Santa Claus; Uri Geller; Jimmy Carter

Santa for All

I enjoyed reading Larry Miller’s article, “I’m Dreaming…of a White…Chri — Er, Holidays” (Dec. 22).

I was born, raised and live in L.A. County, and I have yet to witness falling snow with white landscapes. Miller mentions telling his son that Santa is “for our Christian friends who celebrate Christmas.” As a kid, I saw several Santas in one day, whether at the mall, at the Christmas tree lot or in the school lunch area. He was everywhere at the same time.

I don’t recall feeling Santa was only for me or for all my fellow Christian believers. Santa was more of a free-enterprise guy with nonprofit status, who shills for major department stores and apparently still does. Santa Claus promised to bring you what was on your list on the condition you were a good little girl or boy, inclusively.

On hearing the words, “Merry Christmas,” I feel like I should be living in Charles Dickens’ merry England. A bit anachronistic of a term to be used in evolved American parlance, and one that most likely did not originate from original sacred Christian texts.

I would prefer to have something deeper, more meaningful. But for now, Merry Christmas, Larry Miller.

Eric Salazar

Uri Geller

Although I generally admire The Jewish Journal, I feel compelled to write and say I find it disturbingly irresponsible of you to publish an article that presents Uri Geller’s magic tricks as legitimate examples of psychic phenomena (“Can You Bend It Like Geller,” Dec. 22).

To describe Geller as “controversial,” as the article does, is not going nearly far enough. Geller has been conclusively debunked as a charlatan too many times to count, most notably by James Randi on the PBS program, “NOVA,” in an episode originally broadcast on Oct. 19, 1993, titled, “Secrets of the Psychics.”.

Geller is controversial only in the same sense that creationism is a controversial scientific theory. The facts remain, creationism is not science, and Geller is not psychic.

David Ian Salter
Santa Monica

Israel’s Capital

It is common in journalism when speaking of governmental dialogues to refer to national governments by their capital cities.

In “Regime Change” (Dec. 22), Rob Eshman suggests that “both Tel Aviv and Washington can fund … broadcasts into Iran” to help bolster the moderate opposition there against the Ahmadinedjad government. My heart almost stopped when I read that sentence.

The capital of the State of Israel is Jerusalem. The seat of government for the Jewish state is in Jerusalem not Tel Aviv. And although the Jewish people will certainly never forget Jerusalem as our spiritual capital, it bears repeating in a Jewish publication that has seemingly gotten its facts a little mixed up (I only hope that the oversight was that benign) that the capital of the State of Israel is Jerusalem.

Yoni Friedman
Los Angeles

Gay Ruling

Being a supportive father of two lesbian daughters, I commend Rabbi Elliott Dorf for moving Conservative Judaism away from treating homosexuals as lesser beings by gaining passage of a ruling that permits same-sex ceremonies and ordination of gays (“Why the Conservative Movement Endorses Gays,” Dec. 15).

Nevertheless, I recommend that my daughters look elsewhere to satisfy their religious needs, because they will continue to be subjected to criticism by many within Conservative Judaism.

As far as I am concerned, my daughters are wonderful human beings, and I love them dearly just the way they are. It matters not to me that Rabbi Joel Roth and others find their behavior to be a violation of longstanding Jewish law. Why should any Jew take pride in, or want to stand by, a very long tradition of abominable treatment of homosexuals?

David Michels

Food for Thought

I enjoyed reading about Bob Goldberg and Paul Lewin in your recent article, “Follow Your Heart to a Vegetarian Chanukah Feast” (Dec. 15).

More and more people are looking for alternatives when planning meals, due to their objections to the animal cruelty rampant on factory farms. In fact, many Jewish religious leaders advocate vegetarian diets.

Confining animals in spaces so small that they can hardly move for their entire lives is simply too inhumane for any caring person to support.

Alyson Bodai
Outreach Coordinator
Factory Farming Campaign
Humane Society of the United States
Washington, D.C.

Carter Center

I am normally reluctant to urge people not to give to a charity (“With Friends Like These…,” Dec. 15). However, I just replied to a solicitation from the Carter Center (to which I had been a contributor in the past) that I would not contribute to an organization whose leader tells falsehoods about Israel. I also asked them to take me off President Carter’s Christmas card list. I urge any like-minded readers to do the same.

Marshall Giller

Response to Emerson Charges

[Steven] Emerson profits from the industry of fear.

Make a festive meal fit for your Maccabees

Chanukah has always been a festive holiday — a time when our family exchanges gifts, lights candles and enjoys traditional foods fried in oil. Since the holiday is mostly focused around children, this menu is designed with them in mind.

It’s important during Chanukah to teach children and grandchildren about Jewish traditions and to recall the miracle of the oil, when a one-day supply lasted for eight days, enough time until fresh oil could be made from the olive trees to keep the flame lit in the Holy Temple.

To make everyone feel special during the festivities, we ask each child to bring his or her own chanukiah, or Chanukah menorah. We place them all on the dining room table, so later they can recite the blessing and light the candles together.

Usually everyone gathers in the kitchen to watch the ritual frying of the latkes. They offer their opinion on the size and technique, and they think if the latkes are watched closely, they’ll be done faster. We normally use three large frying pans and triple the size of my award-winning latke recipe, but no matter how many we make there is never enough.

The latkes are served with several delicious toppings — applesauce, chopped olive spread, sour cream and sugar. For a special adult treat, try topping the latkes with salmon caviar. We feast on the latkes while talking in the living room, surrounded by colorful piles of Chanukah gifts, as we wait for the latecomers to arrive.

Serve pasta for the main course, with a choice of two sauces. Be creative with pasta shapes since there are many to choose from. Our favorites are bowties, spaghetti and penne. Some prefer just butter and Parmesan cheese as a topping, while others like the traditional tomato sauce. Everyone will enjoy my recipe using cherry tomatoes that are roasted in the oven with the drained pasta tossed right in with the tomatoes. For the more adventurous, add chunks of sautéed seafood made with several types of fish, which you can add to the roasted tomatoes.

Let the children open presents before dessert — it allows them to release some of that pent up energy. Then get them back to the table for a do-it-yourself ice cream sundaes, with chocolate or caramel sauce, and fruit preserves. Serve it with homemade brown sugar jelly cookies.

Happy Chanukah!

Judy’s Award-Winning Potato Latkes

4 baking potatoes, peeled
1 large yellow onion, peeled and grated
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
4 extra-large eggs
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
Pinch of baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Olive oil, for frying

Grate the potatoes, using a food processor or fine shredder. Immediately transfer the potatoes to a large bowl and add the onion, lemon juice, eggs, flour, baking soda, and salt and pepper. Mix well.
Heat 1/8 inch of olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Pour the batter into the hot oil with a large spoon and flatten with the back of the spoon to make 4-inch latkes. Cook on one side until golden brown, three to five minutes; then turn and cook on the other side, about two minutes. (Turn once only.) Drain well on paper towels and serve immediately, plain or with topping.

Makes 12 latkes.


1/2 cup cranberry juice
1/2 cup raspberry jelly
1/3 cup sugar
6 large tart Pippin or Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, thinly sliced
Juice and zest of 2 lemons

In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the cranberry juice, jelly and sugar. Cook over moderate heat, stirring until the jelly and sugar have dissolved. Bring the syrup to a boil and simmer for two to three minutes.

Put the apple slices in a large bowl and toss them with the lemon juice and zest. Add them to the jelly mixture and toss to coat evenly. Simmer until the apples are tender, stirring occasionally. Let them cool.

Transfer the glazed apples with their sauce to a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes about three cups.

Chopped Olive Spread

1 cup pitted black olives
1 cup pitted green olives
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

Coarsely chop the olives and place in a bowl. Add the olive oil and parsley, and toss well.
Makes about two cups.

Spaghetti With Roasted Cherry Tomato Sauce

1?4 cup olive oil
1 large onion, diced
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 to 3 cups whole cherry tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh minced rosemary
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 pound spaghetti
Olive oil and Parmesan cheese for garnish

Preheat the oven to 250 F.

In a large roasting pot, add olive oil, onions, garlic, tomatoes and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake, uncovered, for 50 minutes, shaking the pan every 10 to 15 minutes, to avoid sticking. After 30 minutes, sprinkle with salt, pepper, rosemary and sugar to taste. After another 20 minutes, sprinkle with Parmesan and shake gently.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, add the pasta and boil until tender. Using tongs or a large fork, transfer the boiled pasta directly into the tomato mixture in the roasting pot, allowing some of the cooking liquid as well. Toss gently, but thoroughly. To serve, pour olive oil in a thin stream on top of the pasta and serve with grated Parmesan cheese.

Makes six to eight servings.

Brown Sugar Jelly Cookies

1 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup dark brown sugar, tightly packed
2 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts
Assorted preserves: strawberry, red raspberry, apricot

Imaginative menorahs give new twist to ancient tradition

Moses made the first menorah. God commanded him to hammer out an ornate, free-standing, seven-branched candelabrum, replete with cups, knobs and flowers, from a solid piece of gold.

Back then, in the desert tabernacle, and later in the First and Second Temple, the menorah fulfilled a largely inspirational and symbolic function. It was lit with the purest oil in an outside area, and it was meant to illuminate the world with the light of God and the Torah.

But the menorah has changed over time. Yes, you can still buy old-fashioned ornate metal candelabras with the knobs and flowers, but you can also get modern and original art and themed menorahs. And menorahs no longer have seven branches — they now have eight, because they are used to commemorate the miracle that occurred at the first Chanukah, when a single vial of pure oil burned for eight days in the ransacked Second Temple.

Thus we light an ever-increasing number of lights for eight days, and we even call the menorah something different — the technically correct name for the eight-branch candleholder is chanukiah.

So what does a chanukiah need in order to be kosher? Not much. The lights must be aligned with the shamash, the candle used to light the others, somewhat above. And each candleholder must hold an amount of oil or large enough candle to burn for about half an hour. Beyond that, anything goes.

You don’t even need to have an eight-branch candelabra for all eight nights — you simply need enough lights for that particular night. In a pinch, you can fill a few whiskey shot glasses with oil or line some candles up on a piece of foil and voil? — a menorah.

Although a menorah can be ridiculously simple, (as any mother of a preschooler at a Jewish school will know, a menorah means bottle caps glued to a block of wood) over the years, it has become something of an iconic, instantly recognizable Jewish symbol, and it has inspired countless Judaica artists, craftsmen and metalsmiths to fashion their own unique menorahs. They do this under the rubric of hiddur mitzvah — making the mitzvah beautiful.

Marcia Reines Josephy, principal of Josephy Rembrandt Exhibitions and a former assistant curator of the Jewish Museum of New York, has a collection of more than 20 menorahs at her house, including an 18th-century metal piece that her father brought to this country from Poland, as well as ones made by her children and grandchildren.

Menorahs are a bit like Las Vegas hotels — think of any theme, and you can build one around it. If you have a friend who likes ’60s chic, for example, then you can buy her a groovy flower-power bus menorah. If your child likes a particular sports team or has a penchant for dinosaurs, there are menorahs that will match his interests.

Looking for wedding present? How about a newlywed-themed menorah? Or maybe, for those who like kitsch, a fiddler on the roof ceramic diorama menorah or a New York skyscraper menorah.

“For kids, the trends are very colorful metal menorahs,” said David Cooperman of Shalom House in Woodland Hills, which stocks more than 250 different menorahs. “And we are also seeing a trend for more lifelike, rather than childish or cutesy menorahs.”

And, like Josephy, many people can’t stop at just one menorah.

“We had a customer in here yesterday who lights more than 50 menorahs on the last night,” Cooperman said.

So why has the menorah endured and thrived over so many years?

“It is the menorah that is the oldest Jewish symbol,” Josephy said.

“The seven-branched menorah from the Temple or the Tabernacle in the wilderness, that is the beginning of Jewish creativity. [Back then] you had wonderful artists, and wise-hearted men and women, and the menorah was a central part of that creativity. That is one reason that it has remained as such an important symbol, and it is also visually strong and big.”

Children’s Menorahs

Noah’s ark menorahs are perennially popular children’s pieces. This one is available at

The Jewish Museum also carries a number of very cute hand-painted metal animal menorahs in the shape of a whale, moose, goose, dinosaur or fish.

Gift Menorahs

Themed menorahs make great gifts. This cloche (close) friends menorah is made of metal and is hand painted. Available at the Museum of Tolerance gift store.

For a newlywed, what better way to say you’re in love then with this Piper Strong Newlywed menorah from A Mano Galleries


A growing trend in modern menorahs is for streamlined, collapsible pieces, like this anodized aluminum belt menorah from the Jewish Museum.

Gary Rosenthal is an artist who fuses glass and metal in his very popular Judaica. This menorah, top right, is a replica of one that he presented to the White House 25 years ago. Available at Treasures of Judaica, the gift store of the University of Judaism.


This traditional style of menorah is the closest to the original design that was present in the Tabernacle and in the First and Second Temple. It features a small jug for pouring oil. Available from

Holiday Celebration of Arts and Eats

The year-to-year tradition of celebrating Chanukah doesn’t change at our home. It always includes lighting candles, playing dreidel, eating latkes and having the children open gifts. But, the highlight of Chanukah for me is having all of our family together at the same time. It is one of the few holidays when our children and grandchildren arrive from everywhere, so we can celebrate and spend time with each other.

But, for the past 15 years, the festivities have included our special friends, artist Peter Shire and his wife, Donna. It all began when we invited Peter to visit the Skirball Museum, which was then located on the campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, next to USC. We toured the collection of Judaica in the basement of the museum, and when Peter saw the menorahs, he was intrigued by their design and how the artists had adapted the local culture and architecture into their creations.

Several days later we called Peter and asked if he would be interested in a commission to create a chanukiah for our family, and he was delighted with the idea. He combined contemporary shapes, cactus, the local mountains, and included many colorful symbols that depicted a Southern California theme.

Peter’s chanukiah has a permanent place in our art collection, and is similar to the one that he later created for the Israel Museum and the Skirball. He recently designed several more, some contemporary, with simple architecture elements, others made in the shape of birds or plants.

During the holiday, Peter always lights the candles on his California-inspired Chanukiah at our home. After they are lit, it is time to eat the first batch of crisp and hot latkes, which have been fried in olive oil to commemorate the story of the one-day supply of oil that burned for eight days. I still remember the family Chanukah celebrations from when I was young, consisting of our extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins. This was a special time when everyone eagerly awaited the latkes, and later all commented on who had eaten the most.

Of course, while the latkes are served, the children are looking over the wrapped Chanukah gifts, eager to open them, but they have to wait until after dinner when we return to the living room.

The Chanukah meal this year begins with a salad composed of chopped chicken livers, placed on a bed of baby greens and garnished with pomegranate seeds. The main course, ground chicken loaf, everyone’s favorite comfort food, is baked in a tomato-wine sauce and served with homemade cooked apple slices.

For dessert we have a cookie exchange and ask everyone to bring his or her favorite ones to go with the Chocolate Sorbet that I have made. This supersmooth sorbet, made without milk, cream, or eggs, tastes as rich and creamy as ice cream, and I think the addition of Concord grape wine really enhances the sorbet’s intense chocolate flavor. At the end of the evening there are always bags of cookies for the children to take home as a Chanukah treat.

Award-Winning Perfect Potato Latkes

This latke recipe was chosen as one of the top 10 recipes of 1998 by the Los Angeles Times. “The best we’ve ever eaten,” said their test kitchen and food editors.

4 baking potatoes, peeled

1 large yellow onion, peeled and grated

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

4 extra-large eggs

3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

Pinch of baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Olive oil, for frying

Grate the potatoes, using a food processor or fine shredder. Immediately transfer the potatoes to a large bowl and add the onion, lemon juice, eggs, flour, baking soda and salt and pepper. Mix well.

Heat 1/8-inch of oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Pour the batter into the hot oil with a large spoon and flatten with the back of the spoon to make 4-inch latkes. Cook on one side until golden brown, three to five minutes; then turn and cook on the other side, about two minutes. (Turn once only.) Drain well on paper towels and serve immediately, plain or with topping.

Makes 12 latkes/four servings.

Chocolate Sorbet (nondairy)

3 cups unsweetened cocoa powder

2 cups sugar

12 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted

1 cup Concord grape Wine

Combine the cocoa and sugar in a large, heavy saucepan. Add 4 cups of water, a little at a time, in a thin stream, mixing with a wire whisk until well blended and smooth. Bring to a boil and boil for five to 10 minutes, or until thick. Stir in the melted chocolate and port. Bring to a boil and simmer for about four minutes, or until thick, stirring constantly. Pour into an 8-cup pitcher or bowl and place in a larger bowl filled with ice and cold water. Mix until cool. Remove bowl from ice. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Process in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer the sorbet to a covered container and freeze for at least one hour for flavors to mellow. If frozen solid, soften in the refrigerator and beat until smooth and creamy before serving.

Makes about two quarts.

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Cookbooks, 1988) and “The 30-Minute Kosher Cook” (Morrow, 1999). Her Web site is


There’s No Santa, but Keep It Quiet


It was in 1998 that my son, Sammy, broke out of his cocoon and started kindergarten at our neighborhood school. Up until then, he had spent his entire tiny life surrounded by Jews.

Having left his Jewish preschool behind only a few months prior, he had little knowledge of his own minority status in the world, not to mention in our South Bay community. But that didn’t matter to him, at least as far as I knew.

The phone rang on that cold December morning, the week before school let out for Christmas — I mean winter break.

“Hello,” Sammy’s teacher said. “It’s Susie Clark.”

As any good Jewish mother would, I immediately thought that Sammy had fallen and cracked his head open.

“Do you have a minute?” she asked.

“Of course,” I replied. “Is anything wrong?”

“No, no. Well sort of,” she said.

This could not be good.

“It’s just that, well, Sammy’s been,” she stammered, “having a little trouble since we started our holiday unit.”

“Why?” I asked. “Doesn’t he get it?”

“Oh, he gets it. He gets it quite well. The problem is that….”

I sat down and waited for the bomb to drop.

“He’s been telling his classmates that there’s no such thing as Santa.”

“Oh, that’s awful!” I exclaimed. What was I supposed to say?

“I’m not sure what to do,” the teacher said. “I’ve been teaching almost 20 years, and this is a first. I’ve gotten calls from two mothers already.”

I had visions of furious mothers beating me with wooden nutcrackers.

“Gee, I’m sorry,” I replied as I began to sweat.

“I actually don’t spend that much time on holiday stuff, only the last week before break,” the teacher said. “And we do Chanukah, too. Obviously, we’re making little Christmas trees, Santas, candy canes, wreaths, but I have templates for dreidels and stars. My other Jewish students use some of the Christmas designs, but not Sammy. He’ll do only Chanukah. Yesterday, we ran out of blue construction paper. He wasn’t happy.”

I pictured his indignant pout as he made a red-and-green dreidel.

“I’ll talk to him,” I said. “Don’t worry, there won’t be any more rumors about Santa being a fake.”

“Thanks.” Her tone implied that she wasn’t quite finished. “And just one more thing.”

I sat down again.

“Sammy’s had a little trouble with Robbie lately.”

“What? He adores Robbie!” Robbie was Sammy’s best buddy since the toddler class at preschool.

“You know Robbie’s mom is Jewish and his dad’s not,” the teacher said. “So Robbie’s taken the position that he’s both Jewish and Christian, but Sammy keeps insisting that he’s all Jewish. They really got into it yesterday.”

“I’ll take care of it,” I said.

I hung the phone up quietly and wondered if living in a predominately non-Jewish area was bothering Sammy. For me, having grown up in the Valley, being Jewish was never an issue. I took it for granted that at least half of the kids at school were Jewish. But not where my children lived. The Jews in Palos Verdes were a small group, close-knit and involved but statistically a tiny sliver on the pie chart.

Sammy bounced into the car that afternoon as always. I tried to sound nonchalant.

“Why are you telling kids there’s no Santa?” I blurted. So much for nonchalant.

“Because there isn’t one,” he said.

“And why are you arguing with Robbie about whether he’s Jewish or not?”

“Because he’s Jewish. He was last year.”

It occurred to me then that perhaps there was no problem. My son was clear and content with what he knew to be true.

When we got home, Sammy pulled out his Chanukah cutouts.

“Look what I made.” He showed them proudly, even the green dreidel. I gathered him onto my lap and admired his work.

“Sammy, you can’t tell the kids about Santa anymore. Some of them really believe in Santa. It’s not right for you to spoil it for them.”

“But why would they want to believe in something that’s not true?”

“Because it’s fun,” I said. “Because their parents like to pretend and create a story or tradition for their family. We do that, like with the tooth fairy.”

His expression changed, and a little frown formed between his eyebrows. Naturally, a jolly, fat man in a red suit who drags presents down chimneys was absurd, but a little fairy who trades money for teeth was perfectly logical. There went my mother of the year award.

“How do you know there’s no Santa anyway?” I asked.

“Mickey told me.”

Of course. The older brother always tells.

“Well, do you think you could just not talk about Santa for the next few days?”

He nodded his head and began taping his artwork to the front windows for all the world to see that in our house, we celebrated Chanukah.

During those last few days before Christmas — I mean winter break — I reminded Sammy to keep his knowledge and opinions to himself. Friday afternoon came with great relief — no more irate parents calling the teacher and no mothers chasing after me.

Six Chanukahs have come and gone since that December, and Sammy wrapped up his elementary school career six months ago. On the last day of school in June, we ran into his kindergarten teacher. She hugged Sammy. The little boy who had spoiled Santa was up to her nose.

“Sammy, I’ll never forget that Christmas with you in my class,” she said. “And I think of you every year when I pull out my Chanukah cutouts.”

As for Sammy, his Jewish identity, established way back in preschool, is as solid as the blacktop where he used to play ball.

Robbie eventually became all Jewish, just as Sammy had insisted.

And the tooth fairy, well, she continued to visit us until the very last tooth had been hidden underneath the pillow.


Through God’s Eyes


We call it the Festival of Lights, but Chanukah starts in a very dark place.

It begins with two stories, each very serious. One

tells of a severely outnumbered band of Jews who fought a powerful enemy for religious freedom.

And there’s the other, even more painful tale of Jew vs. Jew, of the Macabees struggling with widespread Jewish assimilation into the culture and religion of that enemy.

In many ways, Chanukah represents the most painful aspects of Jewish history in one full account: the Jewish community facing threats both from outside and within.

The tales are so painful, in fact, that thinking about them can be depressing. And what’s worse, many aspects of Chanukah — bloody battles, inner fighting, treacherous choices between life and death — have been reenacted over and over again, throughout the centuries.

But despite the seriousness, despite the painful, dark history of Chanukah, we spend eight days in lightness. We play, we sing, we eat — we remember the tales of the Maccabees with latkes, gelt, songs and games. For us, Chanukah is a party — bright, sweet, joyous. It’s serious, but we’re playful.

The stories — dark and sobering — are recalled with light and celebration. How do the bloody battles of Chanukah translate into a ritual of fun?

The answer can found in the dreidel.

The Hebrew letters on each side of the toy — nun, gimmel, heh, and shin — famously serve as an acronym for neis gadol haya sham — “a great miracle happened there” — a reference to the miraculous eight-day staying power of the little bit of oil lighting the menorah in the Holy Temple when it was re-taken by the Maccabees.

Like Chanukah, the dreidel is a combination of intensity and lightheartedness. Historically, it was initially adopted by Jews not as a game or toy but as a front, a ruse used by persecuted Torah scholars who were forbidden by non-Jewish authorities from study. Pretending to play a game, rabbis would actually teach their students Torah, enabling the traditions to be passed to each new generation.

How fitting then to have those same toys in the hands of happy, free Jewish children today, spinning the dreidel as a simple game after learning Torah in security. The dreidel represents that same relationship between terror and confidence, between threats and joy, darkness and light.

The spinning top is actually even more than just a reminder of persecutions past and more than a simple game for happy children. The Jewish mystical tradition teaches that the four letters on the sides of the dreidel have a wholly different significance. The nun is for neshama (soul); the gimmel is for guf (body); the shin is actually a sin, for sechel (mind); and the heh is for ha-kol (everything).

The playful little toy is a miniature but complete person: body, mind and soul — everything wrapped up together. And like the dreidel, we are also a combination of the playful and the serious. On one hand, we are light and fun and lively. But on the other hand, we spin out of control. We live in chaos.

A human being is a dreidel: busy, moving. We reach near vertigo, tilting and spinning until at last we finally drop.

Like the Chanukah tales, our personal narratives are marked by difficult choices and numerous battles, both external and internal. A human being is a dreidel: spinning and falling, spinning and falling. Yet we come up, again and again. How can that be?

Because, as the dreidel tells us: neis gadol haya sham. Great miracles happen, not just in ancient times but now, constantly, for us every single day. We spin and fall, but thanks to God’s miracles, we stand up to try again — as a nation and as individuals. That’s serious stuff. But it’s also worth celebrating.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Dec. 14, 2001.

Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer is instructor of Bible and liturgy at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism and creator of Ozreinu, a spiritual support group for special-needs families.


Maccabee Meaning Changes With Time


The oldest tradition of Chanukah is that it celebrates many stories: freedom from religious oppression, Jews fighting back against their oppressors and the communal struggle about what it means to be and live as a Jew. It is the story of unexpected fuel found in unexpected places, providing light to an entire nation — and it is the story of miracles and redemption in moments of darkness and despair.

These stories have been told in many languages: Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Latin, Yiddish and English. They’ve been told by every kind of Jew, and even by non-Jews, from almost every nation on the face of the earth. They are tales of a people on a journey looking for ways to confront the challenges that lay before them, and celebrating the victories they experience along the way.

However, in American Jewish life, Chanukah is often described as the story of the Jewish fight against assimilation. Judah Maccabee and his forces arose to defeat their Hellenistic persecutors. The underlying premise of this telling is the presumption of a pure Judaism struggling against external influences that would pollute it. Like most stories about the fight against assimilation, there is a false dichotomy in this retelling between Judaism and the larger world. The complexity and nuance that have defined Jewish life in every age are removed from the story.

Ironically, the Chanukah story, with its many tellings, preserves those nuances better than almost any other holiday in Jewish tradition. It celebrates a variety of ways to be Jewish — ways which have changed through the generations, the challenges and the times.

Whether in ancient times after the destruction of the Temple, when God felt very far away and the rabbis told the story to help bring God back or in more recent history, when early Zionists told the story in ways that emboldened them to return to the Land of Israel, our tellings of the Chanukah story have invited new interpretations, questions and meanings, each helping a generation of Jews rise to the challenge of its moment in history. In fact, the richness of Jewish tradition is its remarkable capacity to embody many forms of Jewish expression. Failing to recognize this on Chanukah would be truly absurd.

On a holiday that reminds us, among many things, of the danger of idolatry, we dare not turn Jewish identity into an idol. Anything can be an idol, including the definition of what it means to be Jewish. Idolatry is what happens whenever we falsely make absolute what is by definition infinite. In telling of the fight against idolatry, we must be careful not to turn our own tradition into an idol — presuming a static definition of what it means to be Jewish and how to contribute to the future of the Jewish people.

While no one can say what Jewish life will look like in the future, we need to continue the oldest tradition of Chanukah by inviting people to enter the process of creating that future. After 2,000 years of playing dreidel, a game of chance that epitomizes the precariousness of Jewish life, we now have an unprecedented opportunity to play a new kind of game — one that reflects the blessings, challenges, and possibilities of this moment in American Jewish life.

Contrary to much in Jewish life, this is a game that everyone can play and win. Here is how it works:

Answer these questions by telling your own story, based on your own experience. For each question, try to find an answer that describes something you think of as typically Jewish, and a second that describes something you don’t think of as typically Jewish. There are no wrong or right answers.


• Which foods or meals evoke Jewish associations for you?


• In what places have you been where you felt particularly Jewish?


• On what occasions did you feel very Jewish?


• Who is a “real Jewish hero” for you? (That person doesn’t have to be a Jew.)


• What makes your relationships Jewish?


• Bonus question: Is there something important in your life that you really wish was a part of what you usually think of as being Jewish?

To score, give yourself one point for each question for which you can give at least one answer. Since each question can be answered for both expected and unexpected circumstances, the maximum score for the five questions is 10. Adding the bonus question for three points, the maximum score is 13.

Actually, forget the points. What counts is not numbers, but being in the game. If you play, you win. The only way to lose this game is not to play at all.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the vice president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.


Latkes Without End, Amen


It’s 1991, and I am in the basement kitchen of Temple Mishkon Tephilo in Venice. I don’t know what it looks like now, but back then, many years ago, the place had an Army hospital feel about it: beige cupboards that didn’t sit quite flush on their hinges; floor-level shelves stuffed with mismatched sheet pans, clouded plastic bowls and skillets the size of UFOs; dull counters scratched and scrubbed and scoured by generations of helpful women; and a giant industrial stove — I want to say a Wolf — six or eight sensationally powerful commercial grade burners girded by iron and stainless steel, its pilot lights burning like eternal flames.

My wife, Naomi Levy, was the synagogue’s rabbi at the time. She ruled the upstairs sanctuary and classroom. But I was most comfortable down below, by that inferno of a stove.

Out of college, I had supported a writing habit by cooking and catering. Nothing edible was strange to me. So I prided myself on being able to command any kitchen, from that of the A-list half-Jewish actress in whose Palisades home I’d catered a Christmas dinner of ham and brisket, to Mishkon, where I liked to slip out of services early and help Jesus set up for Kiddush. (At Mishkon, the janitor was a Mexican immigrant named Jesus, the security guard was an Arab immigrant named, no kidding, Mohammed.)

If some congregants were perturbed by a female rabbi who couldn’t cook an egg and a male rebbetzin who hung out in the kitchen, they didn’t let on. They took a sow’s ear and turned it into a kosher meal. Soon I was teaching Passover cooking classes for the synagogue’s adult-ed department, and very soon after Naomi and I started dating, someone asked me to take charge of cooking the latkes for the annual Chanukah party.

Most synagogues have Chanukah parties, and all Chanukah parties have latkes. Not dozens, but hundreds, or thousands. Somehow I suspected that if Rabbi Levy and I were to become an item, I would find myself volunteering or volunteered for such duties. After all, at a homey 200-family shul like Mishkon, everyone has to pitch in, and it wasn’t as if I could teach Mishna. I was no Torah expert, but I did know latkes.

What did I know, and how did I know it?

First of all, anybody who has ever considered a career in food has given serious thought to the potato. When I applied to be a sous chef at a San Francisco restaurant several years earlier, the chef asked me to make an omelet. Then he asked me how I would make a tomato sauce. Then he asked me to peel and cut potatoes. I set out a bowl of cold water, found a good peeler, and proceeded to make short work of it. Every kitchen job I ever had involved pounds and pounds of potatoes, and I grew to understand and respect them so much — this homely, earth-bound lump, transformed into something light and soft or crisp and delectable — that I have never been able to bring myself to calling them “spuds.” I hate that word.

Latkes are a simple form of potato preparation, as potato dishes go. But simplicity in cooking, as the food writer Richard Olney wrote, is a complex thing. I have had rubbery latkes, starchy latkes, undercooked latkes and latkes so greasy that two of them could run a diesel engine for a week.

I learned the basics from my mother, and Joan Nathan. My mother makes superb latkes, but evidently this is not unusual. When I told people I was writing this essay, they all had the same response: that their mother made the perfect latke.

The varieties of latke experience varied among these people’s mothers. The ingredients hardly change: potatoes, eggs, salt, pepper and a binder, either flour or potato starch or matzah meal. But some people mash the potatoes, some grate them finely, some coarsely. Some use onion. Some use more eggs, some less.

Some fry their latkes in a lot of oil, turning them into little rafts on a roiling sea of grease. Others sauté them in nonstick skillets with a tablespoon of canola. The skinless breast meat/egg white crowd, acolytes of la cuisine Lipitor, go one step further, waving a can of PAM over a cookie sheet and baking their pancakes in a hot oven. If your mother does that, and you think she makes the best latkes in Jewish history, good for you, and good for your arteries.

Most of us consider the recipe we were raised on as the best, be it for brisket, fesenjan, kubaneh or latkes. Your search for the perfect latke, then, was over before it began, unless you are like me and have a restless hunger, a belief that with a slight change, a different oil, a coarser grate, maybe a hotter flame, the ideal can be made even better.

Anyway, your mother’s going to die one day. So unless she has taken you to her side and shown you her technique — and latkes are 90 percent technique — you will have to discover the perfect latke for yourself.

This is a bigger problem than the high priests of Jewish continuity care to admit. While they wring their hands over whether the next generation will know Torah and Jewish history and carry Israel close to its heart, who is worried whether young Jews will learn how to skim the fat off a chicken soup or shape a perfect Moroccan cigar? Our food ways do not define us — they are neither the point of being Jewish nor even close to the richest part of our culture. Foodaism is no substitute for Judaism. But the recipes of our foremothers are, if not our operating system, then some critical software. They provide a sense memory of tradition, a source of potent symbolism, a connection to the past and a link to the future. And they taste good, too.

Most Jewish women I know can’t cook like their grandmothers. The men can’t cook like their grandmothers, either. In some cases their own mothers can cook, but didn’t pass the skills along. That’s not to say these people don’t let their marble countertops and DCS ranges lay fallow. Their menus read like the sides of a shampoo bottle: Grill chicken breasts. Broil salmon. Rinse. Repeat. They can empty a bag of mesclun into a bowl, and given time, a pricey measuring beaker and a recipe, they may make a vinaigrette to dress it. If Emeril makes a Yorkshire pudding, they may soil their Sur la Table-ware doing one of those, too. But do they know gribenes? Can they make kreplach? If grandma was Persian, how’s the crust on their chelou? And if the answers are, no, no and soft, what about their children? I suppose there are warm and wonderful Jewish homes that have never known a pot of homemade chicken soup simmering on the stove, but they’d be even warmer and more wonderful with it.

I’m not an out-and-out alarmist about these things. Even a dish like latkes is not an immutable part of Jewish culture. As with so many traditional Jewish foods, its origins can be found in a blend of cultures. Bagels, challah, falafel, hummus, lox — we can say we popularized them, but we cannot with a straight face say we invented them.

Chanukah tradition dictates that foods be cooked in oil, to symbolize the one-day supply of oil that burned for a miraculous eight days in the rededicated Temple. Italian Jews cooked fried chicken on Chanukah and Iraqi Jews zalabia, or fried dough.

Potato pancakes, being cheap and easy and delicious, fit into the concept, and became a staple of Ashkenizic tradition. As for the latke, Yiddish for “potato pancake,” it is common in Eastern European and Germanic cuisine, a Christmas staple served with goose at Ukrainian tables where Jews no doubt adapted the tradition to their own needs. Potatoes didn’t arrive in Europe from their native Peru until the 1500s, so for more than a millennia we managed to keep the holiday alive without them. According to cookbook writer Joan Nathan, before latkes, fried buckwheat cakes were the European Chanukah staple. Yum.

These days, Chanukah flirts with the temptation of capitalist excess that has turned Christmas into a retail orgy. But as long as it features the latke it will retain an obdurate hominess. Designer latkes — made with yams or zucchini or taro or hand-pulled Korean noodles — are invariably a disappointment. Put your great-aunt in a miniskirt and call her a supermodel, it changes nothing. Gussy the holiday up with presents, fuse it with Christmas and Kwanzaa, give it its own feature film and TV special, there’s no getting around the fact that we’re not talking Handel’s Messiah and gingerbread houses. We’re talking three-note songs and fried potatoes. Christmas perfumes the house, Chanukah clings to the drapes: live with it.

Which brings me back to Mishkon Tephilo, circa 1991. We are a crew of men dedicated to providing enough latkes to the synagogue’s annual party. A couple of hours before the congregants arrive, we gather around the dirty tubers. We set up buckets of cool water and start peeling, plopping the potatoes into their bath. I’ve bought eggs by the flatload from Smart & Final, and crack them into a bathtub-sized stainless steel bowl, beat them with salt and pepper, then grate the potatoes, give them a squeeze, and toss them into the eggs. Finally I throw in some grated onion and matzah meal or flour — I don’t remember which and it doesn’t matter. I make latkes like Tommy plays pinball, by feel, and you should, too.

If the batter doesn’t remind you of the sand and seawater you turned into drip castles as a child, it’s not right.

We press every skillet in that overused, under-refurbished kitchen into service, and fill each one with a quarter inch of peanut oil. Then we fire them up.

Rule No. 1 of latke preparation is you can never make enough latkes. If they are good, they will disappear. Everybody has room for one more. Make as many as you can and when they run out they run out (But plan on three per person).

Rule No. 2 is kids are not allowed. Hot oil and children don’t mix. Hot oil and most adults isn’t even a great match, but what can you do?

Rule No. 3 is you may get burned. It happens, and most times it’s not serious.

Rule No. 4 is water is the enemy. Joan Nathan told me to always press as much moisture as possible out of the shredded potatoes. Let the water settle, collect the starch at the bottom and ladle it back into the potato mixture.

Furthermore, while frying latkes, or anything for that matter, if a drop of water lands in the boiling oil, stand way back. It will hiss violently then explode like a bottle rocket, and someone will get hurt.

Rule No. 5 is enjoy yourself. Latkes are among the more forgiving of Jewish foods. Even bad ones are usually edible, especially when heaped with the traditional toppings of applesauce or sour cream.

That’s what I did cooking those latkes in the synagogue basement — I enjoyed myself. I remember the next few hours of my life as a happy moment in time. I insisted that hot latkes just out of the oil were better than frozen and reheated latkes or latkes kept warm in the oven, and they are. So we worked furiously to turn out latkes as people began arriving, and we worked even harder to keep up with demand as the temple basement filled with hungry children, seniors and parents. I didn’t hear a word as my wife led the congregation in blessing the candles or singing “Rock of Ages.” She was in her element, I in mine.

As fast as we loaded the platters with pancakes they disappeared. Sweat soaked our shirts and slicked our faces. If we slacked off for a moment, we faced an impatient mob. We used every last potato, every last bit of batter. There are famous photos of the men who stoke the wood-fired bread ovens of Paris stripped to their waists, torsos glistening as they wrestled with fire to create their perfect loaves, and I think if someone had been there with a camera we were a kind of Ashkenazic variation on the ovens of Poilane. But we kept our shirts on.

Then it was over. Many people said the latkes were perfect. Many more said they were good, but not as good as the ones their mother made. The latkes were as they should be — crispy around the edges, a bit soft in the center, not greasy, 99 percent potato, 1 percent egg. But the experience of making them in the basement of my wife’s synagogue, that was perfect.

And to cap it off, someone — I suspect Danny Brookman — brought the cold beers that appeared in the fridge once we were finished.

Talk about the miracle of Chanukah.


Roth’s ‘Kranky’ Little X-Mas

Tom Lehrer once noted that there were no American pop Chanukah tunes because Jewish composers were busy writing the nation’s sentimental Christmas and Easter favorites.

The observation came to mind when we talked to Joe Roth, about his movie “Christmas With the Kranks,” which opened Nov. 24.

Mr. and Mrs. Krank (Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis) live on Hemlock Street, famed for its great annual Yuletide decorations. So when the empty-nester Kranks decide to skip the tradition and head for some balmy Caribbean island instead, the neighbors rise in indignation.

Roth, head of Revolution Studio and former chairman of the Walt Disney and 20th Century Fox studios, selected and directed the movie, based on the John Grisham novel, “Skipping Christmas.”

He is also one of Hollywood’s more prominent Jews, who was recently honored by the American Jewish Committee.

The first time he was in the news was as a 10-year-old boy whose parents sued his Long Island public school for requiring Joe and his brother to recite the daily prayer prescribed by the state Board of Regents.

“It was a traumatic experience,” Roth said. “We were ostracized and someone burned a cross on our lawn.”

However, the Christmas film, he maintained, has really nothing to do with religion.

“I see Christmas as a cultural and family holiday,” he said, while the movie itself carries two main messages. It’s first about the sense of family and community that supercedes any particular holiday. Secondly, it’s a satire on the over-commercialization of Christmas.”

Roth said the large Jewish presence in Hollywood makes little difference in what movies are made or how they’re presented.

“The major studios are owned by faceless conglomerates, which believe only in the bottom line,” he said.

“Remember, we make products for mass audiences, for the 97 percent of Americans and 99 percent plus of the world’s movie-goers who are not Jewish,” he added.

Then what accounts for the large number of movies dealing with the Holocaust and the Nazi era, his interviewer persisted. Would they be produced if most of Hollywood’s decision makers were, say, Albanians?

“I think they would,” Roth responded, “because they are simply compelling stories.”

Yet, Roth draws one line.

“I would never make a movie with the least hint of anti-Semitism,” he said. “The fact that I grew up in a Jewish home informs my entire outlook.”

A Holiday Hits the Big Time

At Universal Studios, all the usual characters — Spider-Man and the Rugrats — were out in force on Sunday, Nov. 24. But they weren’t just there for photo ops with children. Instead, they were lighting menorahs, spinning dreidels and eating the world’s biggest latke at the Chanukah celebration in Universal City.

Joining them were Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, Justin Burfield of "Malcolm in the Middle," the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Shawn Green and Remedy of the Wu-Tang Clan, who performed "Chanukah Rap."

"We were looking for a way to bring Hollywood magic and star power to Chanukah," said Brian Pope, Universal vice president of marketing services, who said he hopes that the event will become an annual one.

"We thought that Chanukah was one of the best Jewish holidays that lent itself to the fun family entertainment, and so we worked with a consultant and spoke with a number of rabbis from a variety of groups to create this event," he said.

Pope noted that Universal Studios is the first major theme park to put on a Chanukah event.

That Chanukah has gotten its own event at Universal Studios shows how far it has come: The little-known Jewish holiday — which once had to fight for display space next to Santa — is now a major event on its own, even when it comes a month before Christmas.

From movies to malls, from sitcoms to shopping, Chanukah has gone mainstream; and while some see it as a sign of the resurgence of Jewish identity and the acceptance of Jews in American society, others wonder if the holiday’s success has come at the expense of its spirituality.

This Chanukah, if you head down to your local multiplex you can see Adam Sandler belching his way through "Eight Crazy Nights," an animated Chanukah comedy (see story, page 37). If you turn on the radio, you might hear Sandler singing, "Put on your yarmulke/It’s time for Chanukah," or Tom Lehrer crooning about "spending Chanukah in Santa Monica."

On television, Chabad’s "Chanukah, the Miniseries," will be broadcast on KCAL-TV each night at menorah-lighting time (between 4:15 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.). Two Chanukah shows will be presented on KCET-TV: a special Chanukah episode of "Alef…Bet…Blastoff," followed by "A Taste of Chanukah." They will be shown on Dec. 1 starting at 8:30 a.m.

You might also see Chanukah pop up on some sitcoms. Last season on "Friends," for example, an episode had Ross trying to teach his son, Ben, about Chanukah. "Saturday Night Live" featured a character, Chanukah Harry, who dressed in a blue-and-white Santa Claus suit and had a black beard instead of a white one.

For children, Disney has a Chanukah book out, "Winnie the Pooh and the Hanukkah Dreidel," and there is "A Rugrats Chanukah" video.

There are other reminders of Chanukah. Every Ralphs supermarket will display a large menorah, courtesy of Chabad, and most banks will put a small plastic menorah in their windows. Chabad is also sponsoring a number of public menorah ceremonies, such as the lighting of a 35-foot menorah in Beverly Hills Gardens, the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda.

For shoppers there is an abundance of Chanukah items. Hallmark offers 119 different Chanukah cards. Online flower sellers, such as or, offer Chanukah bouquets for $39.99 and gift baskets, complete with dreidel cookies, for $69.99.

Godiva sells a $23 Chanukah Ballotin box of chocolates. Kmart has a 20-piece Hanukkah Lights dinnerware set for $19.99 and Avon sells a $14.99 Festival of Lights Bear that lights an accompanying menorah when its paw is pressed.

For those who have the urge to splurge for Chanukah, Neiman Marcus has a $4,000 Steuben crystal menorah with silver-plated candle cups.

The proliferation of Chanukah products has led retailers to focus less on the fact that the holidays are solely about Christmas. "I have noticed over time that it has gone from being the Christmas season to holiday season," said Tom Holiday, president of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association, a division of the National Retail Federation, which represents 100 trade organizations. "In retail, there is always a conscious effort to be aware of the dates of Jewish holidays, but I see a more ecumenical approach in general."

All of this has taken Chanukah out of the Talmud and into the mainstream. Jews started celebrating Chanukah 2,000 years ago, when a small band of Jewish fighters led by Judah Maccabee emerged victorious in their battle with the Hellenists, who, led by King Antiochus, wanted to sway the Jews away from God and turn them into idol-worshipping hedonists.

After the battle, the Jews found their Temple desecrated, and only one vial of pure olive oil remained, enough to light the menorah — a daily ritual in the Temple — for one day. A miracle occurred when the oil lasted eight days, which provided enough time for new oil to be pressed.

Since then, every year beginning on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev, Jews have been commemorating the occasion by making a blessing and lighting a menorah for eight nights and by eating foods that are cooked in oil, such as latkes.

Today,while many people don’t know the details of the correct way to light the menorah (halacha dictates that the candles/oil must be the same height and lit from right to left, using a shamash servant candle, and that the lights must burn for at least half an hour), thanks to the the ubiquity of its symbols, Chanukah is a significant holiday on the Jewish calendar, and one that Jews can easily identify with.

The fact that Chanukah usually occurs around Christmastime — although this year it coincides with Thanksgiving — means that Jews don’t have to co-opt another religion’s holiday as an excuse to give each other gifts (although traditionally gelt — money — is given on Chanukah), and they don’t have to feel left out during the holiday season.

Chanukah is not the only Jewish holiday or practice that has over time accreted aspects of the larger culture.

"Jewish tradition has generally been responsive to the various cultures that Jews live; that adds up to the idea of minhag [custom] that varies from locale to locale," said UCLA professor David N. Myers, who teaches Jewish history. "[Jewish] language, culinary habits, dress norms all change according to the different environments [in which] they find themselves."

"In the modern period," Myers said, "the forces of acculturation are very powerful, and one of the reasons Chanukah has been so malleable is because it is not a major festival, and therefore the ritual stakes not as high when you modify its meaning or significance."

Rabbi Alan Flom of Burbank’s Temple Emmanuel said, "Most rabbis think that Chanukah is a very minor holiday, but in our culture we have had to make it a bigger holiday to compete in the marketplace. If we didn’t, I think that Christmas would be so overwhelming, it would be even more difficult to keep our people Jewish in this kind of an environment."

However, many see the mainstreaming of Chanukah not as a de facto response to Christmas but as a positive resurgence of Jewish identity.

"Chanukah has become front and center in Jewish life, and it’s a way for a lot of people to discover a bridge to their heritage," said Rabbi David Eliezrie of Chabad of Orange County. "The subjective message in the mainstreaming of Chanukah is that its OK to be Jewish, and I think that’s good."

Others think that having Chanukah symbols everywhere actually does have a religious significance, and not just a Jewish feel-good one. "The Talmud says that one of the key ways to observe Chanukah is through pirsumei nissah, publicizing the miracle," said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, public relations director for Chabad-Lubavitch on the West Coast. "That means lighting the menorah, spreading the beautiful message of Chanukah. And thank God, you can open your newspaper now and find that everyone is helping to publicize this beautiful miracle."

However, others believe that Chanukah has become a kind of Jewish Christmas — a holiday whose religious significance has been almost overshadowed by its commercial possibilities and universal appeal.

"The commercialization of Chanukah is particularly tragic," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of Project Next Step of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "Commercializing Chanukah is a contradiction of its very essence. If you take Jesus out of Christmas, you have a holiday where people are nice to each other, feel upbeat. Although it’s missing the point, it is not a violation of what Christmas is.

"Commercializing Chanukah is the opposite of the point. Chanukah is not a liberation story — [under Antiochus] the Jews could have lived in their country as free people without any other problem, other than being asked to renounce their faith. The story of Chanukah is not one of being asked to throw off the yoke of a foreign oppressor, but it is the issue of the spiritual prevailing over the might of the decidedly unspiritual."

"Chanukah is the story of the spark of Judaism striving to be united with its God and its Torah and its mitzvot," Alderstein added. "It is not a substitute for the gift-giving of prevailing culture. Chanukah is about the resistance of Jews to the prevailing culture of modernity and aesthetic beauty."

Claudia Wolf, an educator and program director for the Shalom Nature Center in Malibu holds a similar view. "It is bad that Jews feel like they have to compensate by becoming almost like Christians," she said. "One student at my program told me that she was going home for Thanksgiving/Chanukah, and her mother told her that she was not going to get any gifts until Christmas, because that is really the gift-giving season."

Rabbi Shlomo Holland, the director of development at Los Angeles Kollel, agreed. "When we portray Chanukah in a superficial, shallow and trivial way, in a sense we are ingraining in ourselves a new version of Chanukah that was never meant to be, and we celebrate a holiday that is not the essence of that holiday," Holland explained.

"When we commercialize it, we don’t portray that, we just portray a cute holiday where we light the menorah," he continued. "Which, in the eyes of the world, is not too different than a cute holiday where you light up a tree-and you give presents here, and you give presents there, and rather than looking for the obvious difference, one is looking for the similarities and the sameness."

Holland said that the essence of Chanukah is the message of the light of Torah. "That light could break through what appeared to be the wisdom of the Greek Hellenists, but was truly the darkness of illusion," he said. "The only thing that shines so powerful a light, that shows you what is real, and what isn’t real, is the light of the Torah. If anything, that is really the essence of Chanukah."

Giving Thanks

It’s not only that this year Thanksgiving and Chanukah coincide, it’s that the calendar makes us focus on the thanksgiving aspect of Chanukah’s meaning. Every year, when we reflect on the glow of Chanukah’s lights, we are celebrating a different form of Thanksgiving.

Jewish tradition teaches us that one of the religious reasons we kindle the lights of Chanukah is "in order to give thanks and to praise God’s great name for God’s miracles, wonders and redemption." Traditionally, we recite these words along with the brachot as part of the candlelighting ceremony each evening.

For many of us, especially for our children, Chanukah has become a season of gelt and getting. The idea that Chanukah is really about giving thanks, thanks for all that sustains our lives, for our historical identity and for a future vision of goodness that defines our hopes and values, probably surprises many people.

My family and I also share in the commercial culture of Chanukah in America. I’m delighted to do so, to reinforce Jewish affinity and happiness for my children and our community. But I’m only comfortable doing this if they can also appreciate the spiritual core and moral message of this holiday. Chanukah is a celebration of Jewish religious identity.

In America, especially in the spirit of Thanksgiving, we are fond of declaring that the Hasmoneans were fighting for religious freedom. Actually, they were fighting to preserve, and even promulgate, their faith in God’s Torah and Judaism. The focus of their liberation efforts was the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

Most historians suggest that the Greco-Syrian ruler Antiochus’ persecution of Jewish practice was based on decrees that had been initiated by secular, assimilated Jews. A few other historians propose that those persecutions did not precede, but rather followed, the Maccabean revolt. They constituted the king’s punishment of the pious Jews who first rebelled against Antiochus’ rule in the name of Torah.

In either case, the Maccabees were motivated by the Jewish people’s covenant with God. It was their religious identity and practice that the they were seeking to protect. The purpose of rededicating the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E. was to restore a powerful symbol of God’s dwelling presence in the midst of the people. The lights in our Chanukah menorahs represent that same belief and religious ideal today.

Yet, our celebration of the Temple’s rededication on Chanukah presents an interesting paradox: Why do we still celebrate the rededication of the Temple in 165 B.C.E. when, in the end, it was destroyed by the Romans 235 years later in 70 C.E.? Remember, the Temple was ancient Judaism’s central institution. The rites of offering and prayer observed there sought closeness to God for every person. With the end of that era, over time Chanukah, too, was lost — only to be recreated by later generations as the holiday we enjoy.

Today, Chanukah’s celebration of the Temple’s rededication acknowledges what was lost in spiritual expression because of its destruction.

On Chanukah, we hope for a restoration of nearness to God’s presence. We remember the Temple’s rededication in order to recognize the religious values that can live in the hearts of Jews in every generation. I hope that Chanukah’s popularity might reflect this desire to nurture Jewish religious values and distinctiveness at a time when religious images and celebrations are so important to many of our neighbors and friends.

Chanukah’s meaning lies in this reality. To live as a Jew today means to live distinctly within a larger society, to be challenged toward the fullest expression of Jewish life. We are blessed today with the privilege of seeking purpose in our particular religious identity and celebrations. We have that in common with the Hasmoneans, even as we acknowledge their zeal to be separate from the host Hellenistic culture of their own time.

Literally, a Jew, Yehudi, is "one who gives thanks to God." Judaism provides a structure for our lives and our values that inspires gratitude for the wonder and mystery of being.

Jewish religious identity is an expression of appreciation, humility and responsibility for human life and for our world’s destiny. The moral mandate of Chanukah is not to receive, but to give.

We give thanks to God for life and for that which is miraculous in our daily lives. We can also give something of ourselves to others — to our family, friends and the people of our society. In our attitude of gratitude and acts of thanksgiving, we truly celebrate Chanukah.

Ron Shulman is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Kindle Lights, Rekindle Traditions

"The sizzle of latkes in the kitchen, the glow of Chanukah candles in the window, the sounds of children playing with dreidels," these are what most of us associate with Chanukah celebrations, said Linda Burghardt, the author of "Jewish Holiday Traditions" (Citadel Press, 2001).

However, Burghardt also believes Chanukah is a story with many faces. It’s about jolly songs, games and gifts; donuts and pancakes; miracles and military battles; and the triumph of light over darkness. The Maccabees’ victory offers lessons that continue to resonate in the 21st century.

In 175 B.C.E., Greek King Antiochus ascended to the Syrian throne, ordering the Israelites to adopt Greek religion and culture. He outlawed kosher strictures and Shabbat observance. Although the Jews were miserable, things went too far when a Greek officer ordered Mattathias, a respected elder, to slaughter a pig and partake in it. Mattathias not only refused, but slew the officer, sparking a rebellion. He and his five sons, known to this day as the Maccabees, fled to the desert and surrounding hills to launch guerrilla attacks against the Greeks.

After three years of fighting, the Israelites prevailed and recaptured the Jerusalem. Entering the holy temple, they discovered a shrine to Zeus and sacrificial pigs on the altar. They immediately destroyed statues of Greek gods and scrubbed the temple clean.

But when they attempted to rekindle the eternal light, there was only enough purified oil to last 24 hours. This was upsetting since it took eight days to produce. Yet miraculously, the oil on hand lasted until a new batch was purified. People celebrated their good fortune with an eight-day festival that evolved into modern-day Chanukah.

"What happened in ancient times relates to what’s happening in the world today," said Burghardt, referring to the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the crisis in Israel with the Palestinians.

The Chanukah story raises issues such as the relationship of people from disparate cultures, respect for religious differences, freedom and independence, distribution of power and the debate over when violence and war are justified.

"One thing I like about Chanukah is that you can’t fake it," Burghardt said. "Chanukah lasts too long, so if you don’t mean what you’re saying about freedom, justice and human dignity, you can’t sustain the charade for eight days."

In the Chanukah story, Burghardt perceives tikkum olam, the idea that as Jews our role is to try to repair the world. She suggests encouraging children not only to receive gifts, but to give them to less fortunate people or to volunteer at soup kitchens or nursing homes.

"While repairing the world, we need energy," she said with a chuckle. "And energy comes from food."

Burghardt, a freelance writer, set out to compose the book she longed for as a bride, one that not only included foolproof recipes, but conveyed how Jewish history is connected to holiday celebrations. Her book encourages people who want to learn more about Judaism.

"Here’s a place to start and that’s fine," she said, believing in Dr. Spock’s advice to new parents: "You know more than you think you know."

"I began with the idea of food," she said, explaining that her book’s concept grew from there. Burghardt questioned: "Why are you eating this? What does it mean? In the case of Chanukah, people fry pancakes and other goodies in cooking oil to honor the bit of lamp oil that stretched for eight days."

Once Burghardt understood what various holiday foods symbolize, she moved to considerations of how to welcome guests into your home, how to bring friends into your family circle, and how to create celebrations that are warm in uniquely Jewish ways.

Chanukah in particular is one of Burghardt’s favorite holidays, as close to her heart as her husband and identical twin daughters. The book’s dedication reads: "To David, Amy and Katie … with love, laughter and latkes."

"The more latkes you make, the better they get," said Burghardt, who admits she’s not a great cook, which is why her recipes convey every step to readers, short of reminding them to keep breathing. Burghardt’s Chanukah celebrations are full of special touches, large and small.

"In our house, we each have our own menorahs," she said, explaining that her husband’s menorah arrived as a wedding present. Amy and Katie’s were bat mitzvah gifts and Burghardt made hers in a pottery class. The Burghardt family places their menorahs on the dining table. "The light from four candelabras casts a glow that’s really intense." On top of that, this multimenorah tradition avoided arguments over who would light the candles, when her daughters were young.

Because Chanukah is eight days long, it’s an easy holiday for entertaining. "It’s possible to find time for get-togethers, because you always have a weekend," Burghardt said. She loves the fact that this year Chanukah falls the day after Thanksgiving because her daughters, now in college, will be there to share the festivities.

Although Burghardt enjoys throwing Chanukah parties, she also appreciates quiet nights at home. After the Chanukah candles are lit, her family does not work or watch television. They may spin a dreidel or actually talk to each other. Burghardt feels Jewish holidays are about taking time from your life, remembering the past, sharing a scrumptious meal and being together as a family. Slowing down for 20 minutes to notice the candles is what makes those twinkling lights so special.

Classic Potato Latkes

Quick Tips: Use fresh potatoes, fry potatoes as soon as grated to prevent them from turning brown, don’t overuse oil and drain pancakes well. Remember that different oils impart specific flavors, so let your taste be your guide.

8 medium russet or Idaho potatoes

2 onions

3 tablespoons oil

2 large eggs

1¼2 cup matzah meal or 1¼4 cup flour

2 teaspoons salt

1¼2 teaspoon baking powder

2 cups applesauce (see recipe below)

8 ounces sour cream

1. Wash potatoes thoroughly and peel them (or leave skins on for a slightly earthy flavor), then grate them by hand on the coarsest side of the grater or in a food processor with a medium-blade grater.

2. Put grated potatoes in a sieve and let sit for five to 10 minutes until the water starts to separate out, then squeeze out as much liquid as possible.

3. Turn potatoes into a large bowl.

4. Peel and dice onions, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a skillet and lightly sauté onions in oil.

5. Beat eggs.

6. Add onions to potato mixture, along with eggs, matzah meal, salt and baking powder. Mix well.

7. Heat skillet and cover bottom with remaining oil, then drop tablespoons of batter into it.

8. Flatten batter with a spatula.

9. Turn when edges start to brown.

10. When done, drain on brown paper grocery bags or paper towels.

11. Serve with applesauce and sour cream.

Yield: about 18 latkes

Sufganiyot (Jelly Donuts)

Sufganiyot can be complicated to make, but even novices will master the technique after a couple of tries, if someone at home volunteers to eat up the mistakes! Try a variety of jams for the filling.

2 packages of active dry yeast

31¼2 cups flour

1¼4 cup granulated sugar

1¼2 cup warm water

1¼2 cup milk

1¼2 teaspoons salt

1¼2 cup butter

2 large eggs

1 large jar raspberry jam

Oil for frying

Powdered sugar

1. Dissolve yeast in warm water.

2. In a large bowl, mix together half the flour, sugar, yeast, water, milk and salt.

3. Stir in butter and add eggs.

4. With an electric beater, mix batter until smooth.

5. Add remaining flour and knead by hand.

6. Cover bowl with a dish towel and let dough rise in a warm place for about an hour, until doubled in bulk.

7. Knead dough for a minute or two on a lightly floured surface.

8. Let it rest for about 10 minutes, then roll it out to 1¼2-inch thickness on a floured surface.

9. Use a round 2-inch diameter cookie cutter to cut out circles.

10. Place a tablespoon of jam on every other circle and cover with another circle of dough. Pinch the sides together all the way around.

11. Cover with a dish towel and let rise for about one hour, until doubled in size.

12. Pour about 2 inches of oil into a heavy skillet and heat until it shimmers.

13. Gently place a few of the doughnuts into the oil and fry, turning once, about one to two minutes per side.

14. When done, remove from skillet and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle generously with powdered sugar.

Yield: About 18 donuts

Pink Applesauce

There’s nothing like the contrast between warm, crunchy latkes and cold applesauce with its smooth texture. Some cooks prefer Golden Delicious apples, others use only Granny Smith or russets. You can experiment with single types or mix and match for a pleasing variety of flavors and textures.

7-8 medium apples

1¼2 cup water

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons orange juice

1¼2 teaspoon vanilla

1¼4 cup honey

1 teaspoon red food coloring

1. Peel, core and slice apples and place in a saucepan.

2. Add water, lemon juice, orange juice and vanilla.

3. Cover and bring to a boil. Cook over low heat until soft, about 25 minutes, adding more water if needed.

4. Mix in honey.

5. Stir in food coloring, which will turn applesauce an appetizing pink.

6. To make texture finer when cooking is done, put mixture in a food processor and puree, or serve as is.

Yield: 1 quart or 6-8 servings

Recipes "From Jewish Holiday Traditions" by Linda Burghardt.

Beyond Miracles and Maccabees

My mother was surprised when I said I was reviewing Chanukah books for kids. “Is there a lot out there?” she asked.

I don’t remember ever coming across a Chanukah book growing up. Now there are titles geared for all ages and interests — historical accounts, folk tales, activities, even poignant literature.

Ages: Baby-Preschool

“My First Hanukkah Board Book” (DK Publishing, $6.99) is a good introduction to the holiday. This book combines the story of Chanukah with its practices. Photographs of actual objects and costumed children acting out scenes from the Chanukah story reinforce a sense of involvement for young readers. In addition, the laminated cardboard construction is great for car trips and flights.

Another special story is “Happy Hanukkah, Biscuit!” by Alyssa Satin Capucilli (Harper Festival, $6.99). The familiar puppy accompanies his owner to a Chanukah party at a friend’s house where, in typical Biscuit fashion, he gets into all sorts of mischief. Despite his being young and clumsy, no one gets annoyed with Biscuit. This gives the tale the added dimension of modeling patience.

Ages: 4-8

David A. Carter’s “Chanukah Bugs” (Little Simon, $10.95) is a delight. It’s a pop-up book, and every page features a wrapped present along with the question, “Who’s in the box on the first (second, third, etc.) night of Chanukah?” Opening lids or untying bows reveal “a storyteller bug,” “a dreidel bug,” “bugs who sing and dance out loud” and more. This is sure to be a giggly favorite.

For kids already familiar with the holiday, anticipating it may be the best part. “The Hanukkah Mice” by Ronne Randall (Chronicle Books, $15.95) would be part of my anticipation ritual if I were 4 years old! Three young mice emerge from their hole every night of Chanukah hoping to see the menorah. They come upon dreidels, feast on latke crumbs and discover beautifully wrapped presents. With the help of their mother, they get to see the menorah set aglow on the last night. This book is so sweet that grownups won’t mind a bit when little ones pull it out for the hundredth time.

I0n “Light the Lights!: A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas” by Margaret Moorman (Scholastic, $5.99) we meet Emma. Emma lives in an interfaith family and “Light the Lights” chronicles her experience of wintertime festivities. Even more than what the story does tell, this book is notable for what it does not include: there is no tension, no competition over family allegiances, no hint that these holidays are part of different traditions. I imagine this reflects the dreams of more than a few interfaith couples.

As much as “Light the Lights” has a contemporary grounding, “Zigazak! A Magical Hanukkah Night” by Eric A. Kimmel (Random House Children’s Books, $15.95) comes straight from the heart of tradition. Set in the Chasidic past, the action opens with two devils causing havoc in a town celebrating Chanukah. Latkes fly, musical instruments play themselves, and people are terrified. Only the rabbi is unafraid. He summons the evil spirits, diffuses their power and when they refuse the rabbi’s offer to turn them toward goodness, he destroys them. The question of how to address dark forces is particularly timely in the post-Sept. 11 era. It is also a mystical theme of Chanukah, symbolized in the lighting of the menorah.

In “Nine Spoons: A Chanukah Story” by Marci Stillerman (Hachai, $11.95), the author’s background as an award-winning journalist is evident from the very first line: “The entire family had enjoyed Oma’s famous latkes down to the last delicious crumb, and the children were finished playing the dreidel game.” Now what? You wonder, and you aren’t sure whether to linger over the drawing or turn the page to find out. What follows is a grandmother’s Holocaust memory of Chanukah in the camps. Both the writing and the illustrations convey the gravity of the time without actually imparting fear. What comes through is an ultimately uplifting feeling, and the timelessness of the holiday’s message.

Ages: 9-12

Those who have celebrated several Chanukahs will relate to “The Dreidel Champ and Other Holiday Stories” by Smadar Shir Sidi, (Adama, $13.95). The title story in the collection features a boy who wants very much to beat his cousins in their annual game. In the process, he learns about healthy competition, family love between generations and the importance of trying his best. Chanukah is the point of departure, but those are the real themes here.

Ages: Teens and Adults

Dalia Hardof Renberg’s “The Complete Family Guide to Jewish Holidays” (Adama, $23) offers just what the title suggests. The Chanukah section begins with a highly readable story of the holiday. There are special sections on women as well as sidebars on specific customs. This is followed by sheet music for several well-loved songs. Craft projects feature clear directions. Finally there are recipes for traditional holiday foods. This book is equally enjoyable when read by an individual or shared with friends and family.

All Ages

“The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah” by Isaac Bashevis Singer (Sunburst, $8.95) is one of the most heartwarming collections I’ve ever seen. The stories connect to Chanukah, but reach far beyond it. These are stories about life, and all the best it has to offer — warmth, hope and faith. Singer’s view is summed up by the words of a character in “A Chanukah Evening in My Parents’ Home”: “I didn’t preach. I told them a story. I wanted them to know that what God could do 2,000 years ago, he can also do in our time.” Readers younger than 12 may be too young to grasp the beauty here. None are too old.

I once saw a quote that read, “Nothing’s as good as an old friend, except a new one that’s fit to make into an old one.” So it is true with traditions — and Chanukah reading tops the list.

Ice Cream or Bread?

I remember the argument like it was yesterday. There I was, a 10-year-old kid growing up in a Reform congregation in Santa Monica, arguing with my best friend (another 10-year-old from the same synagogue) about the laws of kashrut for Pesach. Well, actually, the argument was really about ice cream and soda pop more than anything else.

You see, my family took seriously our ability to interpret Jewish customs in ways that would best add meaning and spiritual purpose to every holiday. For example, every Chanukah, we would have a “home decoration contest,” and my mother, father, three sisters and I would create by hand our own unique Chanukah decorations. Another year, it was a giant 6-foot painted dreidel out of plywood, which has stood in my parents’ living room every year since. One year, it was a hand-painted mural of Jewish history, with biblical quotes, original sayings and three-dimensional depictions of the story of the Maccabees.

The same was true for how we approached Pesach — we had our own personal family traditions. Never mind Jewish law committees, Sanhedrins or great rabbinic minds of the generation; what we all turned to for the definitive halacha on what was and was not kosher for Pesach each year was my mother’s annual “kosher-for-Pesach” pronouncements.

One year, we learned that milk and juice were kosher for Pesach, but all soda pop was unkosher. The next year, ice cream (any ice cream) was added to the non-kosher list. These lists were not up for democratic vote by the family — when my mother spoke, that was it.

Now my best friend’s family had a different style of Pesach observance. In Jimmy’s family, bread was forbidden during the week of Pesach, but soda and ice cream were permitted. Hence the argument over what was and was not kosher for Passover. When I think back on it, I am a bit amazed. But, yes, I actually remember that we both agreed to go to our rabbi and have him give us the definitive ruling on who was right — my family or Jimmy’s. After all, what are rabbis for?

So Jimmy and I trotted off the to rabbi’s study and presented him with this Solomonic dilemma. “My mother says that ice cream and soda aren’t kosher to eat during Passover,” I declared. “And my mother says that ice cream and soda are OK; it’s only bread that we can’t eat,” Jimmy countered. “Whose mother is right, rabbi,” we both asked?

What else could a poor rabbi do? “They’re both right,” he replied. Ahh, Solomon would have been proud! “In your family, ice cream and soda are not kosher for Passover, and in your family, they are. Every family has its own customs that it follows, which helps make the holiday personal, meaningful and theirs.”

Funny how that lesson stayed with me throughout my life, and in so many ways has become a metaphor for what I consider one of the fundamental principles of Jewish life: that Judaism is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people, and each of us has our own unique, special and important role to play in that evolutionary process.

As I think about that argument with Jimmy every year, I realize that it symbolized the very process through which Judaism evolves and the way it stays forever vibrant, alive and personally meaningful in my life. I experience every holiday as an opportunity to give expression to the highest spiritual sense of what it is to be human — that the quality of our lives is a direct result of the quality of our choices.

Perhaps this year you might use Passover as an opportunity to experience liberation from the petty bondages of the past year, and a challenge to make life more meaningful every single day.

Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.

Homage for the Holidays

Don’t call her the “Jewel” of Jewish preschool.

Sure, Pearl B. sings to the accompaniment of her acoustic six-string. And she does lean professionally on her gem-like first name. But that is where any similarity to the chirpy pop star ends.

“There are so many levels of Judaism — from the most religious to the most secular kind of Jew and there’s this common thread…. My goal is to make it understandable for a young child.”

No aching tales of love lost here — the songs Pearl B. (the B is for Berzansky) writes for young Jewish children mix the joy for Jewish tradition with “a bit of silliness in the approach.” Pearl will perform her original compositions — along with traditional Chanukah songs — at a string of local appearances with Sue Epstein, a fellow writer/performer of Jewish children’s songs, beginning this Sunday.

Last year saw the release of Pearl B.’s first musical collection, “Gotta Sing All Week Long!” On the tape, the modern-day bard sings, but not alone — choruses performed by children fill out the songs, with the binary purpose of inviting child participation and reinforcing the positive Jewish values that is at the heart of each ditty. While several tracks deal with life’s daily routines, most of “Gotta Sing” celebrates Jewish ritual. “Days of the Week” enthusiastically counts down the week until the Sabbath. “Havdalah Trio!” embraces the end of Shabbat, singing the praises of the Kiddush cup’s purple wine, the spice box and the twisty candle. “Hallah Chain Hamotzi” incorporates the Hebrew bread prayer while “Jing-a-ling” rhapsodizes tzedakah and even gives a shout-out to SOVA, the local food-collection charity organization.

Born in South Africa, where “everybody belongs to an Orthodox shul even though nobody was Orthodox,” Pearl — whom the kids like to call “Curl” — currently resides in Venice. A mother of three and grandmother of six, Pearl is no stranger to children or Judaism. All three of her grown children are observant Jews, “each in a different kind of religiousness. My oldest daughter is a Lubavitcher, my middle daughter is [Modern Orthodox], and my son is a black hatter…. And they’re all so happy.”

A rabbi’s daughter, she spent many years working as a religious-school director and teacher before switching to a full-time music career five years ago.

“It kind of just mushroomed,” says Pearl.

“I’ve had parents tell me their kids won’t go to sleep unless they put my tape on.”

Parents and educators interested in purchasing copies of “Gotta Sing All Week Long!” will find the tapes on sale at temple gift shops, synagogues and at these upcoming Pearl B. appearances:

Pearl B. and Sue Epstein’s Magical Musical Chanukah Party Family Concerts, Sunday Dec. 6, 4 p.m., Temple Aliyah, 6025 Valley Circle Blvd., Woodland Hills.

Sunday Dec. 13, 1:30 p.m., Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Mann Family Early Childhood Center, Marcia Israel Chapel Auditorium, Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. — Michael Aushenker, Community Editor