf is wary of people like Glick, who want Jews to be able to worship on the Temple Mount.
I was pleased with myself for covering all bases—providing context and avoiding one-sided or loaded language. However, that feel good moment was short-lived, as I realized that I have probably been less careful when writing other pieces dealing with matters related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One read through “Use With Care: A Reporter’s Glossary of Loaded Language in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” confirmed so.
The glossary, put out by the Vienna-based International Press Institute, is a useful tool and reminder to journalists to make sure they say what they mean and mean what they say. Although the guide aims for clarity, the identities of its authors have been obscured. Because of the political sensitivity of working together on this project, the six contributing Israeli and Palestinian journalists and media experts opted to remain anonymous.
There are many nuances behind common expressions associated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, partisan writers deliberately choose to use loaded language. But journalists aiming to be as even handed as possible would be advised to keep this 60-page booklet handy. This is especially so for foreign reporters who might not have spent a lot of time on the ground in the region, or followed the conflict closely over the decades.
(JTA) — Natan Zaidenweber thought the mohel was kidding. His wife, Linda Raab, thought it was some kind of religious formality and didn’t give it a second thought.
But the mohel, Cantor Philip Sherman, was serious. Though most fathers demur when he invites them to perform the bris on their sons by clipping their foreskin, preferring to delegate the task to someone professionally trained in the procedure, Sherman finds that about 5 or 10 percent of dads agree to do the cut.
“It is the father’s mitzvah to actually perform the bris as Abraham did for his son, Isaac,” Sherman said. “Many fathers have told me what an incredible moment it was for them to do the actual bris and enter their sons into the covenant of Abraham.”
The Mill Valley, Calif., couple realized the cantor wasn’t joking only once the ceremony was underway. Sherman began with a naming ceremony for Jay Hilay and his twin sister, Sivan Rose. Then he again offered Natan the option of making the cut.
The new dad stepped forward, and as his startled wife screamed his name in a tone that she says was intended to say, “Are you crazy?,” a friend reassured her it would be easy.
“I then took a deep breath, surrendered to the faith I had in Phil and motioned that they had my blessing to proceed,” Raab said.
Sherman set up what was needed, gave the baby some sugar water, put a clamp in place and offered Zaidenweber some direction. Making the cut, Zaidenweber said, was a powerful bonding experience.
“I’m glad I did,” he said. “I’m glad I have that connection with my son. Your love is equal for both [twins], but it’s special that we have that bond.”
For Raab, too, the experience was a positive one. Sherman had told the gathering that a baby’s cry during a bris is like the sound of the shofar opening the gates of heaven.
“I closed my eyes, heard Jay’s cry and actually was able to experience it as deeply spiritual and beautiful,” Raab said, noting her pride that her husband took on the role.
“He stepped up, fearlessly, with a faith in himself that I wouldn’t have had in myself,” she said. “I have since been aware of how much his modeling has helped me to muster more courage as I face the tasks of mothering.”
If the couple were to have another son, would Zaidenweber make the snip again? Yes, say mom and dad, without hesitation.
The latest video from the Russian Neo-Nazi group “Occupy Pedophilia” has hit the Russian social media site, VK.com.
The video follows the same format of the gay-bashing torture videos that the group is (in-)famous for: a bully taunts, assaults and humiliates a gay man lured by a fake personal ad. Only this time, the victim is Alexander Bohun, a recent contestant on the Ukrainian version of “X Factor.”
What’s also notable is that, in addition to a rainbow flag painted onto Bohun’s head, the young man’s tormentors drew Jewish stars on his body. It is not known whether Bohun is actually Jewish — though this hasn’t mattered to Russia’s militias and thugs, who have targeted people for appearing Jewish just as it has targeted people for appearing gay. What does matter is that it shows that Jews need not be Dietrich Bonhoeffer (“First they came for the Communists…”) to stand up and take notice of the daily torture of LGBT people in Russia. To “Occupy Pedophilia,” gays are foreigners are pedophiles are Jews. There is no distinction in their feeble minds, and there should be no distinction in ours either.
The chief rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar, has so far remained silent on this anti-Semitic aspect of the anti-gay violence sweeping Russia. Will he speak up now? Probably — he’s a staunch Putin ally. But he is also a prominent Chabad-Lubavitch leader. Will Chabad’s American leadership demand an end to this anti-Semitism? Or does the intermingling of Judaism and homosexuality somehow erase the anti-Semitism of these thugs?
How many more people have to be tortured with Jewish stars painted on their chests before the American Jewish community rises up in outrage, and demands that the Chabad organization take a stand in Russia?
A proposed law that would ban all religious attire from the public sector has Jews in Quebec on edge.
One rabbi has found a clever way to fight the dreaded kippah ban: he stamped his head covering with the blue-and-white Fleur-de-lys — the province’s flag.
“I think protests are great,” Rabbi Yisroel Bernath said in an interview with the Forward. “But I thought this would be a great way to make a positive statement. They want to ban the kippah? Let’s put a kippah on our heads!”
Bill 60, named the Charter of Quebec Values and put forward by the nationalist Parti Quebecois, would establish what it has called religious neutrality by banning “conspicuous” and “overt” religious symbols like hijabs, kippahs and turbans, from the public sector.
In Quebec, this includes civil servants, daycare workers, judges, doctors, nurses, and police officers, among others.
Bernath, who works at Chabad in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grace neighborhood, first came up with the idea right after the proposal was announced, when a photoshopped picture of a Fleur-de-lys kippah that he posted on Facebook went viral.
“People kept asking me ‘Are you going to make it?’” Bernath said. Though he had the will, finding the proper fabric was a real challenge.
“I wanted it to be made in Quebec,” he stressed. Ultimately, he found a local kippah-maker and the label reads “Fabrique au Quebec” (made in Quebec).
Bernath’s kippah can be found at qkippah.com for $10. Though the website warns of its limited edition — only 400 have been made so far — the yarmulke has already found a niche of devoted customers. According to Bernath, he sold 100 yesterday, and only has about 80 left.
“I bought 60 and distributed them to my congregation, Rabbi Schachar Orenstein of Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese synagogue told the Canadian Jewish News. “Many doctors at the Jewish [General Hospital] are wearing them. If I had the budget, I would purchase for the entire hospital staff,” he added. In November, the Montreal Jewish General Hospital said it would defy the Charter, considered “patently discriminatory.”
But for Bernath, the biggest surprise has been the amount of support he has gotten from non-Jews in the community. Because most of the kippahs are purchased online, he is able to keep track of the names of the owners. A lot of them, he said, are not Jewish.
“The uniqueness in Montreal is that everyone lives together,” he said.
To remind Quebec Premier Pauline Marois — who spearheads the push for the Charter — of that legacy, Bernath has sent her a kippah of her own, signed “Happy Hanukkah from the Jewish community!”
The timing is no coincidence. “It’s Hanukkah all over again in a way,” Bernath explained. “In the times of Hanukkah, that’s basically what the Syrian-Greeks said to the Jews. [They were] trying to make everyone into the Syrian-Greeks and that’s what [Marois] is trying to do.”
With Thanksgiving now over, it’s time for the annual battle over the “war on Christmas.” This year, it is playing out on Republican T-shirts.
The National Republican Congressional Committee is offering its supporters a holiday red T-shirt, fit just for the season.
On the front a sneering punch line reads: “’Happy Holidays’ is what liberals say.” On the back: “Merry Christmas”
That was enough to reignite the war.
When her parents escorted 16-year-old Alice, my aunt, to the Vienna train station, her father was crying. Her mother on the other hand, remained strong and optimistic. “She said, ‘We’re going to see each other again,’” Alice, nicknamed Lizzie, remembered. ”And I was like, I’m going to England, and I’ll be able to improve my English.”
Seventy-five years ago today, on December 2, 1938, the first “Kindertransport” arrived from Germany in England. In the nine months that followed, around 10,000 children — including Lizzie — from Nazi-occupied areas travelled to England, and were placed in foster families, schools and shelters. British authorities agreed to grant visas, while private citizens and organizations had to find guarantors for the children up to the age of 17.
When Lizzie arrived, a doctor’s family from Liverpool took her in for half a year. When they moved to a smaller house, she was passed along to another foster family. Meanwhile, her father, a Jewish carpenter, managed to get his hands on a New York phone directory, and reached out to a cousin, who sent an affidavit and tickets for a ship. Once they had arrived in New York, they organized Lizzie’s passage. In June 1940, she arrived in the United States.
“It was incredible, so beautiful,” said Lizzie, who is now 91 and lives in Valley Stream, NY. She has remained in touch with her foster family in Liverpool, who treated her with respect and love, and is grateful to the people who took children they didn’t know into their families.
Lizzie left Vienna with her maternal cousin Fritz, who immigrated to Australia soon after his arrival in England. Ilse, Fritz’s younger sister, had left Vienna a few months earlier, and found refuge at a Quaker boarding school in the south of England.
“I came without knowing a word of English,” Ilse, now 87 and living in London, said. “It was very traumatic.”
Her father had died earlier that year. Her mother remained behind in Vienna. Also trapped were her maternal cousins, Hans and Herbert, as well as their parents. Having lost the family business — a furniture store — they had no money left to flee the country and were unable to get on a Kindertransport of their own.
In the fall of 1942, the remaining family members received a deportation notice. A family friend, a non-Jewish pediatrician, offered to hide Hans and Herbert in his Vienna apartment, risking his own life to help them. Herbert, who was 14, didn’t want to leave his parents, but 16-year-old Hans, my grandfather, agreed.
When the end of the war came, Ilse received a letter from Hans. “I thought ‘That’s the first one.’ I went to the hockey field, because I wanted to be alone to read it,” she said.
“I was shocked. It was the first one, and the last one, because no one else had survived.”
Anna Goldenberg is the Arts and Culture intern at the Forward. She also writes about Jewish issues and science for various Austrian publications. Follow her on Twitter @angoldna.
When you’ve got Kanye and the Coen Brothers, can the Klezmatics be far behind? Not in this week’s news quiz, they can’t. And neither can Jewish children’s books about chickens.
For real. It’s a trend.
The Thanksgiving leftovers are gone by now. The countdown of Hanukkah candles is nearing its triumphant finish. It’s time to start thinking about the new year.
For our first issue of 2014, the Forward will be looking forward, to the people, stories, issues and debates that will and ought to frame the Jewish experience in the coming year. We ask you to be part of this conversation.
What issue should we be talking about, but aren’t? Why? How do we frame that issue in a way that’s different and compelling? Send your ideas to email@example.com by December 13.
At my bar mitzvah, many moons ago, I took the daring step to talk about… I can’t remember. Like most Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids, my remarks were pretty perfunctory.
But not those of Duncan McAlpine Sennett.
In a talk now trending on YouTube, Duncan starts out in straightforward fashion, talking about his Torah portion. But then he notices something strange: that the marriages between Jacob, Rachel, and Leah were arranged, with no consent of the women (or even Jacob himself, in part), and, in Duncan’s words, “Jacob married two sisters, who were both her first cousins!”
Duncan then observes how the definition of marriage has changed dramatically since Biblical times — and makes an impassioned plea to “change it just a little bit more, so that people can marry who they love.” Duncan’s timing is deliberate: same-sex marriage is on the ballot in his home state of Oregon next year, and as he name-checks his family’s gay friends in the audience, you can hear a pin drop.
The injustice and just plain weirdness of “traditional marriage” is something I myself noted in a much wordier, less eloquent article published last year. But this young man says it better, even in (or maybe, particularly in) the very familiar cadences of a bar mitzvah speech. Check it out here:
There are many positive things about social media. Selfies, or photos of themselves, taken by young people at Holocaust sites and memorials are not among them.
The German version of Vice magazine collected and published a bunch of these totally tasteless Instagram posts to drive home the point. Don’t read German? No worries. You just need to know how to read pictures—and, of course, also hashtags—to understand just how offensive this stuff is.
Check out the one of the girl giving two mitten-clad thumbs up at Auschwitz-Birkenau. “Thumbs up if you’re chilly willy #krakow #poland #auschwitz # birkenau #tour #travels #holidays #chilly #willy #ww2 #worldwar2” is how she tagged it.
There’s also the one of the girl who lined up her photo to make it look like a Star of David was growing out of her head. “#juden #arbeitmachtfrei #treblinka #zyklon B #feelgood.” Hey, don’t we all feel good when visiting sites of mass murder?
How about the one of a couple of guys “#chillin in #dachau,” or the one of the girl in a mini-dress posing at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial making sure everyone notices the important stuff—the “#chelseaboots”—she’s wearing.
Which of these other photos taken at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial is more appealing? The one of the girl jumping for joy at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial exclaiming “#holocaustmemorial #berlin #blocks #jump #tourist #happy #girl #weeeee”? Or would it be the picture tagged “#instacaust”? Hmm. It’s a toss up.
Despite how absurd this stuff seems, it really is happening. Samantha French, a 20-year-old New Yorker studying at the University of Sussex in Britain reports that she saw people taking these kinds of photos while visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau in October 2012.
“…I saw a few tour groups just for school kids in which they were all taking pictures of themselves smiling in front of just about everything they saw, from the display of artificial limbs that had been recovered in the camp, to the wall in front of which many prisoners had been shot execution-style, to actually inside what remains of the gas chamber (despite a clear sign outside banning photography within the building),” she says. “In my own tour group, we had a couple who I think might have been Scandinavian who again did not put their cameras away throughout the entire tour.”
“In short, I think it’s disgusting,” French said. But, having studied the effects of social media, she isn’t surprised by this disturbing trend. “It is so easy to sway what people think of something just by joining a conversation about it on social media, and I think really that’s why this trend of people Instagramming photos of themselves by Holocaust memorial sites has become okay,” she explains.
“If one 12 year-old sees her friend do it when she goes to visit a memorial, she’ll think it’s acceptable to do that, as well, and so the snowball gets rolling. It’s just unfortunate that the people who know that making light of such serious issues is not okay aren’t as present in social media as kids with poor judgment.”
Jews and Arabs appaerently still can’t work out terms for a mutually acceptable nation for the Palestinian people.
But Saveur, an upscale food magazine, has it all figured out.
Throughout an opulently photographed feature headlined “Heart of Palestine” in Saveur’s December issue, writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins — who’s written cookbooks on the Mediterranean and Italy — matter-of-factly refers to Palestine as a country. By doing so, she’s taking an unusual step into volatile political territory for a magazine which usually stresses over grilling the perfect steak or truffle-hunting.
“Hemmed in on all sides by an opposing state, Palestinians’ small piece of the world consists of two discontinuous areas: The Gaza Strip’s 25 miles of coastline in the southwest and the Delaware-sized West Bank along the River Jordan in the northeast,” she writes. “In both areas, Palestinians continue to struggle to assert their rights to the land. Amid dangerous conflict, people find hope in the rituals of daily life, none more so than the growing and preparing of traditional foods.”
Jenkins spends a few days in a village called Beit Sahour with Fairouz Shomaly, “the best cook in town, according to everyone I’ve asked.” Shomaly instructs Jenkins on making sfiha, the Palestinian flatbread; maqloubeh, “a layered dish of rice, meat, and vegetables” that dates back to 13th-century Baghdad; and the Palestinian couscous called maftoul.
The rapturous prose about food gets punctuated by a pointed (and eminently disputable) history lesson. “Throughout its history, this valuable land has seen its fair share of conquests… but after the British mandate was terminated in 1948, the land was carved up into Israel and Palestine, the boundaries of which remain in dispute,” she writes.
(JTA) President Obama, always up on the latest Jewish internet fads, sent out an official Thanksgivukkah greeting yesterday:
“For the first time since the late 1800s – and for the last time until some 70,000 years from now – the first day of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving. It’s an event so rare some have even coined it “Thanksgivukkah.” As we gather with loved ones around the turkey, the menorah, or both, we celebrate some fortunate timing and give thanks for miracles both great and small.”
Very nice. But a sentence in the next paragraph caught my eye:
“In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, [the Maccabees] reclaimed their historic homeland. But the true miracle of Hanukkah was what came after those victories almost 2200 years ago – the Jewish Temple was cleansed and consecrated, and the oil that was sufficient for only one day lasted for eight.”
With this sentence, the White House has — inadvertently, I’m sure — taken a side in an old, latent Israeli debate over what the “Hanukkah miracle” really was.
Like almost every Jewish holiday, Hanukkah has something for both secular and religious Israelis. Secular Israelis see in Hanukkah an epic story that prefigures the birth of the modern state: a small, informal army — facing seemingly insurmountable odds — defeats a more powerful foe and creates an independent Jewish commonwealth. For non-religious Jews who find little to no meaning in the Second Temple and its sacrifices, the miracle of the oil is an afterthought.
But for religious Israelis, the war that liberated the land was just a prerequisite for the holiday’s real miracle: the small jar of oil lasting eight days – enough to reinstate the Temple service. In a similar vein, some modern Orthodox Israelis see the current, secular state as a stepping stone toward a coming messianic era when Jewish religious law will guide Israel.
The debate even emerges in two alternate Hebrew spellings of the word “Maccabee.” One spelling, with the Hebrew letter kuf, means “hammer” — emphasizing the Maccabees’ strength and the military victory. It’s the word’s popular English translation and also the inspiration for this gem of a film.
But the more common Hebrew spelling is with the letter kaf, which makes the word an acronym for the phrase “Who is like you among deities, God?” — stressing the Maccabees’ divine inspiration.
You probably won’t find people fighting in the streets of Jerusalem over the correct interpretation of the Hanukkah miracle. But for those who are counting: score one for the oil.
The santas who sunbathe on Sydney beaches, barbecuing their lunch on December 25th are revelling in the duality of the Christmas holiday. On the one hand it’s a universal holiday, celebrating the birth of the Christian messiah who was born for us all and so it’s perfectly appropriate for Australians (and their tourist visitors) to join in.
On the other hand contemporary Christmas is a consumer-driven winter solstice festival where readily available costumes commingle with the shades of Saturnalia — the Roman festival around Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Unconquered Sun). It embodies a specifically northern hemisphere hope for the short dark days of winter to soon get longer and lighter. A somewhat absurd hope on the antipodean sands.
Hanukkah, which normally falls within the orbit of Christmas normally adopts the universalist aspects of its bigger, younger brother. Kislev 25 is usually around December 25 and Jews place the emphasis on being a festival of light, of liberation and of presents. But when paired with the more local, national holiday of Thanksgiving, its parochial side comes out. And, rather than being the Jewish Christmas (swap reindeer and trees for candles and latkes) Hanukkah ends up being, though disguised by a plethora of mutually appropriate foods, the anti-Thanksgiving.