So I was telling Hymie… you remember Hymie… yeah, the one with the hacking cough… like a freight train, you say… ha, more like the Hindenburg colliding with a dining needle… he recently lost his job at the pickle store… what’s that, how do you lose a pickle job… I guess he couldn’t do math on the brine-ary system… anyway, he was thinking of taking a correspondence course in taxidermy… so I ask him if he likes dead animals… what dead animals, he says, I’m hoping to get a license to drive a hack in New York City… unrealistic, nah, nothing compared to his mother, Aunt Sadie, she still is pushing for medical school… excuse me for a minute, telephone… oh, it’s my editor… something about Hanukkah… hasn’t he ever heard of heartburn… okay, I’ll be right back….
Leaving the family to fester for a while, let me share a theory. A theory that may shine a light on the social impulses of all mankind and how they may be refined in spiritual settings.
The Biblical calendar includes a series of festive observances, covering a seven month period from spring to early fall, Passover to Tabernacles. The meals on these days can be very uplifting in an edifying sort of way, wholesome yet freighted with formality. You might bring a new fiancee into that atmosphere without too much fear of embarrassment occurring in either direction. Grandpa might choose to impart tales of the old country and for once you find yourself gaining an appreciation.
The chill five months then went Biblically unrelieved. It must have been a grim slog through those first thousand or so winters, battling the sludge and the drudge. Then came Purim, when an exilic Jewish population based mostly in Persian provinces escaped the clutches of Haman. A couple of centuries later it was joined by Hanukkah, as the tyrannical suzerainty imposed by the Greeks on Israel was deposed by a guerrilla war. The unique element was that rabbinic powers of legislation were deployed to fashion national days of celebration.
Looking closely at these new holidays, we notice two key elements. Each brought a special food, not a dish with gravitas like turkey, but a playful snack. Purim had the hamentash, a triangular cookie with a fruit-filled center, designed to mock Haman’s pointy hat. Hanukkah introduced the latke, fried dough (later potatoes) to commemorate funnily the oil that was said to have burned miraculously for eight nights. (My joke was that one night of oily latkes gives eight days of heartburn.)
Each also came with a toy invented especially for the occasion. The Purim “grogger” is a hand-operated noisemaking device to drown out the evil name of Haman. The Hanukkah dreidel is a sort of children’s top with one letter on each of four planes, which can be used to gamble by wagering which side will be facing up at the end of a spin. In Don McLean’s lovely song, Dreidel, he notes wistfully:
I feel like a spinning top or a dreidel
The spinning don’t stop when you leave the cradle
You just slow down.
Round and round the world you go
Spinning through the lives of the people you know.
Think about it. The winter was left open for us to shape. We looked at it and realized what it needed. It was a void that needed to be filled with fun. The answer was snack foods and new toys, drinking and costumes on Purim and some gambling on Hanukkah. This makes for a very different brand of party. When you call your friends and relatives together at those times, there is a heady flavor, a friendly rowdiness, a giddy buzz, the kind of mood that makes the sleet taste sweet, the snow feel slow and the ice smell nice.
This is a fantastic model for any society. Conduct your heavy, dignified pomps in spring; your airy, prettified romps in winter. The nation that endures the elements to survive adversity is the nation that has earned a rip-roaring obstreperous shebang where rules are meant to be bent. Get into the spirit, folks, the globally warmed American winter may freeze your extremities, but the only solution is to light a little candle and eat some oily junk food in honor of your favorite queen of green.
One last note: a fun American-born tradition has developed over the years at many major universities, most notably MIT and the University of Chicago, where large crowds of students and faculty gather to hear top professors argue the relative merits of the latke vs. the hamentash. It’s all about being real and having fun, while celebrating the value of knowledge. Happy Hanukkah!
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