The Arty Semite

Howard Jacobson's Hanukkah Humbug

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

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Crossposted From Under the Fig Tree

Benjamin Golub

In this season of good will and holiday cheer, Howard Jacobson, the Booker Prize-winning author of “The Finkler Question” and a guest last term of George Washington’s English Department, has made mincemeat of Hanukkah. Taking to The New York Times to make his case, he suggests that this Jewish holiday has outlived its usefulness — if, in fact, it had any in the first place.

Hanukkah, argues the British novelist in a cascading procession of paragraphs, simply fails to engage the contemporary imagination. Nothing about it — the food, the ritual, the music — can hold a candle to Christmas. “The cruel truth is that Hanukkah is a seasonal festival of light in search of a pretext,” he writes, sidestepping history in favor of sociology. The best Jacobson can say of the holiday is that its name is “lovely.” Really now.

As I made my way through the piece, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Jacobson actually meant what he said or whether, his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, he was making light — and sport — of those who continually fault Hanukkah for not being Christmas.

Honestly, I couldn’t tell. And I suspect other New York Times readers couldn’t, either. Are we meant to chuckle at Jacobson’s drollery, at his faux ho-ho-ho attitude towards Hanukkah? Or are we to take his thoughts to heart and give up on this age-old festival?

I, for one, hope that Jacobson is up to his usual tricks and is toying with us. If he isn’t, well, some things are best left unsaid.


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