The Idiot’s Guide to Chanukah

Chanukah. Hanukkah. Chanuka. So nice, I spelled it thrice. What’s not to like about the Festival of Lights? A time to sing….to play….to clog your arteries with cooking oil. LET’S PARTY! Whether you like your latkes with apple sauce or sour cream, there’s much to celebrate for eight days this December, so gather round for a short lesson about the upcoming holiday.

What’s this celebration all about? In 168 BCE, the Syrian-Greek army gained control of the Jewish Temple. In 167 BCE, their king, Antiochus, declared that followers of Judaism would be killed. And in 166 BCE, Jewish rebels known as the Maccabees declared that one day, a cappella groups would sing their praises on Youtube.

Regaining control of their land, the Maccabees returned to the Temple to find enough oil to light the Temple’s ritual menorah (candelabrum) for just one day. To their surprise, it lasted eight. And to this very day, we commemorate this miracle by eating an inhuman amount of fried foods. The most popular oil-coated delicacies are jelly doughnuts (sufganiyot, primarily in Israel) and deep-fried potato pancakes (latkes), which taste like pancakes in much the same way that cotton candy tastes like liquid mercury. Let’s see Santa fit into those red sweatpants after a single trip to Roladin.

Please note, this is not an ad, but rather an example of how globalization has affected the Israeli diet.

While many Jews in the United States give gifts during this time, the custom developed in order to prevent Jewish children from feeling left out during Christmastime. (The Jewish holiday associated with gift-giving is actually Purim, which usually falls in March and may explain why halfway through the month, left-out Catholics gift each other with green beer.)

To mark these eight festive days, Jews light a special menorah known as a chanukiyah. (To our helicopter menorah parent readers, please do not respond angrily in the comments. We are not saying that your menorah is not also special.) The first night, we light one candle, the second night two, and so on. Each candle is lit from a separate candle called the shamash whose job is illumination, as using the ritual candles for light is forbidden. The shamash sits apart, or above the others, which can occasionally lead to issues of jealousy, petty name calling, and online candle bullying.

Just moments later, the tall one in the middle was seen sucker-punching the smaller blue one. Also, tall one, stop trying to make “fetch” happen.

Now that we’ve lit the candles and sung joyful songs, let’s have some fun. It is tradition for young children to play with a dreidel, a four-sided top with letters on each side, each one corresponding to an amount of goodies the spinner will win or lose, based on how the dreidel lands. The main lessons to take from this are, one, that Chanukah is a happy occasion, and two, that gambling should begin at a young age.

However you plan to celebrate, spin that dreidel loud and spin it proud. Chag Chanukah sameach!

To book a comedy show or cultural program about Israel, contact Benji Lovitt here.

This column was originally published by the Times of Israel

Authors Offer Insight Into Filmmakers, Faith and Family Trees

Chanukah and Jewish Book Month, which precedes the annual Festival of Lights — from Nov. 12 to Dec. 12 this year — are great occasions for selecting a few of the choicest titles from publishers large and small, whether for giving as gifts or keeping for ourselves. This year’s titles span topics ranging from film and the Coen Brothers to local rabbis sharing lessons on suffering and the future of Judaism. Here are a few of my favorites.

A particularly sumptuous book is “The Coen Brothers: The Iconic Filmmakers and Their Work” by Ian Nathan (Aurum Press) A richly illustrated and slip-cased hardcover, it serves as a kind of scrapbook for both fans and serious students of America’s most distinctive auteurs, a couple of Jewish boys from the Midwest whose cinematic work ranges from film noir (“Blood Simple” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There”) to Westerns (“No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit”) to a movie that might be described as pure theology (“A Serious Man”). As the author explains: “Just as ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ was a comic variation of ‘The Odyssey,’ ‘A Serious Man’ was ‘The Book of Job’ played for laughs.”

The author is a London-based film critic, author, producer and journalist. His book is prominently marked as “unofficial and unauthorized,” but it’s the real thing when it comes to authoritative film history and penetrating film criticism, a deep dive into the influences that shaped the Coen brothers and the craft, imagination and sheer genius that define their highly distinctive work. It’s the perfect companion volume for any of the films in the Coen brothers’ oeuvre or, for that matter, the movies to come.

A.J. Jacobs is best known for his remarkable book, “The Year of Living Biblically,” and he is back now with an account of his relentless search for the roots of humankind, “It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree” (Simon & Schuster). The high-spirited and often comic adventure began when the journalist received an email from a dairy farmer on a kibbutz in Israel: “You don’t know me, but you are an eighth cousin of my wife, who, in my opinion, is a fine lady.”

Inspired by the idea that somewhere in the distant past are “the real Adam and Eve,” whom Jacobs defines as the “Y-Chromosomal Adam” and the “Mitochondrial Eve,” he travels the world to find out everything that can be known about ancestry, both his own and everyone else’s, too. He quickly discovers that his own family tree includes 80,000 men and women, although he confesses that “I’d be happy to trim a few branches.”

By the end of his smart and rollicking book, Jacobs seeks to convince us that the biblical notion of universal descent from a single pair of “uber-grandparents” makes it possible to imagine — and to actually convene — a global family reunion. After all, “we are all cousins, whether we like it nor not,” as Henry Louis Gates Jr. announced to one of the gatherings that took place simultaneously in 40 cities and attracted some 10,000 “cousins.”

Closer to home — geographically at least — two of Los Angeles’ most distinguished spiritual leaders have published books that draw on their years of service as congregational rabbis. The first is Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood and the author of “Why Judaism Matters: Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to His Children and the Millennial Generation” (Turner/Jewish Lights).

Each entry in the book is addressed to his two adult sons, David and Daniel: “The question I want each of you to ask yourself is: ‘Why stay Jewish?’ ” And his own daunting mission is to suggest the right answers: “I’d like to make the case that to identify as a liberal Jew in America today is to connect with a deeply intellectual, skeptical, activistic, and optimistic tradition that has at its core a nuanced spirituality, strong ethical roots, and clarity of values.” Along the way, he touches on ethics and theology, politics and social justice, love and marriage (including intermarriage), good and evil, war and peace.

In a touching coda, his sons respond to their father’s teachings and blessings. “What’d you think?” asks David at the outset of their extended conversation on Google Hangouts. “I was just beaming,” Daniel replies. More than that, Rosove’s message has gotten through to his sons. “My identity is very much tied to our tribal past and present,” Daniel explains. “[W]hat is most important is raising Jewish children — to uphold, as Dad said in his letter to us, ‘Jewish continuity.’ ”

Steven Z. Leder, senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, draws on a lifetime of experience in comforting his congregants at moments of pain and loss in “More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us” (Hay House) — “I call the couch in my office ‘the Couch of Tears,’ ” he writes — and presents his readers with a redemptive message.

“I don’t intend to glorify suffering or suggest that the lessons we learn from pain are somehow worth the cost,” he writes. “But the truth is that most often for most people, real change is the result of real pain.” His points of reference range from Moses to Maimonides to Marlene Adler Marks, a much-beloved and much-missed contributor to the Journal. “I know nothing about bravery,” she wrote about her own final illness. “I know only about need, [about] reaching out, to friends who are close at hand.” Whether the suffering originates with injury, divorce, death or any of the other afflictions of life, Leder delivers a wholly redemptive message: “Pain cracks us open,” he writes. “It breaks us. But in the breaking, there is a new kind of wholeness.”

If the title of “The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East” by Adam Valen Levinson (Norton) sounds like a joke, it’s no accident.  The author is a high-spirited young man — “an un-barmitzvahed Jewish boy,” as he puts it — who acquired a rudimentary knowledge of the Arabic language and set out to wander through the Muslim world with the intention of finding out why we fear it so much.

As it happens, a couple of Chabad rabbis from Brooklyn catch up with him in Abu Dhabi, conduct a candlelighting for Chanukah (“a more Jewish gathering than I’d ever gone to in Pennsylvania”), and arrange for him to be called to the Torah in a ceremony in what he describes as “the Jewish liturgical version of a Las Vegas wedding.” That’s only the beginning of his adventures, and we are invited to witness all of them. Thus does Levinson follow in a long tradition of Westerners who have written travel books about the Middle East with great wit, insight and verve. And now is exactly the right moment for an open-minded and good-humored book on the subject.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Eat, drink and be the perfect New Year’s party host

This year, New Year’s Eve lands — plop! — right on the last night of Chanukah. So at sundown, when Jewish families around the nation sing “I Have a Little Dreidel,” it will be just a warm-up for “Auld Lang Syne” later that night. 

With families raising menorah candles while a shiny silver ball slowly descends in Times Square, it means there’s twice as much reason to end the year with a bang — and a party! 

The key to making your bash a success — no matter how many holidays you’re celebrating — is careful planning, according to Colin Cowie, an event planner and author of “Entertaining With Colin Cowie.” 

 “The simple solution to New Year’s Eve jitters is punctilious planning, having an impeccable checklist with every detail included, and having the right attitude,” he said. “Successful entertaining is about creating an atmosphere of gaiety. That means great music, spectacular cocktails and incredible food.” 

Set the pace of the party with music.

“It’s the tool that shapes the energy flow,” Cowie said. “At first it should be mellow and welcoming — instrumental, jazzy, bluesy.  As energy rises, complement the mood by something livelier. When people are eating, they’re more relaxed. Play mellifluous instrumentals so people can talk. After dessert is served, as it gets closer to midnight, energy rises again, and so should the music.”

Since you’re planning for a long night, serve dishes that are cold or room temperature, such as Brandied Cheese Roll, encrusted with nuts. Place it on top of grapevine leaves for a beautiful presentation for this treat, which should be made a few days in advance to let the flavors blend. For dessert, try the Apple Cobbler With Almond-Streusel Topping.

For drinks, give a special shout out to the colors blue, white and silver. Serve drinks such as Silver Champagne Cocktails, Blue Curacao Midnight Kiss, Blueberry Margaritas, Blue Curacao Martinis or Blackberry-Basil Mojitos — all poured and shimmering on a tray.  

Whatever you decide to serve, relax and set an even, moderate pace.

“Don’t rush through the evening like you’re galloping on a stallion, or worse, crawl around at a snail’s pace,” Cowie said. “Even if you’re running late and people have to pour their own drinks, they’ll be basking in wonderful music, and seductive smells flowing out of the kitchen, and won’t mind a bit.”

So, Happy Chanukah — and Happy New Year!


From Beverly Levitt

– 1 ounce vodka 
– 1/4 ounce Blue Curacao
– 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
– 4 ounces chilled Champagne, or more, if needed

Mix vodka, Blue Curacao and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker with crushed ice. Strain into a Champagne flute. Top with enough Champagne to fill the flute. 

Makes 1 serving.


Adapted from “The New Elegant but Easy Cookbook” by Marian Burros and Lois Levine (Simon & Schuster)  

– 3/4 pound blue cheese, at room temperature
– 8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
– 1 teaspoon minced shallots
– 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
– Salt and white pepper to taste
– 3 tablespoons brandy
– 2 cups finely chopped toasted walnuts, pecans or pistachio nuts
– 1 jar brine-packed grape leaves, soaked in water to soften
– 1/2 cup dried cranberries, blueberries or currants

Using an electric mixer, beat blue cheese and cream cheese together until creamy. Fold in shallots, thyme, salt and pepper and brandy; mix to combine thoroughly. 

Divide mixture in half. Place each half on a sheet of plastic wrap; form into 2 roughly shaped logs, 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Wrap tightly; refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour. Drain brine from grape leaves; soak in fresh water until softened, about an hour.

When cheese log is firm enough, roll each wrapped log back and forth on counter to shape into a more uniform log. Unwrap and roll in the nuts. Once again, wrap tightly, refrigerate for several hours. 

To serve, bring to room temperature. Spread grape leaves on a platter.  Place cheese logs on top. Garnish with additional nuts and dried fruits.  Serve with crackers. 

Makes 4 to 6 servings.


From “Adventures in Jewish Cooking” by Jeffrey Nathan

– Almond-Streusel Topping (see recipe below)
– 1/4 cup fresh lemon juicee 
– 5 pounds Golden Delicious apples
– 2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
– 1/3 cup granulated sugar
– 3 tablespoons cornstarch
– 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
– 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
– 1 1/2 cups golden raisins, soaked in warm water for 20 minutes and drained
– 2 tablespoons brandy
– 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Prepare Almond-Streusel Topping, set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 F.  

Position rack in center of oven. Lightly grease with margarine a 15-by-10-inch baking dish that is at least 2 inches deep.  

Stir 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice in a large bowl of cold water. Peel and core apples; cut them into 1/2 inch-thick wedges, dropping the cut wedges into the lemon water.  

In a large bowl, mix the brown and granulated sugars, cornstarch, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Drain apples well; add to sugar mixture. Add raisins and sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Stir in the brandy and vanilla. Transfer to baking dish.  

Using the large holes on a box grater, grate the Almond-Streusel Topping all over the filling, letting it fall randomly. Do not pack or the topping will not be delicately crunchy when baked.  Bake in preheated oven until topping is crisp and golden brown and the apples are tender, about 1 hour. Cool slightly, then serve warm.

Makes 12 servings.


– 2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
– 1 1/4 cups margarine, cut into thin slices, at room temperature
– 1 cup vegetable shortening
– 4 ounces almond paste, crumbled
– 3 cups all-purpose flour
– 2 teaspoons pure almond extract

Combine sugar, margarine, vegetable shortening and almond paste in a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Blend until smooth. Add flour and almond extract; mix just until combined.  Form into a thick disk; wrap in plastic. Refrigerate until well chilled, about 4 hours or overnight.

Chanukah isn’t ‘Jewish Christmas’

To know the holiday of Chanukah is to come to terms with a series of contradictions. While simultaneously a story of temporal triumph over religious intolerance and bigotry as well as timeless spiritual recognition of divine intervention, Chanukah has been commodified as nothing more than an alternative for Jewish kids who feel left out by the complete dominance of Christmas. The spirit of Chanukah has been usurped by secular materialism and the quest for unsustainable acquisition. While the need to buy vast amounts of presents has been tolerated as an excuse to tell children that they don’t have to feel deprived, there is something unseemly about the celebration of a human rights victory being supplanted by the short-term satisfaction that a new toy or trinket can provide.

At the same time, the tightrope between exclusion and assimilation is one that Jewish children have to traverse every holiday season. Considering this, does the disconnect between normative Jewish ethics and the desire to be included in something that seems relatively harmless warrant serious attention? Based on the economic realities of the holiday shopping season, and the intertwining of materialism and Chanukah, I am of the opinion that there is an aspect of the holiday that is deleterious to the Jewish people, morally and religiously.

Last year’s holiday earnings netted retailers about $616 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. This year, Black Friday set a sales record of $3.35 billion, and it is estimated that more than 200 million Americans shopped online or in stores. On Cyber Monday, consumers spent another record amount, $3.45 billion. In contrast, Giving Tuesday (a once-annual event) raised $168 million in donations to nonprofit organizations, a relative pittance. There comes a moment when we have to reflect and discern if Jewish values are congruent with the vulgar sums of money spent on transitory pleasure.

This is not asceticism, or anti-corporate, or anti-consumption, but merely a call for ethical restraint. I don’t mean to be a buzzkill and stop children from receiving gifts from their parents. Far from it. But we should take a moment to step back and see the larger picture. The true meaning of Chanukah has been obscured by the alluring power of the fleeting gift. Indeed, I would argue that the modern practice of Chanukah is far removed from the norms that should be acceptable in contemporary Jewish practice. In this early part of the 21st century, we are bombarded by a culture that revels in the endless hoarding of novelties. Just watch the commercials during your favorite television program. Every day, advertisers stream their wares across the ether, telling us we aren’t complete even with the latest car models, latest video game systems, jewelry and assorted flotsam that is ephemeral in its utility, at best.

So then, what is the true spirit of Chanukah? If it’s not the focus on giving to one another, where are we to direct our energies to have a meaningful holiday? The first course of action is to recollect the distinctive origin of Chanukah. While children are taught about the miracle in the reconsecrated Temple after an arduous war against the Seleucids, the run-up to the miracle is just as important. It’s easy to stereotype the actions of the Maccabees as simple zealotry, but it’s not as simple at second glance. The abject cruelty with which their oppressors usurped the way of life for the ancient Jews was another formative instance of a culture determined to devastate Judaism’s singular religious vision. Hellenism was indeed hell for the ancient, pious Jews simply trying to follow the tenets of their faith.

It is, ironically, the trap of Hellenism that American Jews may have fallen into at present. Nowhere else in the world is Chanukah so celebrated. While it might be difficult to reflect on such a notion, the fact is — sadly — that many Jews have looked beyond the teachings of the Chanukah story and have instead chosen to embrace a path of luxury and materialism over spiritual renewal. Granted, not many look to Chanukah as a spiritually edifying holiday. But the underlying purpose of the miracle story has always been to commemorate and recognize that forces beyond human comprehension are central to the Jewish experience. By focusing attention on material objects, we have abdicated a portion of our religious identity. Many Jews today are so wrapped up (forgive the pun) in participating in a Christmas culture that the separation between ancient tradition and current aspirations becomes ever more perceptible.

Our consumption should be infused with a consciousness of production’s impact on workers, animals, the environment and the health of consumers. Chanukah is about how a little bit of oil was enough. Just a little bit of oil produced a lot of light. Our commitment to spending wisely is of great consequence in an era when our consumerism may be the greatest expression of our Jewish values. It is the most consistent and consequential act we engage in on a daily basis.

Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda, the 11th-century Jewish philosopher, illustrates how materialism can overcome one’s intellectual and spiritual sensibilities:

“The [material] world rules them, stopping up their ears and closing their eyes. There is not one among them who occupies himself with anything but his own pleasure — wherever he can attain it and the opportunity presents itself. [Pleasure] becomes his law and religion, driving him away from God” (Chovot HaLevavot, “On Deprivation,” 9:2).

As a spiritual practice, one strives for hafshatat ha’gashmiut (removing excessive materialism) in order to reach a higher spiritual plane. With access to virtually any product at only the click of a finger, it can feel very powerful and rewarding to acquire with such ease. Judaism comes to place a pause between stimulus and response, between desire and fulfillment. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik articulated this well:

“With the birth of the norm, man becomes aware of his singularly human existence, which expresses itself in the dichotomous experience of being unfree, restricted, imperfect and unredeemed, and, at the same time, being potentially powerful, great and exalted, uniquely endowed, capable of rising far above his environment in response to the divine moral challenge” (“The Lonely Man of Faith”).

If we are to strengthen Judaism’s moral authority on the greater parts of society, shaking off the fetters of crass consumerism is step one. The false idols of material accumulation have engulfed us. We have to take back our most closely held Jewish values if Chanukah is going to become relevant again.

And while it may seem counterintuitive, we have nothing to gain by trying to compete with the overwhelming amount of Christmas culture that dominates the popular imagination during this time of the year. Nor should we attempt to try in the first place. The notion that Chanukah needed to be an alternative to Jewish children is a lamentable aspect of assimilation. We don’t need to be held hostage by the voices that say: “Buy more and more and more.”

No! We can reject those false ideals and instead position Chanukah as a force for spiritual victories. To do so, we must reject stuff. We must reject the notion that Chanukah is the “Jewish Christmas.” We must reject the paradigm that doesn’t embrace the radical significance of the Maccabean revolution.

In this life, we are tasked with ensuring that the ethical precepts of our ancestors are upheld every single day. Although it may seem innocent to shower kids with presents during the holiday season, I fear that the blind eye given toward a consumer culture, rather than a giving culture, will harm us. We should teach the next generation of leaders that acquiring the latest fads in technology and culture isn’t a goal worth pursuing. We are to remain vigilant and ward off the idolatry of decadence. Learning to give back, learning to develop oneself, and learning to fend off spiritual iniquities, that is the true legacy of the Chanukah miracle.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is executive director of the Valley Beit Midrash, founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” 

Chanukah, Trump and David Friedman

The story of Chanukah is, among other things, the story of intra-Jewish hatred.

The Maccabees revolted not just against the Seleucid rulers, but also against their fellow Jews who had assimilated, happily, to the larger Greek culture.

“They acquired a following and applied to Antiochus, who authorized them to introduce the Greek way of life,” reports the first Book of Maccabees in a translation by Nicholas de Lange. “They built a Greek gymnasium in Jerusalem and even had themselves uncircumcised.”

In launching his revolt, Judah Maccabee first killed one of those reverse-circumcised Jews.

“The miracle-of-the-oil celebration of Hanukkah that the rabbis later invented covers up a blood-soaked struggle that pitted Jew against Jew,” retired Yale Rabbi James Ponet once wrote in Slate. “The rabbis drummed out this history with a fairy tale about a light that did not go out.”

The historical facts are disturbing and conflicting. Hellenism wasn’t all bad. From it, Judaism accreted ideas like the symposium, which formed the basis of the Passover seder — to this day the most widely celebrated holiday in Jewish homes. But if Jews had never revolted, perhaps Judaism itself would have vanished. Could the bloodshed have been worth it? Tough call. No wonder we flock to the fairy tale, and the candles, chocolate and latkes.

These days there is no denying the fissures between Jews are growing deeper. There is something ominous and dark about the way we are treating one another.

Over the past week, David Friedman, the bankruptcy attorney who is President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for U.S. Ambassador to Israel, has been condemned by a number of Jewish organizations for comments he made in the run-up to the election referring to the pro-Israel peace organization J Street as “kapos” and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as “morons.”

Kapos were Jewish collaborators under the Nazi regime. Morons are, well, morons.

Jewish communal organizations, rabbis and teachers — I can’t tell you how much time and effort they’ve invested over the past decade in championing civil dialogue between our often-warring tribe members. Then comes the man designated to be the chief diplomat to the Jewish state and — whoosh. Morons and kapos.

But it shouldn’t be surprising. Minority culture often mirrors the majority culture. And our new president has created a raucous, name-calling free-for-all where no slur is disqualifying, no curse is shameful and where every demand for retraction and apology is met with doubling down and amping up.

I pointed out in an online column that Friedman’s comparison is not just coarse, but far too broad. J Street is a pro-Zionist lobbying group that promotes a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians. For some observant Jews like Friedman, the very idea of giving back the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank, is anathema. For a minority of American Jews, religious or not, territorial compromise with the Palestinians is a recipe for the destruction of Israel.

But putting aside the coarseness of the term, there’s another reason it is, on the face of it, wrong-headed: poll after poll show Americans, who will be paying Mr. Friedman’s salary, prefer a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s the J Street position.

And almost half or more of all Israelis support this part of the J Street agenda as well. 

According to the June 2016 Peace Index poll, produced by Tel Aviv University, 62 percent of the Israeli public favors conducting peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. A plurality — 49 percent — of Israelis say they would support a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. Only 40 percent say they would oppose it.

Morton Klein, the director of the Zionist Organization of America, emailed me — civilly — to point out that there are areas where Israeli opinion and J Street diverge: most notably over the Iran deal and the Goldstone Report.

True, but on the main issue of a two-state solution, J Street holds the same position as a significant percentage of the Israeli public.

Earlier this year in fact, a group called Commanders for Israel’s Security, composed of hundreds of former Israeli military leaders, put forward a diplomatic plan for a two-state solution, very much like J Street’s.

The group’s co-founder is Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Amnon Reshef, who led the tank battalion that turned around the Yom Kippur War. Lack of diplomatic progress, Reshef told me, was an existential crisis for the Jewish state. It is unlikely Mr. Friedman would call these Israelis, whose lives hang in the balance over these positions, kapos. At least, not to their face.

But as goes Friedman, so went the internet. On Twitter, Jewish and alt-right defenders of Friedman’s use of “kapo” called me a kapo. Some implied the Journal is taking gobs of money from George Soros (We get none, but Dear Mr. Soros:

I am hoping that as the new year, and the new president, come to pass, the ambassador will see the wisdom in General Reshef’s approach, and the danger of turning Jew versus Jew. This week, the whole thing got ugly fast.

My question is: How much uglier can it get?

Happy Chanukah.

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

Christmas crusade for peace (and an independent Palestine) in Bethlehem

This story originally appeared on

A light with stars and snowflake Christmas lights, every year the city of Bethlehem, which is known as the birthplace of both Jesus and Christianity, hosts a series of Christmas celebrations. From parades and lighting a Christmas tree almost as big as the one at Rockefeller Center in New York City, to restoring mosaics at the famous Church of Nativity, the city is looking to promote itself and to strengthen the Christian community. 

Palestinian officials say Christmas celebrations are a chance to show the world that the Palestinians can govern themselves and to encourage others to support a two-state solution for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“Of course it is in our interest to have a two-state solution,” said Issa Kassissieh, the Palestinian ambassador to the Holy See. “Here in Palestine, we are working to consolidate and to strengthen the roots of Christianity in Palestine.” 

According to Kassissieh, while about half of the residents of Bethlehem are Christian, only about 2 percent of all Palestinians in the West Bank are Christian. Promoting and strengthening the religion, however, is one of the top priorities of the Palestinian Authority, he said.  

Given the current political instability in the Middle East with the ongoing civil war in Syria and the armed conflict between ISIS and Iraqi forces in trying to retake Mosul, the region is losing many of its churches and connections to Christianity. Bethlehem is promoting itself as a defender of peace and stability. 

“Politics here are so multilayered,” said Ian Knowles, a Christian icon painter and the director of the Icon School in Bethlehem. “And Palestine, especially Bethlehem, is right on the fault line between many of these different forces.” 

The Icon School, which is affiliated with the Princess School of Traditional Art in London, teaches local and international students the technique and importance of icon painting. It is the only icon school in the Middle East. 

“Bethlehem is the place where, for Christians, matter suddenly matters,” Knowles said. “God becomes a little baby, he becomes part of the material world, and so what you can see becomes graced and full of something deeply spiritual.” 

The school has a dozen local Palestinian students. 

“It’s an art which is inherently hope-filled and hopeful,” Knowles said. 

Aside from promoting Christianity through religiously motivated artistic endeavors, the city also has generated both financial and political support from the international community in restoring and renovating the Church of Nativity in the Old City of Bethlehem. 

Built in the year 332, the church, which Christians believe is the actual birthplace of Jesus, was falling apart, especially with bad leaks in the roof. 

In 2009, after lengthy negotiations with the Greek Orthodox Church, the Franciscan Church and the Armenian Orthodox Church, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a presidential decree calling for renovations to the Church of Nativity. 

The Palestinian government raised money to cover some of the expenses of the renovations; however, the work could not have been accomplished without financial support from many European and other Middle Eastern churches and countries. Spain, France, Hungary, Russia, Italy, Greece and even Morocco and Kuwait all contributed to the restoration. The total cost of restoring the church is just under $20 million and the work is expected to be completed in 2019. 

“We are supporting the Christian presence here in Palestine and in the Holy Land not only by preserving the Palestinian Christians but also by preserving and renovating their churches,” said Minister Ziad Al-Bandak, an adviser to Abbas. “Palestinians, in general, are for the two-state solution.” 

In accordance with the negotiations, the Holy See recognizes the state of Palestine based on the borders from 1967, which are the borders established after the Six-Day War, and, in return, the Palestinian leadership gives the Catholic Church full autonomy in the area, according to Kassissieh. 

Christmas is fast approaching. According to Vera Baboun, the mayor of Bethlehem, the city will have a procession of the patriarchs, a celebration before the Catholic midnight Mass on Christmas, a Christmas market and a number of plays and exhibitions showcasing the holiday spirit.  

Recently, the city, along with two international choirs and thousands of other visitors, lit the Christmas tree. 

“We lit the tree with a golden color because our message of Bethlehem is written with a golden font — it never rusts,” Baboun said. “The justice of the Palestinian cause is written with a golden font because it can and it will never rust.” 

The city of Bethlehem, only about 20 minutes from the city center of Jerusalem, is located in Area A of the West Bank, meaning it is under complete Palestinian civil and military control. Yet, residents say, they do not really have complete control, as Israel built a controversial barrier, which local residents call a “wall,” around the city, cutting it off from much of the West Bank.

Palestinian officials say the surrounding Jewish communities, which they call “settlements,” have led to a high unemployment rate of almost 30 percent, according to Samir Hazboun, the chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce. It also has led thousands of residents, many of them Christians, to leave the city and emigrate abroad.

Khalil Shoka, a Palestinian historian, said, “The younger generations are looking for a brighter future and they don’t find it here due to the impact of the separation wall and the Israeli policies, so most of them prefer to leave.”

Why I light my menorah in the window — and you should, too

In the weeks before Chanukah, with anticipation of the holiday brightly filling my mind, the darkening news of rising anti-Semitism in the United States began to filter in. As I pictured our menorahs burning in their usual place — the front windows of our home — a warning light began to blink.

Though Chanukah represents a victory of light over darkness — by the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, which resulted in the rededication of the Second Temple — recent events were causing me to rethink our window menorah lighting, turning me toward sharing our menorah kindling with only family and friends.

But, surprisingly, like finding an extra Chanukah candle in the box, a new U.S. Chanukah postage stamp depicting a lit menorah in a window was an unexpected source of inspiration.

For 17 years, we’ve lived on a block where there are no other Jewish families. We’ve proudly placed our menorahs — whether lit by candle or by bulb — in our front windows, publicizing the miracle of the holiday to our neighbors and ourselves. Saying the blessings and lighting the candles is a mitzvah, according to the Talmud, and by doing so, we also were recognizing the blessing of our freedom of religion and expressing our Jewish identity.

In fact, it wasn’t really Chanukah for me until I walked outside and, looking at the lit menorah emanating from my own window, affirmed that we had arrived at this time once again.

Why was I worried now? Since the previous Chanukah, nothing had changed in our multiethnic and multidenominational neighborhood, a place where non-Jewish neighbors have wished me “Happy Chanukah” and, at Passover, “gut yontif.” But in the uncertain light of political change in our country, I was worried about what was emerging from the shadows: anti-Semitic iconography online, attacks on Jewish journalists, the re-emergence of Jewish conspiracy stories, Jewish college students being confronted with swastikas. Was this a wise time to let our light shine?

Helping to banish my second thoughts, however, was that new stamp. The design — a traditional, branched menorah shown burning in a window against a background of falling snow — seemed innocuous enough, even unseasonably fanciful if you live in California. But there it was, a government-issued reminder that in the window, where your neighbors can see it, is the place from which your menorah should send out its glow.

Even so, a statement released by the Postal Service with the issue of the new stamp renewed my concerns when it reminded me that “at times in history when it was not safe for Jewish families to make a public declaration of faith, the menorah was set instead in a prominent place inside the home.” Though the statement went on to say that “today in the U.S., many families have renewed the tradition of displaying the menorah in windows during the holiday,” I still wondered if “today” was one of those “not safe” times in history.

Was it a good time to draw the light safely in and bring the flickering candles into the kitchen? After all, that’s the way my mother, who grew up in the Bronx borough of New York City in the 1930s, when anti-Semitism in America was on the rise, did it in our home.

What was I afraid of? It wasn’t as if I’m expecting a replay of the now famous Billings, Mont., incident of 1993, when a brick was thrown through the bedroom window of a 5-year-old who was displaying a chanukiyah.

But in an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) report about anti-Semitic incidents issued before the presidential election, California was cited in 2015 as the state with the second-highest level of anti-Semitic incidents. Adding to my sense of Jewish déjà vu, after the election, in mid-November, the ADL’s national director, Jonathan Greenblatt, had announced at the organization’s yearly conference that the American Jewish community had “not seen this level of anti-Semitism in mainstream political and public discourse since the 1930s.”

What these statistics challenged, I realized, was not my faith that miraculous things can happen, like a single cruse of oil burning for eight days, but my faith in another kind of miracle — freedom of religion and American pluralism.

After national calls to deport Muslims, a recent surge in hate crimes in New York — with the majority of incidents directed at Jews — and closer to home, reports last year of a Jewish student at UCLA being harassed because of her identity, I realized that the menorah burning in the window isn’t just a message to fellow Jews — it’s a signal to any person that this is a free and safe place for anyone to openly identify and show his or her beliefs. If I, or anyone, were to light one candle at Chanukah in full view of neighbors, it wouldn’t be, contrary to the song, just for the Maccabee children — it would be for all.

It doesn’t make any difference which side you were on in the recent election. What must be decided is how with candles, oil or electric bulbs we would vote now. Recalling that my mother’s parents, Joseph and Rebecca, had been strangers here about a century ago, I felt that the welcoming menorah light represented the freedom for which they had left everything behind. Plus, the act of putting our menorahs in the window would be an opportunity to rekindle the core Jewish belief of welcoming the stranger.

To push back the shadows, won’t you join me in a Chanukah show of light? Help light the way for us, and for others: During the eight nights of Chanukah, place your menorah where passers-by can see it. Take a photo or selfie, and post it on social media with the hashtag #menorahinthewindow. Share the city, town or place where you are, and let us know why you are doing it.

The strength of what we can do as a community — that is a miracle, too.

Be safe with your menorah. Light it away from anything that can catch fire and do not leave it unattended.

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at

‘Festal Holiday’ to ‘Funorama Bazaar’: The changing light of Chanukah in L.A.

The real Chanukah miracle, in the early days of Los Angeles, was how Jewish residents managed to get through the holiday without latke parties, chocolate gelt, or blue-and-white wrapping paper featuring dancing dreidels.

At the turn of the 20th century, the American Chanukah known for “eight crazy nights” of lavish gift-giving, LED home decorations, mall menorah lightings and ugly sweaters was not even a twinkle in any Jewish Angeleno’s eye.

 So how did the once minor holiday transform into the glowing and blinking Festival of Lights we celebrate today? By sharing in the innovations responsible for Chanukah’s rise to prominence in America, and adding a few dreidel twirls of its own, the growing Jewish community of Los Angeles evolved the way it celebrated the Festival of Lights into the 1950s.

“Whatever the age, Jews have deemed Hanukkah ripe for embellishment with food, songs, charity and games,” author Dianne Ashton, who teaches religion in America at Rowan University in New Jersey, wrote in “Hanukkah in America.”

As a reminder of how simply the holiday was observed at the turn of the century, when mostly only the man of the house lit the Chanukah candles, an article in the Dec. 9, 1898, edition of the B’nai B’rith Messenger by Rabbi A.W. Edelman of Congregation B’nai B’rith (today, Wilshire Boulevard Temple) states: “It is merely a festal holiday to celebrate the victory of the Maccabees, by lighting a taper or light called Chanukah light for eight days, and by adding special prayers and thanksgivings to God.”

Yet, that simple celebration had already begun to change, according to Ashton, as rabbis and Jewish educators showed new interest in the Maccabees — ancient heroes, who offered an “authentically Jewish model that inspired,” she wrote. Taking its cue from this new interest, an editorial in the Dec. 16, 1910 issue of the B’nai B’rith Messenger asked readers not to send Christmas cards to Jewish orphans but instead “write a few lines alluding to the Feast of the Maccabees which is a store of incentives radiating forth the highest ideals.”

To interest Jewish children, plays, concerts, programs and contests — now holiday mainstays — were introduced. “A dynamic relationship between congregational rabbi and lay women became the engine that developed and promoted these new Hanukkah activities,” Ashton wrote.

 In 1919, the Chanukah celebration at Sinai Temple included a two-act Chanukah comedy, a Chanukah essay winner and a violin solo. All this was preceded by a parade of 300 children, each of whom marched in carrying a “Jewish flag.” In 1922, the Department of Synagogue and School extension of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (today, the Reform Movement) introduced a new play titled “A Make Believe Chanukah,” which depicted the “Maccabees in a new and interesting form,” according to a blurb in the B’nai B’rith Messenger, a paper that chronicled the life of L.A.’s Jewish community for almost 100 years, .

 In an open society like America, competition with the other winter holiday, Christmas, began to be seen as a threat, especially as some Jews began to bring Christmas trees into their homes. “We Jews should never forget that Chanukah candles burnt before Christianity was born and that if Antiochus had triumphed over the Jewish people and Jews and Judaism had become assimilated, there would have been no Jesus and no Christianity to inspire the gentiles,” wrote Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin of Congregation B’nai B’rith, in the Dec. 11, 1925, edition of the Messenger.

Responding to this challenge, beginning in the ’20s, “Jewish women in their own organizations aggrandized Hanukkah in order to educate their children, to build devotion to Judaism in their families, to enhance synagogue life,” Ashton wrote. Sisterhoods and other Jewish women’s auxiliaries, in the ’20s and ’30s, spread the Chanukah light through children’s celebrations and “mammoth” Chanukah parties throughout the Southland. By the late 1950s, the Sisterhood of B’nai Israel organized a “Funorama Bazaar” with Chanukah-themed game booths and a “dreidl hop” for the teenagers.

The idea of Chanukah gifts, too, gradually began to catch on. The giving of Chanukah gelt had long been the norm, especially among Jews from Eastern Europe, but beginning in the 1890s, Jewish publishers saw in Chanukah the opportunity to promote “Hanukkah as a gift giving occasion for Jews,” Ashton wrote. By the late 1940s and early ’50s, children’s titles like “Chanukah Fun and Story Book,” were available in local Jewish bookstores, and “The Jingle-Book for Jewish Children,” which included poems for Chanukah and other Jewish holidays, was available in the Los Angeles Jewish Community Library.

The gift-giving was not limited to one’s own family. Several Messenger articles from the 1920s note that during Chanukah toys were given by the Elks Club to the children of the Jewish Orphans home and Vista Del Mar. A Hadassah chapter donated money to purchase garments to be sent as Chanukah gifts to the Jews of Palestine, as well.

Expanding beyond books, in 1921, advertisements suggesting “Happy Gift Suggestions for Chanukah” were run by Hamburger’s, a large, popular Jewish-owned downtown department store at the time. The ads appeared in the Messenger, promoting “gifts of apparel … gifts for the home … remembrances from Toyland for the children” and a Southland touch — “gift boxes of California Fruits and Nuts.”

In L.A., there were even Chanukah gifts for the Zionist in one’s life: “Palestinian Articles made by Jewish labor.” A 1929 ad by the Palestinian Import & Export Co., located in the Bryson building downtown, promoted Chanukah lamps, “Bezalel Art and Filigree Silver Articles as Gifts,” as well as tapestries with Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau (co-founders of the World Zionist Organization) and Arthur James Balfour.

From the 1920s, the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (of the Reform Movement) promoted a national effort to make “Chanukah more widely celebrated among Reform’s families,” including the selling of new Chanukah products such as Chanukah greeting cards, Ashton wrote. Adding new ways to express one’s Jewish identity, the cards, along with Chanukah candles, menorahs (with the electric menorah becoming popular by midcentury), decorations and wrapping paper proved a profitable addition for Jewish bookstores and temple gift shops.

Sinai Temple extended that market in 1952 by holding a series of Chanukah workshops “in which members and friends may join to learn the art of Hanukah decorations for the home,” according to an announcement. Taking holiday decorations one step further, the Foothill Jewish Community Center of Temple Beth Israel of Sierra Madre held a Chanukah decoration contest in 1957. Contest judges were to visit the homes of all who entered and award three prizes for the best decorations “typifying the spirit of Hanukah,” the announcement said.

There were other changes regarding the holiday that were apparent in the Messenger, too. For one, the spelling went from “Chanukah” to “Hanukah” in 1930.

Treats eaten on the holiday also changed. Around 1951, Barton’s Bonbonniere introduced “chocolate lotkes,” round-shaped chocolate confections in five flavors — coconut, hazelnut, banana, mocha-nut and orange-marzipan. “A box of 15 sells for $1.19,” read the promotion copy that ran in the B’nai B’rith Messenger. This was quite the change from the foil-wrapped chocolate gelt introduced in the 1920s by Loft’s, according to several sources. 

Los Angeles, as a bright center of entertainment, added new light to the celebration of Chanukah. In 1952, KTLA broadcast a Chanukah program featuring Temple Isaiah with Rabbi Albert M. Lewis officiating, and Cantor Robert Nadell appearing with the Temple Isaiah Choir.

Preceding this TV program by decades, Rabbi Mayer Winkler of Sinai Temple gave a radio address in 1926 on KHJ-AM titled “The Message of the Maccabees to the Modern World” that identified the challenge of Chanukah that is still with us today.

“The story of the Maccabees contains a great truth applicable in every age,” he said. “The freedom of conscience and of religion should be safeguarded by modern man.”

Have an idea for a Los Angeles Jewish history story? Contact Edmon Rodman at

A brief history of Nittel Nacht

On the upcoming first night of Chanukah, Chasidic and some observant Ashkenazi Jews will forgo Torah study, choosing instead to play games or pursue other leisure activities. Why? Because this year, Chanukah begins on Christmas Eve, otherwise known as Nittel Nacht, when certain customs forbid partaking in learning from Torah.

“It’s something of obscure origins,” David N. Myers, the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA, said of the Christmas Eve tradition. “My best guess is that it emerges out of the tension-filled relationship between Judaism and Christianity in medieval Ashkenazic lands.” 

Myers said the custom started around the 16th century, but tensions between Jews and their Christian neighbors began much earlier, highlighted by a text that emerged as far back as the 11th century, called “Toledo Yeshu.”

“It was a work that showed the history of Jesus,” Myers said. “It was a collection of accounts of Jesus’ illegitimate birth and deviant behavior, and was one of the most widely spread works in medieval Ashkenazic culture. It reflected the disdain the Jews had for Christian origins.”

The Jewish people at that time observed Nittel Nacht as a way to avoid experiencing any pleasure or joy on the day when Christians began their celebration of the Christian messiah’s birth, as well as to ensure that no glory would be given to the day. While abstaining from Torah study, they also would eat garlic to ward off evil spirits and play cards, Myers said. 

Depending on a Jewish community’s tradition, Nittel Nacht takes place from noon or nightfall until midnight, either on Christmas Eve or on Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany — when Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate the story of the Magi, the Three Wise Men, visiting the baby Jesus — according to Rabbi Reuven Wolf, director of the Maayon Yisroel Chassidic Center. Sephardim don’t keep Nittel Nacht, Wolf said, because they mostly lived among Muslims. 

Other interpretations of the tradition hold that Jews living in Europe were fearful on Christmas and would often cancel yeshivas, which is why Nittel Nacht was instituted.

“It used to be dangerous to go out on this night,” Wolf said. “[Observant Christians] would go to church, hear sermons about how Jews were Yoshke (Jesus) killers, and so it wasn’t safe for the Jews to go outside. If that’s the case, then there’s no room for [Nittel Nacht] to be kept today because that isn’t a worry or fear anymore.” 

Instead, Wolf pointed to the kabbalistic spiritual aspects of Nittel Nacht as a reason for honoring it. He said that the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn, stated, “Whenever we study Torah, we generate spiritual flow and positive energy. On this night, the powers of impurity are extremely strong. Being that they are extremely strong, if we generate extra holy energy, instead of it being a positive influence on the world, unholy forces can grab it. Then, it’ll be used to strengthen the unholy.”  

To explain this further, Wolf cited the story of Jacob and Esau: “Yitzak wants to bless Esau to help fix him. Rivka realized that if Esau was given this extra dose of energy, instead of using it for good, he would have taken it and further strengthened his corruption.” 

Rabbi Dovid Gurevich, co-director of the Chabad House at UCLA, brought up a diary entry attributed to the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe as to why Nittel Nacht is significant to Chabad Chasidim. “It says he would not be pleased with people who would not be able to refrain themselves from studying Torah on that night, for those few hours between nightfall and midnight,” Gurevich said. 

At Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights, N.Y., the custom is for students and followers to cancel study and do something lighter. “They hang out and play games like chess,” Gurevich said. “This is unconfirmed, but there is a picture of the Rebbe (Menachem Mendel Schneerson) playing chess with his father-in-law (the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn). People say it may have been on that night.”

While many people studying in yeshiva will take a break to have fun, Wolf said that he and other Jews who can’t dedicate all their time to learning will be doing chores and normal, everyday activities on Nittel Nacht. “I wish we would all sit and study every minute,” he said. “You can do anything, and hopefully it’s good to do things that need to get done anyway.”

With Nittel Nacht on the first night of Chanukah this year, Gurevich said he will be participating in both.

“The first night is always very exciting,” he said. “We’re not supposed to study Torah [on Nittel Nacht], so we can just tell stories. Those can be very inspirational. We’ll tell stories about Jewish pride and identity.”

Merry Holidays!

Once upon a time, Americans were honest: They said, “Merry Christmas” and talked about “Christmas vacation.” Then, in an ingenious attempt to honor diversity, Americans switched to, “Happy holidays” and began referring to “the holiday season” – a purportedly all-inclusive, religiously and culturally appropriate, pan-American time of year that was still all about Christmas. True, the occasional Hanukkah, Ramadan, or Kawanzaa bone was thrown out there, but it was often at inappropriate times, such as two weeks after that holiday had passed, or with inappropriate greetings, such as “Happy Ramadan,” which, seriously, who wishes someone a happy fast?

Images and music are shortcuts for conveying ideas and eliciting feelings, and together they rally people around central themes. Images and music of “the holidays” center around decorated trees, Santa Claus figures, sleigh bells, reindeer, and – especially where there are no religious minorities around to bitch about it — nativity scenes and Jesus references. (Think “Joy to the World,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” for starters.) As an Iraqi-American Jew, those images and songs are a far cry from being culturally appropriate or even distantly relevant to me. And yet, I am expected to get all warm and fuzzy from them – ie, swept up in “the holiday spirit.”

Changing the language of Christmas was not a step toward multicultural celebration, but it was a brilliant marketing coup. The switch not only covered up America’s blatant preferential treatment of Christianity, which is decidedly unconstitutional, but it made Christmas (emphasis: Christ) even more insidious, taking the dissent-squashing Scrooge concept one step further:  Since “the holidays” are now touted as a universal, religiously- and culturally-inclusive celebration, what kind of asshole can possibly object to them?

Memories of Christmas Past

When I was a little girl, I attended orthodox Jewish day school. During late December, my mother, sister, and I would drive around our neighborhood in San Francisco, admiring the pretty Christmas trees in people’s homes and sharing which were our favorites. Because I had not yet been shoved under the Christmas bulldozer, I was eager to appreciate and, in my own way, participate in the celebration of someone else’s holiday. Then when I was eight, I was switched to public school, where it was compulsory for all students to make Christmas decorations and, for those of us in the music department, to sing Christmas carols and play Christmas songs. Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas… It was like an hysterical mantra, all up in my face for an entire month.

I remember how, in fifth grade, a Jewish girl and I conspiratorially drew menorahs and Stars of David throughout the winter wonderland poster the class had to make. Debbie and I characteristically did not get along, but we were a team that day, the two of us with our markers, in a bold act of 10-year-old insurgence. We had complained to the teacher about religious discrimination, and while she would not back down from promoting Christmas, she did authorize us to “add [our] holiday symbols” to the poster hanging on the front of the door. Oh, we added them alright, giggling as we drew, and once we were done, there was no doubt that Jews were in da house.

Meanwhile, the only Jew in choir, I fought the fact that we were forced to sing the gamut of Christmas songs – from explicitly religious numbers like “Noel” and “Silent Night” to more symbolic ones like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” When I raised my objections, the teacher justified these songs by pointing out that we also were singing “I Had a Little Dreidel.” I distinctly remember thinking how inane it was to compare a dreidel song (about a plastic toy) to a Jesus song (about the Christian god). In addition, I could not help but notice that the Christmas songs outnumbered the dreidel song by, oh, about a million to one.

As I recall, after back-and-forth negotiations, the teacher and I compromised by agreeing that I would not sing the explicitly religious songs but that I would sing the general Christmas songs. I have a vague memory of her telling me to just move my lips, though not necessarily lip sync, for the songs I was not singing, so that it would not “look weird” that I was just standing there. The teacher and I disagreed, but I am not sure how that matter was resolved.

I do remember really going at it with full gusto for the dreidel song, all the while aware of the irony: Iraqi Jews have nothing to do with dreidels, and it was in fact a source of contention at my Hebrew school that the Central and Eastern European Hanukkah traditions, including dreidel games, were pushed on everyone — touted as the Jewish traditions. My dad, in fact, used to re-educate my sister and me regularly after school, leaving me wondering why we bothered going in the first place. “What did you learn today?” he would ask us. “We learned about Chanukkah,” we would reply. “We don’t say Chanukkah,” he would inform us. “We say H’nikah. What else did you learn?” he would continue. “We learned how to play dreidels,” we would say. “We don’t play dreidels,” he would advise us. And so on.

Out of the pot and into the fire – from one hegemony to another, clinging to whatever pieces most closely resembled my identity.  But I digress. Let us return to Christmas.

Preferential Treatment of Religion

In high school, I was the first chair flutist in orchestra and band. As soon as I discovered that all the performances were on Friday nights, the Jewish Sabbath, I advised the teachers that I would not be able to perform with them, for religious reasons. Each teacher (one married to the other) publicly yelled at and humiliated me in front of the class in response, with the orchestra teacher kicking me out altogether and the band teacher demoting me to last chair.

Then, beginning in November, I was expected to play one Christmas song after another. I believe I refused, because I distinctly remember the band teacher cornering me when I was leaving class one day, informing me that such-and-such Christmas song was written by a Jew, and why couldn’t I be like that man. Parenthetically, another time, this teacher cornered me while leaving, advising me that so-and-so orchestra conductor was a Seventh Day Adventist but still performed on Friday nights, because he felt closest to Gd through his music; so why couldn’t I be like that man.

Meanwhile, I was barred from joining choir, because – as I then knew by then to clarify ahead of time – all the performances were on Friday nights, and the teacher did not want to accept anyone who could not attend performances. Then again, the choir got heavy into Jesus songs in late November, so perhaps it is just as well that I was not involved.

Because of the sabbath conflict, I also was barred from joining the theater group, despite the fact that understudies were used in case students got sick; I could not even think about joining any of the athletic teams, and I was kicked out of the debate team, despite the fact that numerous competitions were held on Sundays. In the latter case, my high school had one of the top debate teams in the state, and the coach wanted students to have enough practice with the Saturday matches so as to also win the Sunday events. 

In my junior year, I would not have been able to take drivers education class, were it not for a combined effort of the Jewish Community Relations Council and my friend Colleen, who walked across town just after dawn one Saturday morning (before the buses started running), to sign up on my behalf. The school had patently refused allowing me to sign up on Friday, and it had taken a major battle just to allow someone else to do it for me on the day of registration.

Not only did teachers systematically exclude me from all extra-curricular activities in school, in a decidedly unconstitutional refusal to accommodate my religious observance, but a number of them actively antagonized me for my religious observance. Take the example of my geometry teacher during freshman year:

In the beginning of each year, I approached all of my teachers with copies of a Jewish calendar, in which I had drawn big red circles around the dates where I would be gone for religious observance. The holy days came one week after another throughout September and October — R’shana, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, and Simhath Torah – what you might call the “holiday season” for the Jewish community. Being that these observances coincided with the beginning of the school year, it was always challenging to keep up with my school work. As an orthodox Jew, I could not do any studying during these days.

I was in the honors programs of the best schools in the city — including an exclusive magnet high school, where students routinely came to school sick, even with fevers, because it was so difficult to catch up with the copious amounts of work, after falling behind. I, meanwhile, not only took five or six challenging Honors and Advanced Placement classes each semester, but also missed about 10 days by the second month of school, because 1) the holy days added up to seven days, 2) people came to the synagogue when sick, 3) I slept as little as one hour a night when I was not observing sabbath or a holy day, so as to catch up on my school work, and 4) my body was worn down as a result of the exhaustion, stress, and exposure to illness.

To stay ahead as much as possible, I asked teachers to advise me of the lessons and assign me homework in advance. When I approached my geometry teacher, he literally threw the calendar in my face, barking at me, “If you want to take a vacation, that’s your problem!” Throughout the semester, he proceeded to deliberately assign quizzes and tests – including pop-quizzes and pop-tests that comprised significant portions of our semester grade – on the day of or the day after Jewish holy days. I was a straight-A student throughout my life, despite the fact that even in middle school, I was sleeping just a few hours a night, so as to catch up on my school work after the holy days. And yet, this man made it so impossible to succeed that I got the first C of my life.

Both academics and extracurricular activities count for college, and I got heavily dinged on both fronts. My parents complained to the principal of my school, but he did nothing. Meanwhile, the math teachers were so consistently awful that I ended up having to drop out of honors, and I struggled so much with chemistry that I quit just one semester before the Advanced Placement (AP) exam. And so, while my peers took the AP tests for math, science, and English, as I had planned to do, and while they were then exempt from freshman math, science, and English in college, as I had planned to be, I only was able to take the AP English test – not surprising, considering that my English teachers were the only ones to caringly accommodate my religious observance. In fact, it is not surprising that I ended up a writer today. People walk through doors, not walls.

On that note, I am forever grateful to my high school class advisor, for sticking her neck out on my behalf. My high school debate team was in fact so amazing that we did not have a high school valedictorian, but rather, a high school historian and salutorian – both of which were selected through speaking competitions. My school had no tolerance for speeches that were anything less than riveting. The original date of the competition was scheduled on Passover, to my exasperation. I approached my high school class advisor in tears, begging her to get the date changed. “I have not been able to do anything throughout all four years of high school,” I cried. “I just want this one opportunity.” Gd/dess bless this woman, she went to bat for me and got the date changed.

And so I competed against state champions from my high school debate team. And kicked their collective ass. As the class historian for Lowell High School circa 1987, I have this to say to the high school debate coach who would not let me compete on Sundays, because I would not have the experience on Saturdays: Suck it.

What does this all have to do with Christmas, you ask? As I was forced into the Herculean struggle of juggling my religious and school lives, and as I was punished in active and passive ways for being a Jew, those who celebrated Christmas got not just the day of the holiday handed to them on a silver platter, but an entire two weeks around it. To add insult to injury, Christmas does not even have prohibitions against working, studying, driving, turning on lights, writing, or any of the other myriad of things that makes it impossible for religious Jews to participate in school or work life on Jewish holy days. So while Jews and other religious minorities struggle to keep up their grades or hang onto their jobs while taking off just the very days of their religious observance, those celebrating Christmas get half a month off for partying. Talk about “taking a vacation.”

Which all goes to say, as Christmas cheer has been shoved down my throat at school, at work, in the supermarkets, on television, in government offices, and pretty much anywhere else I have turned, for an entire month (and now for ¼ of the entire year), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every year of the past four decades of my life, and as my tax money has gone to fund aforementioned cheer, well, let’s just say I have not exactly been “in the spirit” of things.

The Fascist Vibe of the Christmas Spirit

The question is why Christian and Christo-Secular people (let’s face it – there is no neutral secular culture) feel the need to celebrate Christmas in such an in-your-face, mass-hysteria, all-encompassing way. It is as if “Christmas spirit” cannot exist unless absolutely every single person gets into said spirit.

By way of example, let us bring to mind the story of a Jewish family living in a predominantly Christian neighborhood. All the neighbors were lighting candles and putting those candles in brown paper bags, then placing the glowing bags in front of their homes. The Jewish family politely declined to participate, explaining that they were Jewish and therefore did not celebrate Christmas. Well. The neighbors would have none of that, so a few of them lit an extra candle, put it in a paper bag, placed it in front of the Jewish home, and bolted.

Compulsory Christmas. Uniformity masquerading as universality. You. Must. Celebrate. Christmas.

Then there is the story that happened one fine December day at a public school with a predominantly Christian student body. When a Jewish student politely declined to participate in the Christmas festivities at school, one of the Christian kids violently slammed that Jewish child against a locker, yelling, “You just don’t get it! This is a holiday about peace, love, and good will!”

Need I elaborate on what is wrong with this picture?

When I think of Christmas, the following words come to mind: fascist, dogmatic, imperialistic, dissent-squashing, cultural-bulldozing, all up in yo business, pain in the ass, murderous day. Yes murderous. Over the centuries, across the Christian world, Christmas was a favorite day for massacring Jews. After all, Christmas is all about celebrating the birth of Jesus, touted as the son of Gd who, according to Christian narrative, was murdered by scheming, crooked Jews. The entire premise of Christianity, in fact, is the scorn, hatred, and rejection of all things Jewish; after all, why be the spinoff religion, when you can be the real deal? Some justification must be created. While that is another article for another time, and one that most likely will get me into pretty hot water, the idea is that Christmas is loaded, and not just with shiny presents.

Speaking of loaded, about a decade ago in San Francisco, a politically-correct office manager invited all the employees to bring to work a symbol of their holiday. Because, as we all know, “the holidays” are about everyone. So this Jewish guy, with whom I am proud to say I am acquainted, brought a gun and placed it squarely on the table. Everyone, of course, was horrified. He advised them that Hanukkah commemorates the revolt against Roman occupation of ancient Israel; that it is a holiday of armed resistance.


And just how did Hanukkah come to be Christmas Jr.? In Iraq, Jews lit the Hanukkiah (special candelabra), sang a song or two, and donated money to yeshiboth (Jewish learning institutions) to preserve Jewish continuity; because, again, Hanukkah commemorates Jewish resistance to assimilation and therefore is all about preservation of Jewish identity. Here in America, however, Hanukkah has been blown up into the Christmas psycho-twin. You have one day of presents? Fuck you. We have eight.

Here’s the thing: While I do hold Jewish parents and the Jewish community accountable for resisting Christian temptation and Jewish distortion, I also hold the larger society responsible not only for making Christmas culturally mandatory, but also for creating such a frenzied Christmas environment that those who do not celebrate Christmas are outright pitied. Perhaps if there was a little more awareness of and value for diversity – true diversity, not just compelling minority groups to masquerade as the majority group – Jewish kids wouldn’t be so distracted by, and Jewish parents wouldn’t be so pressured by, all that Christmas bling.

Let me set the record straight: Not only do Jews neither control nor run the United States, but it is damn challenging to be an orthodox Jew in this country. If perhaps the leadership at our schools and places of work stopped wishing us happy holidays during Christmas and instead put all that good cheer into finding ways to accommodate Jews who miss school and work for Jewish holy days, without penalization, chances are that more Jews would celebrate said holy days. With solid identity and pride stemming from the practice of our own tradition, Jews very well might stop dabbling in Hanukkah bushes and otherwise denigrating our legacy by mutating ourselves into second-rate imitations of Christian and Christo-Secular Americans.

As public institutions close on Christmas, as public streets get decorated with Christmas symbols, as Christmas music blasts out of every loudspeaker of stores that characteristically decorate the shopping bags with Christmas images (thus forcing Christmas into every home, like it or not), and as everyone from the bus driver to the bank clerk to the café barista wishes customers “happy holidays,” without stopping to question whether the customers actually celebrate said holidays, the message being sent to religious minorities, around the clock and from every direction, is this: You do not belong. This is not your country. This is not your culture. You are “other.”

A core impetus behind Hanukkah bushes and the like is the desire to be “part-of.” We should, however, be able to belong as we are — without having to be subsumed by someone else’s identity and narrative.

The Christmas PR machine is not only so overwhelming but also so compelling (and I say this as a professional publicist: brilliant marketing) that one year in high school, I consciously chose to allow myself to be swept up in the “Christmas cheer” tidal wave, just to see what it felt like. I distinctly remember enthusiastically embracing my friend Amanda, as both of us jumped up and down, shouting “Merry Christmas” in the orgiastic fervor typical of Christmas spirit. Amanda looked radiant. I felt hollow. Far better to be the salmon fighting the current, I concluded, than to be a fish swept up in someone else’s tide.

For many years, I educated people when they wished me “Merry Christmas,” or more recently, “Happy Holidays.” “I don’t celebrate it/them,” I would reply, “but you have a good one.” Frequently, people responded with pity – either through looks or words. Finally I gave up. It was easier to just say “thanks” or just reply with “take care” or the like, instead of educating each and every single person crossing my Christmas-free path. But then when my neighbor Jill wished me Merry Christmas on December 25, as I was taking my bike out of my house to go for a ride, I just had to say something. “I’m Jewish,” I said, reminding Jill of a fact she knew perfectly well. “Can’t I just wish you Merry Christmas?” she replied, with a tone and body language indicating that she was bestowing me with a precious gift, and I was spitting it back in her face. “I’m. Jewish.” I replied, exasperated. And that was pretty much the end of Jill’s and my relationship.

I have no objection to the celebration of Christmas in and of itself. I object to the fact that it is celebrated in a way that steam-rolls over the identity of those who do not celebrate Christmas. It is touted as the universal pinnacle of human experience, as if there exist no holidays that offer comparable happiness or spirit or connection with others. It also, annoyingly, takes over the calendar. December 24 and December 25 no longer exist. They are, quite simply, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. And everyone in this culture is expected to know not only the dates but also the lore, songs, and customs of Christmas, whereas those who celebrate Christmas are not expected to know the same for holidays of religious and ethnic minorities.

Imagine if I were to wish store clerks, Tizkoo leshanim raboth unemoth (may you merit many pleasant years) before R’shana (the Jewish New Year). Blank stares and oooh-kay confusion would ensue. Chances are that even you, dear reader, have no idea what I just said.

On that note, if someone really wants to be all-inclusive, wishing everyone “happy holidays” in December simply does not cut it. Instead, one should take a minute to find out what holidays someone in fact celebrates, and say the appropriate greeting at calendar-appropriate times. In the age of Wikipedia, there is truly no excuse. The information is all right there, on the mighty internet. But even a simple gesture in December, like saying “happy holidays if you celebrate them,” can go a long way. The implication is, “I recognize that you, Christmas non-celebrator, exist.” Pretty cool.

Meanwhile, Christmas has been extended from a month-long assault to a full-on seasonal one. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the Christian new year have morphed into one gigantic “holiday” mush, and one can now purchase Christmas stockings in the aisles right next to the Dracula masks. Yay.

There are of course those who say that Christmas is not at all Christian, but rather secular or Pagan. I see the Christian stronghold in all of these assertions. Christianity conquered and converted Pagans, as Christianity conquered and converted, if not outright massacred, every other religious group it could get its hands on. Christianity not only co-opted the holidays and customs of these various groups, in yet another brilliant PR coup, but Christianity is in its very foundation based on the co-opting (and bastardization) of Judaism. And while most Americans celebrate Christmas not through mass but through exchanging gifts, it does not take away the Christian roots of Christmas. Just look at the name: CHRISTmas.

As a former client of mine articulately and succinctly states, “Religion creates culture.” Most Americans may not be Christian and may not celebrate Christmas for Christian reasons, but secular America is imbued with a Christian sensibility so deep at the core of this country that it takes a religious person of another faith to see it. Similarly, white people can’t see whiteness because white equals “normal” in our society. It is the status quo. It therefore takes a person of color to see how very white our culture is.

The blind imposition does not stop at Christmas. There is also the whole issue of “New Years.” All new years are qualified – Jewish new year, Persian new year, Chinese new year – except one: Christian new year. The Christian new year is simply “New Years.” As with Christmas, we are all expected to bow down to and celebrate this new year as our own. “But it’s secular,” people say, looking at me oddly, when they wish me, “Happy New Year,” and I inform them I do not celebrate it. Secular? Really? We’re now in 2013 AD – Anno Domini, ie, the year of our Lord. Anything before the year 0, which is assumed to be the year that Jesus was born, is “[insert year] BC” – Before Christ. Secular my ass.

Only one person, other than my mother, seems to have any awareness of this issue. “Does it annoy you that the world operates according to a Christian calendar?” my friend Danielle once asked – Danielle herself being an awesome, independently-thinking woman from a Christian background.

Christmas and the Jewish-Christian Relationship

Again, the central question is why Christians and Seculo-Christians cannot just honor their holidays privately. What is this compulsion to shove their holidays in everyone’s face, to make everyone celebrate their holidays with them? It is invasive, imposing, dare I say violent. One might even call it severely co-dependent. As in, I cannot wear a red dress unless you, too, are wearing a red dress; therefore, I will force you to wear a red dress, even if you virulently hate red dresses, so that I am able to wear my red dress in a sea of red dresses, which is exactly how red dresses should be worn at all times.

A telling example is the hubaloo over Christmas at my mother’s Jewish independent living center. The center accepts people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, the non-Jews of whom have launched, over the years, a mission to erode the Jewish character of the center. Dripping with Christian and Christo-secular entitlement, they have been offended not only by the presence of Jewish celebration – such the kosher kitchen – but also by the absence of Christian celebration. The Christian and Christo-secular residents in fact created such an uproar that today, when you walk into this Jewish institution, established and funded in large part by Jewish organizations, you are assaulted by a Christmas wreath, larger-than-life size Christmas tree, and miscellaneous winter-wonderland paraphernalia.

In addition, when residents were given permission to decorate their personal apartment doors, and only their personal apartment doors, with Christmas imagery, a few residents took it upon themselves to also decorate the walls surrounding and across from their doors. Now one is assaulted by Christmas imagery from all sides, while walking past certain units.

It is all par for the course of how Christianity has operated over the millennia. During the Spanish Inquisition, for example, Catholic leaders routinely corralled Jewish leaders and forced them into compulsory religious debates. The juries, of course, were totally rigged, and the whole debacle was a setup to justify the massacre and expulsion of Spanish Jews. Catholics could not just practice Catholicism and allow Jews to practice Judaism. Jews had to practice Catholicism. Or else.

And so we come to a core issue at the root of Christianity in general and Christmas in particular: Christianity is founded not only on the rejection but also on the villainization of Judaism. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, not only said to be the son of Gd, but said to have been murdered by the duplicitous, scheming, deceitful, cunning, shrewd, and ultimately evil Jews who therefore cannot, under any circumstances, be trusted. Therein lies the reason people are so willing to believe that Jews run the media, banks, government, and fill-in-the-blank:

Jews killed Gd.

Seriously, you cannot be more of a scary, two-timing, butt-fuck asshole than if you have killed Gd. And herein lies the implicit, if not explicit, justification for the persecution of Jews throughout Christian countries, over the millennia. Jews are the perfect scapegoat, because Gd-killers are obviously evil and therefore are most certainly behind anything and everything unseemly in society. One can never, under any circumstances, trust Jews. They may seem warm and friendly, but that’s just the devil in disguise.

And here’s the kicker: If Jesus did in fact exist, he was a Jew – killed like other Jews, on the cross, by the Roman empire conquerors of ancient Israel, in a grotesque, brutal, horrific punishment for simply being a Jew. Not only were Jews murdered on crosses in their own land, but for the next 2,000 plus years, Jews were collectively blamed, punished, and massacred for the possibility that Romans murdered a fellow Jew on a cross, for the crime of being a Jew.


To make things even more perverse, Hanukkah specifically honors the Jewish revolt against the Romans during the very period that Jesus supposedly lived and died on that there cross. And now Hanukkah cowers in the shadow of Christmas. Unbelievable.

I could overlook the Jew-hating roots of Christianity and Jew-murdering history of Christmas, in the interest of knocking back a few eggnogs with all the shiny-faced, well-meaning Christian and Christo-secular types, if only Christmas were not shoved down my face 24/7, with the demand that I, too, revel in its halo of glory — as if Christmas were central to my very existence. But 1) the public celebration of Christmas is a blatant violation of the American Constitution, whose tenets I hold dear; 2) Christmas is compulsory, both culturally and financially, therefore stealing my freedom of choice; 3) religious minorities are penalized for celebrating their own holidays on the very day of said holidays; and 4) it is impossible to escape Christmas – not only on the holiday itself, but now, for an entire quarter of the calendar year.

Which all goes to say: Christmas cheer? Not so much. Christmas is, quite simply, a yearly assault that I do my best to power through – turning off all forms of mass communication where I do not have total control; avoiding all public gatherings that are not specifically of a religious minority (ie, Christmas-free); and shopping with earplugs, so that Frosty the g*damned Snowman stays the fuck out of my head.

A pioneering Jewish multicultural educator, writer, healer, musician, and public relations manager, Loolwa Khazzoom now synthesizes it all through music-driven programs with her band, Iraqis in Pajamas – facilitating irreverent motivational speaking programs. Her work has been featured in media including The New York Times, CNN, and Rolling Stone and can be found at (new website launch in January).

Reflections on the White House: Reclaiming radical moderation

This past week, I was privileged to attend the White House’s annual Chanukah Party together with our principal Noam Weissman.  For those who have attended, you know that the experience, from start to finish, is nothing short of surreal.  One can only stand back and drink in the scene as everyone from senators to supreme court justices, rabbis and representatives (of the House, that is), gather to mark our festival of lights in the most famous residence on the planet.

As you can imagine, there were many highlights over the course of the day. Reb Noam and I were thrilled to run into Alexa Fishman, a Shalhevet alum, who sang at the event as part of Princeton’s Jewish a cappella group.  And I would be remiss without mentioning the delicious kosher cuisine, specifically the kosher lamb chops. (Legend has it that Barbara Bush first brought kosher food to the White House when she saw some folks standing around and not eating at the party.) I toyed with the idea of filming an impromptu Kosher Korner episode live from the White House – Reb Noam promptly (and wisely) shut me down.  

Of course, merely catching a glimpse of the President of the United States in person was an unforgettable experience unto itself. Whether you love him or not, President Obama’s regality and charisma cannot be denied.  Listening to him speak was an almost spiritual experience.  

The most memorable moment, however, happened after much of the hubbub had subsided, as many prepared to catch their trains and planes back home, and a few gathered in the “Red Room” for mincha.   Now, I am far from the first to remark on the inimitable experience of davening in the White House, with millennia of Jewish history racing through one’s mind and a newfound appreciation of the very notion of malchus (kingship) pounding at one’s heart.  Kavanah, usually hard to come by, suddenly comes in droves.

This particular White House mincha, however, was different.  The leader of the minyan was none other than Elisha Wiesel, who assembled a minyan in order to say kaddish in memory of his father – the great Jewish hero Eli Wiesel.  Standing there, I could not help but conjure this legendary man. Just moments before, President Obama, who famously enjoyed a close relationship with Wiesel, noted that the menorah they used at the White House this year was made by his granddaughter at Hebrew school. 

The President told a story recounted by Wiesel from his time in the camps.  On Chanukah, one of the Jews traded his daily food ration for the material to create makeshift candles.  

“Are you crazy!?,” someone said to him. “You’re making Chanukah candles in Auschwitz?!”  

“Yes,” the man responded. “Davka in Auschwitz we must make candles.”  

One needn’t search too hard to identify the overwhelming relevance of Elie Wiesel’s transcendent message for all of us in this moment.  We live in a dark and divisive time, and everyone feels it.  Many have proclaimed hopelessness, as though we may never claw our way out of the fear and anxiety which envelops us, in the United States, in Israel, in Syria, and beyond. 

Elie Wiesel’s words reminded us – as they always have – that it’s precisely in those moments that we must reach out of that darkness.  We reach for our candles, yes, to spark that light that will banish the shadows.  But we must also reach out further – we must reach out and grab hold of each other. 

The evening before I visited the White House, I took part in a panel discussion on “Trump’s America.” Different opinions were expressed from across the political spectrum (although some were frustrated that there wasn’t a “strong right-wing presence”).  What I enjoyed most from the event was not the opportunity to get on a soapbox and hammer away at my point – it was the opportunity really engage with the panelists. 

In particular, Rabbi Sharon Brous and I differed on many points.  But that's okay.  We were able to talk to each other, to learn from each other.  In fact, we were on the very same plane to Washington D.C. after the event, and we continued our conversation then in a productive way, each drawing clarity and strength from the process.

We need to reach out to each other, talk to each other, and feel confident enough in our own positions to maintain camaraderie while we disagree. I made the points that our society finds a misplaced sense of comfort in the extremes, because we feel “at least broadly they agree with us!” This approach which has gotten us nowhere. 

It is time to do the opposite. Instead of turning to the margins, let’s turn towards the center and reach across the aisle instead of embracing the seeming comfort of the extremes (on the right and on the left).  We must regain what I call a “radical moderation.” We must regain our humanity, and defend it at all costs. We can lose an election or an argument, but we can’t lose our humanity

As I picked my eyes up from my iPhone siddur and glanced around the room, I noticed every type of Jew represented in that minyan.  Jews who may otherwise disagree considerably with each other. But we all knew that in this moment, in this surreal moment that we stood in the East Room of the White House, with Elie Wiesel’s son at the helm of our minyan, those differences did nothing to diminish the love and camaraderie we felt for each other. 

This Chanukah, let’s find that love and camaraderie once more.

Rabbi Ari Segal is Head of School at Shalhevet High School.

Chanukah gift guide: A festival of bites

Celebrate the Festival of Lights by giving gifts with gustatory flair.

” target=”_blank”>

” target=”_blank”>

” target=”_blank”>

” target=”_blank”>

” target=”_blank”>

” target=”_blank”>

A DIY Chanukah menorah for the kids

This Chanukah, make a menorah just for the kids. This do-it-yourself menorah is made from cardboard tubes and the “flames” are actually felt, so little fingers won’t get burned. Making the menorah also can be a fun family activity that gets everyone excited about the upcoming holiday. 

What you’ll need:

– 8 bathroom tissue cardboard tubes
– 1 paper towel roll tube
– Wrapping paper
– Tape
– Stapler
– Yellow and orange felt
– Scissors
– Glue
– Clothespins

1. Wrap the cardboard tubes

2. Staple the tubes together

3. Cut flame shapes

4. Glue flames to clothespins

” target=”_blank”>

Light Chanukah reading for all ages

Chanukah is “late” this year, so that gives everyone plenty of extra time to shop for gifts, including those for book-lovers. There are a few notable 2016 picture books about the holiday for younger children, a couple of gems for middle-grade students, and even something for their parents. 

Picture books

“A Hanukkah With Mazel,” by Joel Edward Stein. Illustrated by Elisa Vavouri. Kar-Ben, 2016. 

Misha is a poor struggling artist who lives alone outside the village of Grodno with only his cow, Klara, to keep him company. One morning when Misha comes to the barn to milk Klara, he finds a hungry kitten curled up next to her, and he names her Mazel. On the first night of Chanukah, he is able to find two potatoes and a bit of oil to fry some latkes, but unfortunately, no candles to light a menorah and no money to buy any. Since he is an artist, the one thing he does have is paint, and he comes up with a creative way to celebrate: He paints a menorah and adds one painted “flame” each night of the holiday. Mazel’s cheery companionship buoys Misha’s holiday spirit until he meets a traveling merchant who has been looking for little Goldie, a kitten who had jumped from his cart weeks earlier. All ends well in this sweet tale that provides smiles all around and in which Mazel indeed earns her name. The pleasant pen and ink watercolor art by Elisa Vavouri, an experienced European illustrator of over 70 books, depicts Old World simplicity with charming expressiveness.

“Yitzi and the Giant Menorah,” written and illustrated by Richard Ungar. Tundra Books, 2016.

Canadian author and illustrator Richard Ungar is experienced at telling Jewish children’s folk tales. His fifth picture book is a newly imagined Chelm story that is a bit more lengthy than typical picture books, but it is so well told that it should really be read out loud for best effect. Ungar sets the stage on a cold morning before Chanukah in the Polish shtetl of Chelm. The mayor of Lublin has sent over a special gift unlike anything the town has ever seen: a huge Chanukah menorah as big as a tree. The town now needs to figure out how to thank the mayor for this wondrous gift. Of course, being Chelmites, they come up with some pretty hare-brained schemes that readers will find amusing — but none of these ideas will be able to solve their problem. It is left to young Yitzi, the only child character, to think up the most fitting way to thank the faraway mayor, who is asked to climb up the big hill outside of town to view the town’s offering. The watercolor illustrations by the author are busy and bright with a bit of an old-world feel to match the story.

Middle grade

“Dreidels on the Brain” by Joel Ben Izzy. Dial, 2016.

It’s Chanukah 1971 in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and life is not going great for Joel, an amateur magician and the only Jewish kid in his middle school class. Not only is he “seriously funny-looking” but his family’s monetary situation has hit hard times and his dad has to be hospitalized due to debilitating arthritis. Author Joel Ben Izzy is a professional storyteller who says  the book is semi-autobiographical. The excellent writing is full of Yiddish-tinged humor as young Joel channels his inner Catskill comic when explaining Jewish traditions (including the myriad ways of spelling “Chanukah”) and typical embarrassing middle-grade situations. This touching story of a boy searching to just be “normal” will engage young readers and keep them turning pages until the satisfying conclusion — when the dorky kid triumphs after spinning the dreidel enough times to find his own miracle.

“The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog,” by Adam Gidwitz. Illustrated by Hatem Aly. Dutton, 2016.

It would seem unlikely that a story about three children that questions religious tenets and takes place in 1242 France would become one of the hottest books of the year for 10- through 12-year-olds, but by the end of the first chapter, you’re hooked. It’s a little bit like Chaucer and Joan of Arc meet “The Princess Bride,” and a lot like nothing else the world of American children’s literature has ever seen. Jewish and general religious themes abound in this hybrid of humorous and serious adventure-packed historical fiction. Told in multiple voices, the reader follows the journey of the three magical children (and their resurrected greyhound dog) as they traverse French villages in an attempt to rescue “the entire wisdom of the Jewish people” (20,000 Talmuds and other books) from being burned by King Louis IX. This particular historical event is just one of the many accurate details cleverly integrated into the storyline. Those who love chapter books with illustrations will be delighted in this profound achievement by a popular author who always keeps the vocabulary level high and the adventures suspenseful and thought provoking.


“The Art of Hanukkah,” by Nancy M. Berman. Universe, 2016.

Nancy M. Berman is known to Los Angeles residents as the past curator and director of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Skirball Museum, and one of the founders of the Skirball Cultural Center. Her career in Jewish art and culture began at the Jewish Museum in New York, where she was assistant curator of the Judaica department. She has particular expertise in the art of the Chanukah lamp. This book is actually a reissue of a 1996 publication from a different publisher (now with an updated cover), but the art within is stunning, and the essays accompanying the selection of 48 holiday-related masterpieces are rich and informative. The featured Chanukah lamps reflect the Jewish experience throughout history, such as the fabulous Hirsch Lamp from 1814 Germany, which reflects the architectural style of the period and place in which it was made, or the Statue of Liberty Lamp, which showcases nine Lady Liberties holding aloft candle cups instead of flaming torches. This is a book that is fun to flip through, allowing everyone to choose their favorite chanukiyah while marveling at the creativity of Jewish artisans through the ages.

Story of ‘Shmelf’ not welcome on every Jewish library shelf

You’d better watch out. I’m telling you why: “Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf” has come to town, and a vocal contingent of Jewish children’s librarians and other critics would like to see him hitch the first sleigh ride back to the North Pole.

Los Angeles-based children’s book author Greg Wolfe, who is Jewish, created the story of Shmelf, an elf assigned to check twice the accuracy of Santa’s list of children naughty and nice. In this new Chanukah-Christmas picture book hybrid from Bloomsbury Publishers, Shmelf is perplexed when he notices that certain children who have been good (identified by a long list of names in a notebook) are not going to get presents from Santa. Why? As the head elf cheerily explains, those children are Jewish and they will get their gifts from their parents on a different holiday — Chanukah: “It won’t be dear Santa who gives them a gift, but their mommies and daddies. Do you get my drift?” 

Still, the earnest Shmelf makes it his mission to check out what he fears is a possible travesty of justice, only to behold a fine Jewish family doing very appropriate Chanukah-related things: “He saw menorahs with candles so thin, and children were giving their dreidels a spin. There was gelt — chocolate coins wrapped up in gold foil — and latkes frying in pans filled with oil.” After he overhears the family retelling the story of the Maccabees, Shmelf “says with a grin: ‘Hanukkah’s awesome! I’m totally in!’ ”

Shmelf returns to the North Pole and tells Santa of his discovery. The big guy responds by making Shmelf “the Hanukkah elf” who, together with his Jewish reindeer, Asher, will visit Jewish children to make sure their “latkes are crispy and thin,” their “menorahs burn brighter” and their “dreidels win.” For the special assignment, Santa provides Shmelf with a blue-and-white elf suit in place of the standard-issue green-and-white one, as well as a yellow-gold Star of David instead of a jingle bell for the tip of Shmelf’s stocking cap.

During Shmelf’s visits, the Jewish children can whisper to him what they want for Chanukah, so that he can relay their wishes to Mom and Dad, because, as the book makes clear, Santa is not in the picture for them. (Interestingly, Shmelf is laser-focused on Jewish children. It seems of no concern to him that millions of other children around the world also don’t celebrate Christmas.)

A few vocal librarians who are members of the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) and have served on the committee for its Sydney Taylor Book Award, which annually recognizes outstanding books for children and teens that best portray the Jewish experience, have posted criticism of the book on Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook and other social media.

Heidi Rabinowitz, former AJL president, hosted a lively discussion about the book in November on her podcast, “The Book of Life,” which has been downloaded more than 5,000 times. And popular children’s book reviewer and sharp-tongued parenting columnist Marjorie Ingall from Tablet magazine wrote a scathing review that included the lines, “Bite me, Shmelf. I like my latkes thick. Stuff that in your stocking.” 

Why the vitriol? Rachel Kamin, a Chicago librarian, reviewer and previous head of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee, has written that the book is “offensive and disrespectful” because “the philosophy that Jews can believe in Santa and Christmas magic and that Santa believes in them too is not an idea that is promoted in mainstream Judaism and is not a philosophy that a mainstream, secular publisher should be validating or promoting.”  

Kamin also criticized that, although the family in the book is clearly enjoying celebrating their holiday as Jews all over the world choose to do it, “Shmelf and Santa still feel their celebration somehow isn’t meaningful and special enough on its own and is in need of a dose of Christmas magic.”

Wolfe was raised Jewish, had a bar mitzvah and is proud of his religious traditions. In an email, the book’s author said that when he was growing up, his parents wanted to make sure he felt included in the shared cultural experience of secular Christmas in America.

“We did things like read ‘ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas,’ get pictures taken [with Santa] at the mall, and leave out cookies and milk for Santa and his reindeer,” Wolfe wrote. “These traditions helped me feel as though I belonged to something bigger. But I don’t believe this detracted from my Jewishness. Hanukkah was my holiday, and I knew and valued that.

“But when I became a parent myself,” Wolfe continued, “my young son wanted to know how Santa fit in with our Judaism. Particularly, he asked, ‘Does Santa know I exist?’ ‘Shmelf’ is my way of saying, ‘Yes, Santa DOES know you exist,’ while still embracing our Jewish heritage — it’s a love letter to Hanukkah seen through the eyes of an elf.

“While I understand some people may not like the idea of Santa showing up in a Hanukkah story, I hope it allows children to learn how other cultures are both similar to and different from their own, and how to spread the joy of the holiday season.”

A quick survey of librarians at Sephardic Temple, Temple Isaiah, Heschel Day School, Sinai Akiba and the Wise School revealed they will not be purchasing the book for their libraries, although it is being considered for possible purchase by the librarian at Valley Beth Shalom due to the value of its multicultural themes.

The “December Dilemma” is a real concern for many Jewish or interfaith parents who want their children to feel part of national secular celebrations and may choose the same path that Wolfe’s parents did. Some of the positive Amazon reviews for “Shmelf” are from parents in interfaith families.

How much Santa an intermarried couple wants in their lives is an issue couples in that situation need to grapple with, but it seems that critics of this particular book are focusing on the appropriateness of the mashup for very young children who don’t yet know Jewish traditions. Jewish parenting guru Ingall recommends parents educate themselves on “both faiths, keep Christmas and Chanukah separate, inform your kids of the backstory of both, and stop trying to compete with Christmas.” 

Noodles flex their versatility in sweet, savory kugels

During a recent cooking class I was teaching, several students showed an interest in Jewish foods that could be served during Chanukah, aside from the traditional potato latkes.   

Sufganiyot, or jelly doughnuts, are another popular choice at this time of year, but I thought of something else. As far back as I can remember, old-fashioned kugel — one of the basic foods in Jewish cuisine — has been served at our family meals to celebrate the holiday.

In Germany, the name kugel has become synonymous with pudding, and the two words in Europe often are interchangeable. Most kugel recipes are based on noodles, rice or potatoes, and kugel can be served as a side dish, main course or dessert, hot or cold.

While the crisp Classic Potato Kugel is a hearty accompaniment for brisket, pot roast or roasted chicken, my personal favorite is a Noodle Fruit Kugel, accented with apples and raisins. 

Most kugel recipes can be prepared in advance and refrigerated until ready to bake and serve.

And don’t worry, just because kugel is on the menu this Chanukah doesn’t mean your family has to pass on those old-fashioned potato latkes. It’s easy to convert the potato kugel batter into latkes simply by spooning some of the mixture into a nonstick skillet and frying them until golden brown.    


This recipe also can be used to make Classic Latkes (see below).

1/4 cup olive oil
2 eggs
2 cups peeled, grated potatoes, well-drained and tightly packed (preferably russet)
1 small onion, grated
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Brush bottom and sides of an 8-by-8-inch baking dish with 2 tablespoons olive oil and set aside. 

Beat eggs in a large bowl until fluffy.  Add grated potatoes, onion, remaining olive oil, flour, baking powder and salt and pepper. Spoon the potato mixture into prepared baking dish.

Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake 30 to 45 minutes longer, until golden brown and crisp.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.


Prepare potato mixture.

Heat 3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet.  Drop a tablespoon of the potato mixture into the skillet, then flatten with the back of a spoon for thin latkes. Brown on both sides, 3 to 5 minutes, depending on how hot the burner under the frying pan is. Drain on paper towels.  

Makes about 24 latkes.


2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup Concord grape wine or apple juice
1 (12-ounce) package flat egg noodles
1/4 pound unsalted butter
2 apples, peeled, cored and diced
4 eggs, well beaten
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon cinnamon-sugar or more to taste (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 F. 

Brush a 9-by-12-inch baking dish with olive oil and set aside.

In a small bowl, soak raisins in wine for 1 hour or overnight, drain before using.  

Boil the noodles until tender, drain into a large bowl. Combine noodles, butter, apples and  raisins and mix well. Add eggs and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared baking dish and sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar, if desired. 

Bake in preheated oven for 35 to 45 minutes, until top is brown and crisp.  Cut into squares. Serve hot or cold. 

Makes about 10 to 12 servings.     


2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup unsalted butter
Grated peel of 1 orange
Grated peel of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs
3 cups cooked rice
1/2 cups raisins

Preheat the oven to 350 F. 

Brush bottom and sides of an 8-by-8-inch square baking dish with olive oil and set aside. 

Beat together sugar, butter, orange and lemon peel, cinnamon and vanilla in a large bowl. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until well-blended. Stir in rice and raisins and mix thoroughly. 

Pour into prepared baking dish and bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour. 

Makes 8 to 10 servings.


2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
1/4 pound flat egg noodles
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup warm milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Pinch of nutmeg
4 eggs, separated
1/4 cup minced parsley

Preheat the oven to 350 F.  

Brush an 8- or 9-inch round mold with melted butter. Set aside.

Cook noodles in salted boiling water until tender. Drain and rinse in cold water. Set aside.

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in saucepan. Add flour and whisk until blended. Add warm milk all at once, stirring vigorously with wire whisk. Season to taste, with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Transfer mixture to large bowl and cool slightly. 

Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form and set aside. Beat yolks in separate bowl until foamy and add to cooled butter mixture. Stir in noodles. Carefully fold in stiffly beaten egg whites, then parsley. Spoon the mixture into prepared mold and place mold in a shallow baking pan partially filled with hot water.

Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes or until set. Unmold kugel onto a large platter. 

Makes about 8 servings.

Judy Zeidler is a food consultant, cooking teacher and author of 10 cookbooks, including “Italy Cooks” (Mostarda Press, 2011). Her website is

Calendar: December 16-22

FRI | DEC 16


Rabbi Yedidia Shofet discusses love and unity. For ages 21 to 34. 4:30 Mincha; 6:30 p.m. Kiddush; dinner to follow. $26. Nessah Synagogue, 142 S. Rexford Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 273-2400. ” target=”_blank”>

SAT | DEC 17


The Markaz Arts Center for the Greater Middle East presents a benefit concert of world music, dance and hip-hip arts. Proceeds from the event will benefit protesters opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline, many of whom are preparing for the harsh winter in North Dakota. Featuring Bedouin-X, Good Peoplez, Aubre Hill, Sima Galanti, Keyanna Celina, Sonia Ochoa, Arohi Ensemble and others. 6 p.m. Free. The Pico Union Project, 1153 Valencia St., Los Angeles. (310) 657-5511. ” target=”_blank”>

SUN | DEC 18



Israeli superstar, singer-guitarist David Broza is coming to town with his popular “Not Quite Xmas Spectacular.” The all-star lineup of internationally acclaimed musicians presents a holiday treat of lively rhythms and joyous feelings. Featuring: David Broza, vocals/guitar; Jay Beckenstein, saxophone; Julio Fernandez, guitar; Francisco Centeno, bass; Cyro Baptista, percussion; Ali Paris, qanun/vocals; Yonadav Halevy, drums. 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $55. The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. (310) 434-3200. ” target=”_blank”>


The Israeli American Council’s IAC-Care, along with IAC Keshet Sfarim, is holding a Chanukah toy and book drive to donate to underprivileged children in the Los Angeles area. The volunteer-driven event also will feature activities for the entire family. To volunteer or donate, contact 10:30 a.m. Free. Shepher Community Center, 6530 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. (818) 836-6700. ” target=”_blank”>


This year’s festival honors the light of creativity and celebrates the hope that helps the community achieve great things together. Revel in the spirit of the holiday with music, dance, printmaking, storytelling and other family-friendly fun. Families of all backgrounds are welcome. 11 a.m. $12; $7 for children ages 2 to 12; $9 for seniors and students. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. ” target=”_blank”>


The Sephardic Educational Center presents the Los Angeles premiere of “Hummus! The Movie.” The documentary reveals secret recipes and the super food’s power to bring together Muslims, Christians and Jews from around the world. The film showcases personal stories of the men and women whose lives have been changed by the Middle Eastern staple. There will be introductory remarks by Executive Producer Mitch Julius. 5 p.m. $15. Laemmle’s Music Hall Theater, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 272-4574. MON | DEC 19


Network, connect and relax at this casual happy hour, presented by Young Adults of Los Angeles. Intended for professionals working in the entertainment and media fields. 6:30 p.m. Free. The Belmont, 747 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 761-8054. ” target=”_blank”>



Young Adults Los Angeles Post Undergrads is hosting a painting night to celebrate the Festival of Lights with a private painting session, snacks and drinks. Part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Infinite Light festival. Intended for individuals ages 22 to 26. 7 p.m. $30. Robertson Art Space, 1020 Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 761-8054. WED | DEC 21


Stop by the Holidays gallery to see rarely displayed Chanukah lamps. There will be something for everyone to enjoy — designs ranging from Looney Toons to the Liberty Bell. 2:30 p.m. Free with museum admission. Also Thursday, Dec. 22, 2:30 p.m. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. ” target=”_blank”>

Recipes: The essence of Ashkenazic cuisine

A spate of Jewish cookbooks have hit the marketplace in recent years to address various niches and interests in diasporic cuisine. The recently published “The Gefilte Manifesto” is arguably the most hamish with its focus on reviving Ashkenazic foods that industrialized production denigrated — and Borscht Belt humor sometimes mocked. 

As the title suggests, “The Gefilte Manifesto” by Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern is part polemic, part how-to manual that reintroduces time-honored cooking, baking and food-preserving. The philosophy and recipes resonate for pickling-crazed millennials or bubbes who were taught to jettison the ways of the Old Country under the sacrosanct banner of modern convenience.

It all is presented with a mixture of tradition and contemporary twists that seems to fit the needs of Chanukah and other holidays.

“Rather than attempting to preserve old recipes or soon-to-be-forgotten ingredients, we’re presenting an old approach to a new way of eating. Or is it a new approach to an old way of eating?” Alpern asks in “Manifesto’s” introduction.

Alpern and Yoskowitz were recently in Los Angeles to discuss their new book, show off their artisinal Gefilteria product line and participate in some local Jewish charity events in a pre-Chanukah run-up. 

Among their events in Los Angeles was a tasting and talk about Jewish food, history and identity at the Rustic Canyon home of food writer Amelia Saltsman. For the November gathering, Saltsman and the two visiting cooks prepared noshes to benefit Netiya, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that addresses the intersection of faith work and food justice. (Disclosure: I’m on the Netiya board of directors.)

While on the L.A. leg of their tour to promote “The Gefilte Manifesto,” Alpern and Yoskowitz, both 32, also joined forces with East Side Jews and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ NuRoots initiative for food and drink events. 

Their time on the Westside included the requisite trip to the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market with Saltsman. “You’re very lucky to live in a city where you get this amazing produce all year,” Alpern told the gathering in Rustic Canyon. The audience already had been converted to Gefilteria’s culinary view of the world via the Cauliflower and Mushroom Kugel served that evening hipster-DIY-style in Mason jars. Cholent deviled eggs, smoked whitefish terrine with carrot-citrus horseradish relish and pickled shallots, autumn kale salad, and roasted red beet and dark chocolate ice cream helped seal the deal. 

With third business partner Jackie Lilinshtein, Gefilteria (ROOT VEGETABLE LATKES

– 4 russet potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled
– 1 medium parsnip, peeled
– 1 medium turnip, peeled
– 1 small onion
– 4 scallions, finely chopped
– 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
– 1 tablespoon kosher salt
– 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
– 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
– 1/3 cup bread crumbs or matzo meal
– Schmaltz or peanut, canola or grapeseed oil, for frying
– Apple-Pear Sauce for serving (Recipe below)
– Sour cream for serving

Shred the potatoes, parsnip, turnip and onion on the large holes of a box grater or in a food processor using the shredder plate. Place the grated vegetables in a large bowl and add cold water to cover. Let sit for about 5 minutes. 

Drain the vegetables in a colander and squeeze out as much liquid as possible from the shreds into a bowl. It’s helpful to take cheesecloth or a clean thin kitchen towel, drape in an empty bowl, then pour in the shredded vegetables. Wrap the cheesecloth or towel around the vegetables and squeeze tightly in the bowl. Repeat until as much liquid as possible has been removed. White potato starch will collect at the bottom of the bowl. Carefully drain off the water, leaving the potato starch. Set aside. 

Place the drained vegetable shreds in a large bowl. Add the scallions, eggs, salt, pepper, flour, bread crumbs and the reserved potato starch. Mix well, preferably using your hands. 

In a 9-inch nonstick or cast-iron skillet, heat a layer of schmaltz or oil, about 1/8 inch deep, over medium heat. Form the latke batter into thin patties, using about 2 tablespoons for each. As you form the patties, squeeze out and discard any excess liquid. Carefully slip the patties, about 4 at a time, into the pan and fry for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, or until golden brown and crisp. Take care to flip them only once to avoid excess oil absorption. If the pan begins to smoke at all, add more schmaltz or oil and let it heat up again before frying another batch of latkes. 

Remove the latkes from the pan and place on a baking sheet lined with paper towels to drain the excess fat. Latkes are best and crispiest when served right away. If serving later, transfer to a separate casserole dish or baking sheet and place in the oven at 200 F to keep warm until serving. Serve hot, topped with Apple-Pear Sauce and/or sour cream.

Makes 18 to 22 latkes.


– 2 pounds baking apples (about 6 medium), such as McIntosh, peeled, cored and quartered 
– 2 pounds sweet pears (about 5 medium), such as Bartlett, peeled, cored and quartered 
– 1/2 cup apple juice, apple cider or water 
– 2 cinnamon sticks 
– 1 to 4 tablespoons maple syrup or sugar (optional) 
– 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (optional)

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, combine the apple and pear quarters, apple juice and cinnamon sticks and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 to 40 minutes. The apples will soften and puff up a bit as the heat draws out their liquid. When you can smush the fruit by pressing on it with a spoon, it has finished cooking.

Turn off the heat and remove the cinnamon sticks. Mash the mixture with a potato masher or an improvised masher (an empty jar works well). For a smooth applesauce, puree using an immersion blender or food processor. 

If you’d like your sauce sweeter, stir in the maple syrup or sugar (start with 1 tablespoon and add more if needed). Stir in the lemon juice, if using, which adds a bit of tartness to balance out the sweetness. Let the sauce cool. 

Serve at room temperature. The sauce will keep in the refrigerator for about a month. If storing for later use, transfer to an airtight container and freeze.

Makes 5 to 6 cups of sauce.


– 1 cup heavy cream 
– 1/4 cup store-bought cultured buttermilk 

Pour the heavy cream and buttermilk into a clean pint- or quart-size glass jar with a lid. 

Seal tightly and shake vigorously for about 1 minute. Let the jar sit on the countertop at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, for 24 to 48 hours. The longer it sits, the sourer it will become. You may notice liquid separation occurring. It’s hard to judge from the looks of your sour cream when it’s ready, so taste to see if it’s at a sour level you’re comfortable with within the 24- to 48-hour window. The warmer it is, the faster it will sour. If the mixture becomes yellow or chunky, which could occur if the temperature in the room is too hot, toss it out and try again. 

Place the jar of sour cream in the fridge and enjoy for up to a week. Shake before each use to reincorporate any liquid that has separated.

Makes 1 1/2 cups sour cream.


– 1 large head cauliflower (about 2 pounds), broken into florets
– 1/4 cup vegetable oil or unsalted butter, plus more as needed
– 1 medium onion, diced
– 8 ounces fresh mushrooms, cleaned and chopped (porcinis, shiitakes and wild forest mushroom varieties are ideal, but any variety from the store is fine)
– 1 3/4 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed
– 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
– 4 large eggs, plus 3 egg yolks
– 2 tablespoons bread crumbs, store-bought or homemade
– 4 shallots, for topping (optional)
– About 1/4 cup grapeseed oil, for frying the shallots (optional)
– Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
– Six 8-ounce ramekins or a 9-inch glass baking dish

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the cauliflower and boil until the florets are tender but not mushy, 5 to 7 minutes. Drain the cauliflower thoroughly. Place it in a food processor.

In a medium pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent and lightly golden, 7 to 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms, salt and pepper and cook, undisturbed, for at least 1 minute to help the mushrooms darken. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are browned and their liquid has evaporated, 5 to 7 minutes more.

Transfer the mushrooms and onion (and any extra oil from the pan) to the food processor with the cauliflower. Add the eggs and egg yolks and process until the mixture has a smooth consistency with minimal clumps. (If you do not have a food processor, mash the vegetables, eggs, and yolks together with a large fork or spoon until the mixture is as smooth as possible.) Transfer the mixture to a large bowl, stir in the bread crumbs, and mix well.

Grease six 8-ounce ramekins or a 9-inch glass baking dish. Fill with the cauliflower mixture. Each ramekin should hold a little under 1 cup of the filling. Tap the bottoms of the ramekins or baking dish against the counter so that the top of the kugel flattens out and you’ve released any air bubbles. If using individual ramekins, place them in a roasting pan with at least 3-inch-high sides. Pour boiling water into the pan to come about halfway up the sides of the ramekins (this will ensure that the kugel stays moist). Bake for 55 minutes to 1 hour. The kugel is done when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean and the kugel is lightly browned on top. Remove from the oven carefully, remove the ramekins from the water, and let cool slightly.

If using shallots, while the kugel is baking, slice them as thin as possible (if you have a mandoline, use it here on the thinnest setting). In a small nonstick pan, heat the grapeseed oil over medium heat. Immerse the shallots in the oil and fry them, stirring frequently, until they are crispy, crunchy, shrunken and dark in color, 15 to 25 minutes. Keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t burn. Transfer the shallots to a paper towel-lined plate to drain and sprinkle lightly with salt. Set aside until serving.

Garnish the kugel with the fried shallots (if using) and the chopped parsley. Store any leftover fried shallots in an airtight container.

Makes about six 8-ounce servings.

Excerpted from the “The Gefilte Manifesto” by Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern. Copyright  2016 by Gefilte Manifesto LLC. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved.

Olive oil: Out of the frying pan and into the food

Chanukah celebrates the miracle of light, when one day’s worth of oil burned instead for eight. The oil the Jews used to rededicate their Temple was made from olives. I always thought the fact that olive oil can be used to light a menorah and to make great food is a miracle of another sort.  

Traditionally, we commemorate the winter holiday by eating food fried in oil. Thirty years ago, at two of my Los Angeles restaurants, I created a Chanukah menu. Of course, I served foods fried in oil — latkes and artichokes, what the Italians call carciofi alla giudia, or Jewish artichokes. But I also used the oil as Mediterranean chefs have for centuries — as a major ingredient in and of itself.

When you bathe ingredients in olive oil, you not only infuse them with the flavor of the oil, the oil itself absorbs, marries and spreads the flavors of the various ingredients. The result is a dish that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. In Hebrew, the word for bathing or anointing in oil is the same as the word for “messiah” — and there is something truly ennobling and transformative about this cooking technique.

The key, of course, is not to skimp on the quality of the extra-virgin olive oil. Always buy dated, estate-grown and bottled oil. In fact, in honor of the holiday, splurge on recently arrived “new harvest” oil. I often give bottles of the stuff as gifts. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the holiday that calls on us to use copious amounts of olive oil comes just after the annual pressing of the olive harvest. Three millennia before “farm to table” and “local and seasonal” became marketing slogans, Jewish holidays locked into the rhythm of nature and the seasons. 

That’s why, in our day, it makes sense to change our Chanukah menu a bit and use it to celebrate the wonders of olive oil itself. Instead of relegating olive oil to the frying pan, we can make it the key ingredient in long, unctuous braises. 

Olive oil is a marvel. Sometimes I think that instead of frying potatoes in it this time of year, we should literally bathe ourselves in the stuff in celebration of the Festival of Lights. But if anointing yourself with copious amounts of oil doesn’t appeal to you, perhaps I could entice you to bathe humble vegetables in it, and perhaps a chicken, too. Mediterranean cultures have known for centuries that olive oil can be transformative in cooking. Sure, you can change soft foods into crunch bombs by submerging them in hot oil, but there is more to the culinary use of oil than as a vehicle for fried food.  

When paired with a squeeze of lemon juice, some tomato or even just water, olive oil becomes a lush braising vehicle for vegetables and poultry. Its buttery texture and spicy vegetal aromas combine with the natural moistness of the main event to create an exchange. First, the main ingredient gives up its natural moisture to the braising liquid. That moisture then combines with the oil and other liquids to create a flavorful amalgam that then permeates the original ingredient.

Take the dish (whose recipe follows) of Long-Cooked Mediterranean Green Beans that shows up on tables in Turkey, Greece and Italy, for example. When heat is applied, the beans release their liquid. It then marries with the oil, water, tomato and liquid released by the onion — and over time (sometimes two to three hours) and low heat, a culinary miracle occurs. The oil penetrates the beans, now carrying their full flavor. The beans collapse on themselves as the texture is transformed from fibrous to an addictive silkiness. Despite the quantity of oil used, they are not oily in the least. An intrinsic benefit of this kind of cooking — known as zeytinagli in Turkey and lathera in Greece — are the juices created in the braise. Always have good bread on hand to sop them up. I also believe these vegetable dishes are better cold or at room temperature, so you have the advantage of making the dish ahead of time.

Like the beans, the chicken recipe is an example of a dish being so much greater than the sum of its parts. We served this dish at my restaurant Angeli for nearly 30 years. Over time, the recipe morphed from a spare squeeze of lemon juice, garlic and rosemary rubbed onto the bird into a luxurious bath of oil and lemon juice. That bath is reinforced with the lemon’s peel and chopped fresh garlic, rosemary and salt.

And as with the beans, the chicken releases its juices into the sauce, which in turn permeates the chicken and creates a magical dish. The amount of oil in the recipe is the “secret” to the sauce. I often share this secret with cooks who are reluctant to dive into the bath of oil. Do not be afraid. Yes, you can make these dishes with less oil, but they will be “meh,” nothing special. The oil is everything — as we already know as we light the candles each night.

Pair the richness of these dishes with some fruit anointed with oil: perhaps some sweet, juicy slices of peeled oranges and mandarins simply sprinkled with some good, crunchy finishing salts and drizzled with that rich, miraculous oil.


Photo by Evan Kleiman

– 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
– 1 cup tomato sauce
– 1 cup water
– 1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
– 1 tablespoon kosher salt
– 2 medium onions, peeled and minced
– 2 pounds green beans or Romano beans, if in season

In a large bowl, mix the oil, tomato sauce, water, sugar and salt.  

Place the onions, then the beans in a heavy, 6-quart pot. Pour the liquid mixture over them. Bring to a boil.

Place a sheet of parchment paper directly on the beans then cover the pot. Reduce the heat so the liquid simmers and beans cook slowly. Cook a minimum of 1 hour and up to 3 hours. Occasionally lift the pot lid and the parchment off the beans (carefully) and stir ingredients. Add a bit more water, if necessary, to prevent burning.

At the end of the cooking time, you will have a pot of silky tender beans coated with a thickened sauce. Serve cold or at room temperature with Greek yogurt or feta.

Makes 6 to 10 servings.


Photo by Evan Kleiman

– 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
– 6 to 10 garlic cloves, sliced
– 1 tablespoon kosher salt
– Generous grindings of fresh pepper
– 2 to 3 lemons
– 6-inch twig of rosemary, leaves removed (or more to taste)
– 1 fryer chicken, cut into 8 pieces

Pour olive oil into a bowl big enough to hold the chicken pieces. Add the garlic, salt and pepper.

Cut off the ends of the lemons, in order to make them stable when you remove the rind. With the lemon sitting on one of its ends, use a sharp paring knife to remove the rind in vertical strips (not only the zest, but the entire rind, including pith, so that the lemon flesh is exposed). You will have a bald lemon and the rind. Add the rind into the bowl containing the oil. Coarsely chop the peeled lemon and add it along with any juices to the bowl. Squeeze the juices from the remaining 2 lemons (or only one if it’s super juicy) into the bowl. Add the fresh rosemary leaves to the bowl. Stir the marinade.

Pull any excess fat off the chicken pieces and add trimmed chicken to the bowl of marinade and mix well. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. If you’ve used a lot of lemon juice, don’t let the chicken sit for more than 30 minutes or the flesh’s texture will change. If you’ve used only two lemons, the chicken can sit for up to a few hours.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Select a low-sided roasting pan that will accommodate the chicken in one layer. There must not be any empty space in the pan or all the precious juices will evaporate — crowded is better than empty space. If your only roasting pan is too big, fill the empty spaces with onion halves. Place the chicken in the pan and pour on all of the marinade and collected juices, including all pieces of lemon, rosemary and garlic.

Bake uncovered until chicken is a deep, golden brown, turning once or twice as necessary. It should take about 45 minutes to 1 hour. The chicken should be very tender inside and nice and brown on the outside with lots of sauce in the pan.

Makes about 4 servings.


4 sweet oranges, navel or Valencia
High-quality extra-virgin olive oil
Finishing salt

Using a sharp knife, remove the outside peel of the oranges down to the flesh. Cut each orange crosswise into 1/4-inch slices. Remove any seeds. Arrange on platter in concentric circles. Drizzle generously with oil. Just before serving, sprinkle with salt.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Chef Evan Kleiman is the long-time host of “Good Food” on Santa Monica radio station KCRW and

How I learned to make latkes


Chanukah has meant different things to me at different stages of my life. When I was little, it was about nightly presents and making candy dreidels in school, using marshmallows, red vines, Hershey’s Kisses and icing.

As I got older, it was about lighting the chanukiyah with my family and reading the prayers from my father’s prayer book. In college, it was about convening my friends in our dorm to light the Chanukah menorah together, and since then it’s been so meaningful to come home from work, light the chanukiyah in my kitchen and place it in the window of my apartment in view of the street.

This year, though, Chanukah took a different turn. I decided to learn how to cook latkes, the potato pancakes we eat to commemorate how oil, enough for only one day, lasted eight nights following the Maccabee victory.

The best way to learn, I figured, was to visit with Rob Eshman, Journal publisher, editor-in-chief and Foodaism blogger.

Rob is a foodie. He once brought a sugar cane to an editorial meeting and began chopping away at it with a knife so we could all taste fresh sugar. He’s kept goats and chickens in his backyard and grows many of the vegetables, fruits and herbs he cooks with in his garden. He’s genuinely offended when the office orders Domino’s.

Given that I’d never made latkes before, it helped that Rob was prepared. He had all the ingredients ready: the potatoes, an onion, salt, pepper, eggs and oil. There aren’t a lot of ingredients to latkes, Rob explained. The secret to success, he said, is in the technique.

He immediately put me to work peeling potatoes. I cook my own meals most nights, but it turns out there’s plenty left to learn. Like, how to use a potato peeler. Rob’s peels flew off the potato like sparks. Mine took their time. Rob looked over.

“Oh, we’re starting from there,” he said.

After some instruction, I sliced away at the potato skin, then, per his instructions, placed the potato in a bowl of water. Rob explained we keep the potato in water so as to prevent it from turning brown, or oxidizing. That was technique No. 1.

Then came technique No. 2. To make sure the grated potatoes didn’t turn brown, we alternated grating them with an onion. The onion was strong. I cried; Rob did too.

The third technique, Rob said, was crucial. We took handfuls of the potato/onion mixture and squeezed it out into a bowl to remove as much liquid as possible. The more liquid, Rob explained, the soggier the latke — and no one likes a soggy latke.

A white, wet goo settled at the bottom of the drained liquid. This was potato starch, and the basis for technique No. 4. Once the starch settled at the bottom of the bowl, we drained off the liquid, scooped up the starch and mixed it in with the potatoes. That would help bind the latkes and erase the need to add flour or matzo meal, which can make for heavier pancakes.

I cracked a couple of eggs and mixed those in as well, then sprinkled salt and pepper over the batter. Afterward, I poured a generous amount of cooking oil into a pan, spooned the latke batter into the pan and let it fry into latkes.

Latkes frying in oil.

The latkes turned out perfectly. Crisp, light and potato-y. Rob even made a special few using a Middle Eastern strained yogurt called labneh, smoked salmon, and dill fetched from Rob’s garden.

The real test, however, was cooking latkes on my own. A few days later, I went to Ralphs and purchased two potatoes and an onion. I also got a grater and a potato peeler, since I had neither.

At home, I did exactly what I’d learned, following the techniques step by step. Eventually I wound up with about 12 latkes. I ate them with sour cream. They weren’t as good as the ones I’d cooked with Rob, but they were edible. Most importantly, I’d cooked them myself.

Later, my friend Esther came over with applesauce and tried one of my homemade latkes. I explained that the latkes seemed a little dry and didn’t hold together well. Esther asked me if I used eggs. Nope — forgot. Esther made me feel better, pointing out I’d just made vegan, gluten-free latkes.

I plan to cook latkes at my family Chanukah party this year, to put my new skill to use and wow my mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law and nephew with my culinary abilities. I just hope I remember all the ingredients.

Burger King Israel introduces doughnut burger for Chanukah

Burger King restaurants in Israel have introduced a doughnut burger for the Chanukah season.

The SufganiKing is a Whopper with savory doughnuts in place of buns. Its name is a play on the Hebrew word for doughnuts, sufganiyot, which are ubiquitous on every Israeli street corner in the weeks leading up to Chanukah.

The burger “proves that miracles still happen,” Burger King Israel said in a Facebook post, a reference to the miracles at the heart of the holiday story.

The SufganiKing will be sold for about $4. It will be available through Jan. 1, the last day of Chanukah, according to reports.

How to paint confetti wine glasses

With all of the holidays coming up — from Rosh Hashanah to Sukkot to Chanukah — your celebrations deserve something more festive than plain wine glasses. And what’s more festive than confetti? Hand-paint a confetti design on your glassware and you’ll add some stylish pizazz to your get-togethers.

These glasses also make great gifts. Spoiler alert for my friend Nancy: I made the wine glasses pictured in this tutorial for her birthday. And you’ll see from the simple step-by-step instructions that this project requires very little artistic ability. Now, that’s another reason to celebrate.


– Wine glasses
– Rubbing alcohol
– Paper towels
– Enamel acrylic paint
– Paper plate
– Paint daubers
– Pencil with new eraser
– Paintbrush

1. Wash the wine glasses with soap and hot water and allow them to fully dry. Then use a paper towel to wipe them with rubbing alcohol to get rid of any lingering grease or soap. I bought a box of four wine glasses at Bed Bath & Beyond for $9.99 and used my 20 percent off coupon. Score! And although I used wine glasses, you can paint any type of glassware.

2. The right paint for decorating wine glasses is enamel acrylic paint, which is specially formulated to go on glass and ceramic. It comes in little squeeze bottles for less than $2 each at the crafts store. Paint labeled “multisurface” also works for glass. So that the glasses are “food safe,” you’ll be painting only the exterior of the glasses, and not closer than 1 inch from the rim where lips would touch.

3. Choose three to four colors of paint to draw the confetti. Squeeze a small amount of each color onto a paper plate. I chose two color palettes — one that was cool blues and purples, and one that was warm reds and oranges.

4. The confetti on the glasses is composed of three sizes of dots in various colors. To draw large dots that are around 3/4 of an inch in diameter, use a paint dauber, which you can find at a crafts store with other brushes. Daubers have a round sponge surface that makes applying circles very easy. Dip the dauber in paint and then press the sponge on the glass to create the circle.

5. To draw medium-size dots, use the eraser end of a pencil. As you did with the dauber, dip the eraser in the paint and then press the eraser onto the glass. If you aren’t happy with the size or shape of the circle you made, you can just dip the eraser in paint again and press another circle on top of the first one.

6. For the tiny dots, which look best toward the top of the confetti, use the wooden end of a small paintbrush — not the brush itself. Again, dip the wooden end in the paint and then press it against the glass.

7. Repeat the painting process with the three sizes of dots in each of the colors. The confetti looks best when the dots overlap; just be sure to wait for the paint to dry before adding the next layer. The paint usually dries in about a half-hour, but you can speed up the process with a hair dryer.

8. Place the painted glasses on a parchment-lined cookie sheet inside a cold oven, then set the oven for 350 degrees. When it reaches that temperature, bake the glasses for another 30 minutes. The baking cures the paint so that it will not wash off. The manufacturers say the paint is top-rack dishwasher safe, but I recommend hand-washing your glasses instead. After all, you hand-painted them.

….That week when two Mohels cancelled on me

Having called Los Angeles home for my entire life, I figured I had seen it all from the Jewish community over my thirty-five years:  I davenned at its synagogues, married a girl I first met in youth group, regularly spend my lunchtime at the best delis in the city, and have even laid teffilin in front of my apartment in the Fairfax district.  But as I prepared for the real transition to life as a Jewish adult when my first child was born last month, nothing could have prepared me for what came next:  the mohel canceled on me.  Twice.

Such is the chronicle of the auspicious start of Isaac’s relationship with the Jewish people:  on his fifth day of life, the mohel (a Rabbi) called and cancelled because he had a different simcha to attend.  On his seventh day, the backup mohel (this one a urologist) sent a text at 5:00 pm on Thanksgiving, the night before the bris, to let us know that he had chosen to perform surgery instead of this mitzvah.  Rather than spending my time researching whether the Talmud allowed for any exceptions to the bris on the eighth day when the mohels cancel on such short notice, I scrambled and ultimately found a Moroccan Rabbi a few hours later who would fit us into his schedule. 

Struggling to derive some deeper meaning in this series of events, I ultimately settled on the obvious:  there are few places like Los Angeles where one can find a mohel with less than a day’s notice in the midst of a national holiday.  Only in America, only in 2015.

A few weeks after the miracle of the Thanksgiving Mohel we lit candles to celebrate the great miracle of Hanukkah. On the fourth night we heard a ruckus outside so my wife and I carried Isaac to the window at the front of our apartment to find the orthodox caravanning through my neighborhood.  First a convertible with some teenagers singing Ma-oz Tzur to the tune blasted from the speakers in the bed of the truck that followed, and then a minivan featuring a huge electric Hannukiah with the candles appropriately lit.  The caboose of this small train was another convertible, and one of the teenagers noticed that in the midst of my apartment building decked with Christmas lights we were standing next to the prominent Star of David in our window.  He pointed at us and shouted “Happy Hanukkah,” a special holiday greeting for my family.  I returned the salutation in kind, and thought “only in America, only in 2015.”

As the caravan drove away I bounced my child and reconsidered the thought.  These past few weeks were undoubtedly the most special of my life, but how much of these experiences are familiar tropes in the saga of Jewish life entitled Strangers in a Strange Land?  We are persecuted so we leave and head for a place where we find refuge, and in refuge there is some degree of acceptance as we assimilate a bit into a new culture, and we find comfort until the persecution begins again, when the greater generations of our people pack a bag and our traditions and head for relative safety.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

My grandparents and great grandparents were among these generations of Jews who were forced to find a better life elsewhere, and in retrospect they escaped serious consequences.  My son will be even further removed from this generation than me, his connection to it being his name and the second hand stories my wife and I can share with him.  In this great shtettle of Los Angeles, he will find those competing sentiments that have long characterized Jewish life around the globe:  the suspicion that comes with being a stranger in a strange land, and the hope that this time will be different, with the continued opportunity to contribute to this society.

We have a little while before we will truly begin to cultivate the Jewish and American aspects of my Isaac’s identity, but I have started the process by attempting to bless my child on the few Friday nights we have shared together.  Though my Hebrew is a bit suspect, I turn to page 311 of the siddur for the timeless blessings of Ephraim and Menasheh, yet I find myself sharing with him an addendum gathered from our people’s collective experience:  May you be a meaningful part of this great land you call home, and have the strength and courage to carry our customs and traditions wherever you need to take them.

White House Chanukah

For years, I watched as friends and colleagues posted photos of the White House Chanukah party. The exclusive gathering brings together prominent rabbis, politicians and Jewish communal leaders, as well as young Jewish innovators with a certain hipness factor. 

Still, no one is 100 percent sure how someone gets invited. Those who go are awed, those who watch it all on social media are jealous — and wonder what they could do in order to score an invitation to next year’s party. 

For years, I was among the jealous and wondering, but I understood not being invited. Until this year, I was just a freelancer, proud of my work, but not an innovator. At best, I was innovation-adjacent. Two years ago, when an invited friend wrote my Twitter handle on a napkin and held it up for a photo under the presidential seal, I was certain that was as close as I was going to get. 

Then, this year, I was invited. I reposted the napkin photo on Facebook, noting that it took two years from name-written-on-napkin to actual White House invitation. If anyone wanted me to write their names on a napkin, I joked, they should let me know. Expecting a few comments of “Haha!” and “Have fun!” I saw the post rise to more than 580 likes and 100 enthusiastic, if slightly jealous, comments. 

While a remarkable number of people thought this was truly how people were nominated for future attendance at #WHHanukkah — the official tag — I also realized I could give them the same feeling I had when my Twitter name represented me in 2013. I could bring them all with me virtually, give them the next best thing to being there.

I tracked the names of respondents and asked them a few other questions out of curiosity. What were their top concerns or issues, I wondered, providing a “check as many as you want” option (immigration, gun control, the war on terror, women’s rights, religious freedom, Internet privacy, health care, racism, LGBT issues and education) and a write-in option. And I also asked if they had any general questions for me about the experience.

When I received more than 50 responses, it became a bit of a social experiment. Who was responding and what were they concerned about? Their answers were fascinating and funny, ranging from the curious to the comedic. 

Not surprisingly, many wanted to know about the food: whether the latkes were “more like spider shreds or more mushed-up into a solid lump,” and, of course, whether there was applesauce or sour cream. (FYI, the latkes were small circles, neither shredded nor lumpy, and were accompanied by applesauce.) 

Most also checked off gun control, health care, education and immigration as their top issues of concern. One person wrote in “environment,” while a few added Israel-related issues such as “Israel security,” “U.S./Israel relations” and “political support for Israel.” Write-ins of “Scary Trump,” “getting a Democrat elected” and “Bartlet for America” (referring to “The West Wing” president played by Martin Sheen), alluded to the 2016 election. And one wrote, “Mostly I just want the government to stay out of my uterus.” 

I understood that this was an opportunity for me to attend not just as myself, but as a representative of a huge online community. I brought the list with me, and took a photo with it under the portrait of Abraham Lincoln, immediately sharing it on Facebook. (That post got more than 300 comments and a few Jewish geography inquiries trying to identify the other guests in the background). I’d promised to write everyone’s name on napkins and take photos — just like the one with my Twitter handle — but didn’t want to spend 20 minutes of the experience scribbling while the event went on around me. So I pocketed a bunch of White House cocktail napkins and promised I’d do it later, pretty sure at this point that they had no real role in nominating future attendees. 

Being there was incredible. And it was an honor. But it was also an enormous event: Who I was and why I’d been invited wasn’t relevant because no one really cared. POTUS and FLOTUS nicely spent a good bit of time shaking hands and schmoozing with those of us in the front two lines, but the fact is, my presence there meant more to me than to them. 

The day after, the photos and their comments were proof that it wasn’t just me in that room. I’d brought my community with me. 

Flying back from DC, I found myself thinking of the e.e. cummings poem: “i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart).” I often feel this way about my larger Internet community, people around the world — mostly Jews, but also Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths or no faiths — who have shared parts of my path with me, wherever it leads.

In my heart, I always carry my community as a whole entity and as the individuals that it comprises. And in this particular, probably once-in-a-lifetime case, I also carried my community in my bag, scrawled on napkins from the White House.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a contributing writer at the Jewish Journal. She is also editorial director of, and freelances widely as a writer and consultant. 

We must rededicate ourselves to tolerance

Thank you Mr. President.

I know that I speak on behalf of everyone present tonight in expressing our gratitude for the way that you and the First Lady have, once again, opened up your home to the Jewish community for an annual White House celebration of Chanukah.

Chanukah is a festival of liberty, teaching us that freedom is not free. When there is evil and tyranny in the world, we must summon the courage to fight it. Sadly, we are reminded of this by the daily headlines. Not too long ago, Jews were the ones on boats seeking refuge from the horrors of Nazi Europe.

The special affinity and love that Jews have for the State of Israel is because, after 2000 years of wandering, Jews were able to be, in the words of the Hatikvah, “free people in our ancestral homeland”.

But for most of us here tonight, America is our home, the most hospitable country for Jews in the entire history of our people. I know this first hand. Both of my parents were survivors of the Shoah. My father was born in Berlin. He left two weeks before Kristallnacht in 1938 at age 16. He came to America on the last successful voyage of the St. Louis. The next voyage of that ship came to be called the Voyage of the Damned because its 937 Jewish refugees were sent back to Europe, having come within sight of Miami Beach. Five years later my father would proudly put on an American uniform and return to Europe to fight with the U.S. Army to defeat the Nazis.   

The word Chanukah means dedication. At a time when we hear the most shameful expressions of bigotry in our public discourse from prominent personalities, we must re-dedicate ourselves to the principles of tolerance and justice for all, something that you, Mr. President, have modeled throughout your presidency.   

So it is in that spirit that I invite you to join me in the blessings for lighting the candles with the addition of the shehechiyanu prayer, offering gratitude for this moment celebrating Chanukah in the White House. 

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, Senior Fellow, Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and Founding Rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Bethesda, MD delivered these remarks at the White House Chanuka Lighting on December 9, 2016

Maccabean dream or Hasmonean nightmare? (Chanukah 5776)

In 1972, during Richard Nixon’s visit to China, Premier Zhou Enlai was asked what he thought about the French Revolution. He responded, “Too early to tell”. His answer is celebrated to this day as an illustration of the supposed Chinese ability—and the Western need—to take the long view of history.

In fact, Enlai wasn’t really being so philosophical; he had simply misunderstood the question. He thought he was being asked about the French student revolts of 1968, the effects of which were still reverberating in capitals across Europe.

But don’t worry; Jews never needed Zhou Enlai to take the long view of history. For our people, ancient history is still playing out; it molds our values, and it affects our understanding of the modern world. History and present are two inseparable parts of one long adventure whose denouement we are still expecting.

This seamless flow of Jewish history was much in my mind this week, because Enlai’s unintentional warning against haste in judgment is particularly relevant when it comes to Chanukkah. Beyond the candles, the dreidels, and the artery-clogging foods, Chanukkah brings us a complicated and contradictory story that defies easy evaluation.

I grew up believing that Chanukah told an epic story of freedom. I believed, together with Howard Fast, that it was “the first modern fight for freedom”. For me, the Maccabees were romantic and idealistic warriors, wise democratic leaders willing to give their lives for tolerance and for the right of all people to worship and live as they chose. I imagined the Maccabees as an improbable combination of Che Guevara, John F. Kennedy, and Abraham Joshua Heschel. 

And Chanukah was indeed all that. The Maccabees were the original “band of brothers” who defied insurmountable odds and challenged a mighty empire to reclaim their right to be different, to live independently as masters of their own destinies. They sought Jewish rule for nobody but the Jews; they didn’t want to impose their ways on anybody else. They only wanted peace and respect for all. It’s an inspiring, ever-relevant tale, and it fills me with pride that it was my people who first fought for these values.

But, as I later learned, this is only one face of the Chanukah story. Viewed from another angle, Chanukah is an ugly story of zealotry, civil war, abuse of power, and eventual ruin.

The Maccabees weren’t only fighting the Seleucid army—they were fighting other Jews, namely the mityavnim, those Jews who had adopted the Greek language and Hellenistic customs. In other words, the Maccabees declared war on the “assimilated.” Jews who didn’t conform to their interpretation of Judaism were put to the sword or had to seek refuge in the Diaspora. In an all too common reversal, those who fought intolerance became intolerant themselves.

It gets worse. Simon Maccabee, the last surviving brother of the original band and the first ruler of independent Judea, tried to stay true to the original Maccabean values. He didn’t proclaim himself king, but high priest and nasi (a Hebrew term meaning ”ethnarch” or “leader,” the same word used in Modern Hebrew for “president”), and he was elected in a democratic fashion. But things went downward from there. Simon was murdered by fellow Jews, and his descendants showed fewer scruples. Violating the “Davidic principle” (that only descendants of King David can be kings of Israel), they took the crown for themselves. Assuming full kingship while retaining the high priesthood, the power-hungry Hasmoneans  violated a paramount idea of Judaism: the separation between royal and religious power. All the while, recurrent civil wars cost tens of thousands of Jewish lives.

John Hyrcanus, Simon’s son, did something else that is anathema to Judaism: after his battles with the Idumeans, he forced the conversion of the entire population. Not exactly a way to honor the ideals of tolerance and freedom of his father… But then, that was hardly the only departure the Hasomneans made from the ways of their ancestors. Indeed, while one of the first purposes of the Maccabees had been to fight the “Hellenized” Jews, the Hasmonean kings had no qualms about adopting the nice accoutrements of Hellenistic life for themselves. Even their regal title changed to basileus, the Greek designation. (This hypocrisy reminds me of some of today’s Jewish American leaders who claim that criticizing Israel is beyond the pale, but who vociferously and publicly attacked Yitzhak Rabin during the Oslo Peace process).

The Hasmonean misadventure ended, as it only could, in farce and tragedy. John Hyrcanus’s grandchildren, Aristobolous II and Hyrcanus II, engaged in yet another vicious civil war and both had the brilliant idea of inviting Rome to intercede in their favor. You can imagine what came next: the beginning of the end of Jewish independence for two thousand years.

Looking at the state of the Jewish People today, there is in us much of the light of the Maccabees and, sadly, much of the darkness of the Hasmoneans. If you ask me which I think will prevail—which will be the ultimate heritage we derive from the Chanukah story—I have to agree with Zhou Enlai: two thousand years later is too early to tell.

During the last few months we have heard dangerous echoes of the Hasmoneans: zealotry and internecine hatred running wild, poisonous cocktails of religion and power politics, and, as in John Hyrcanus’s time, abandonment of our most basic values. We must ask: are we living the Maccabean dream, or the Hasmonean nightmare? How can we celebrate Chanukah once we know how the story really ends?

And yet, the story hasn’t ended even now. Now more than ever, in these times of violence and hatred, of intolerance and radicalism, we need to rescue the original light of the Maccabees that illuminated a vision of peace and respect; the light that expelled darkness and tyranny, and made freedom and tolerance a sacred imperative. Peoples, like stars, are entitled to a momentary eclipse in which light fades away. That is tolerable if we bring the light back, if we don’t let the eclipse lengthen into endless night.

As funders we have a major role to play, for every grant, every project, every act of kindness can be an opportunity for healing a broken word and reconciling a split community. We can—we must—be the light that shines through the cracks of our imperfect reality.

This year, as we celebrate the courage and the miracles of yesteryear, let us commit to building a world in which light outweighs darkness and hope vanquishes despair. Let us face violence with the conviction that—as the Maccabees taught us—right can triumph over might, and even when we walk through the dark valley of intolerance, let us celebrate every ray of the light we give to others.

Yes, it’s too early to tell. It always will be, because the battle between light and darkness is not an event but an ever-unfolding process.

The Chanukah story is still being written today, and what makes it frightening—and beautiful—is that the ending depends on us.

Chag sameach!

Andres Spokoiny is President and CEO of Jewish Funders Network

Nacho latkes with creamy cheddar sauce

Spice up the original potato latke this holiday! Skewer bite sized potato latkes together with a layer of creamy nacho sauce served on top.

Potato Latkes:

  • 20 oz. shredded hash browns about 3 1/2 cups (frozen works great!)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 T flour (add more if batter doesn’t hold together)
  • 2 scallions chopped up
  • Salt
  • Pepper


Combine, form into small patties and fry until golden.

Nacho Sauce:

  • 2 T butter
  • 2 T flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese


Melt butter then add flour and whisk together until well combines and a paste forms. Add milk and over a medium flame whisk until sauce thickens then add shredded cheese and continue whisking until cheese melts and sauce is smooth.


  • 4 tomatoes
  • 1 bunch of cilantro
  • 1 red onion
  • Juice of 1 lime


Pulse together in a processor until smooth. Optional, add 2 jalapeno peppers without seeds for spice! Plate latke skewers over sliced avocado and salsa with nacho sauce on top.

This recipe originally appeared on Kosher in the Kitch!

Sausage hash brown latkes

Sausage Hash Brown Latkes

My favorite breakfast is a combination of eggs served with sausage and hash browns. When combined together and fried to crispy perfection it makes the perfect breakfast latke!


  • 4 sausages, diced
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 20 oz. shredded hash browns (3 1/2 cups)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 T flour
  • 2 scallions chopped up
  • Salt
  • Pepper


Saute onions until tender. Add diced sausage and cook until lightly browned. Combine with hash bronws, eggs, flour, scallions and season with salt and pepper. Fry up in batches and serve with spicy mayo. (mayo with sriracha combined)

This recipe originally appeared on Kosher in the Kitch!

President Rivlin brings cheer to Washington’s Chanukah season

Reuven Rivlin toddles up the White House driveway. He is grinning as he shouts in Hebrew to a phalanx of local Israeli reporters shivering in the December chill: “If you must live in a Diaspora, live in this one!”

Washington’s Chanukah week has found an unlikely Santa Claus in Israel’s president: His workshop, where the real work is done, is far away in Jerusalem, but here he comes to the Diaspora, spreading cheer and goodwill.

Look at Rivlin on Wednesday, jaw dropped in joy, lighting the menorah at the White House Chanukah party. Listen to him lavish praise on the American president in terms so affectionate they would cleave the tongue of his prime minister. Watch him nod in approval as a fiery rabbi from St. Louis excoriates policies Rivlin has embraced.

Rivlin’s light-footed jauntiness is a relief in a city where the week of Chanukah has become a monster. Holiday parties in Washington have become the ex who makes you crazy: You’d rather not go to his stupid party, but wait, he didn’t invite you?

President George W. Bush launched the White House Chanukah party tradition. Now it prompts an annual barrage of calls pleading for entry that have quickly aged a succession of once-youthful Jewish liaisons. Like clockwork, the Bush Jewish outreach staffers would “regretfully” quit right after their first Chanukah party, preferring the joys of, say, Social Security reform to ever having to deal again with angry snubbed donors.

President Barack Obama has expanded the celebrations to two yearly Hanukkah parties, both held this year on Wednesday. His Jewish liaisons are fleeing less frequently, but ask any of them about the experience of fielding calls in the weeks ahead of the party, and watch their jaws and God knows what else clenching.

And it’s not just the White House. There’s the menorah lighting Sunday on the Ellipse in front of the White House, organized by American Friends of Lubavitch, where each year a lucky official gets to squeeze into the cab of a cherry picker with the Rabbis Shemtov — father Abraham and son Levi — and light the huge lamps. Most years, it’s the most senior Jewish official in the government, although this year the honors went to a Roman Catholic, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.

Then there’s the party Wednesday evening at the Library of Congress, organized by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. And the Thursday party at the Israeli embassy. And the Indian embassy’s Hanukkah bash, which will be held this year after the actual holiday, on Tuesday.

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign also had a party, in between the two White House parties, on Wednesday. There’s the party dubbed “Latkes and Vodka” held by Bluelight Strategies, the lead public relations outfit handling Jewish communal accounts. (This year’s theme, emblazoned on blue baseball caps: “Let’s make Hanukkah great again!”, a jab at Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.)

And then, there is the heavy, heavy messaging. This year, nary an opportunity was missed to reference the plight of Syrian refugees on this holiday of religious freedom, an ancient festival that has somehow morphed into an American value.

“And yet we are mindful, even as we gather here tonight, that while the light of freedom burns brightly for us, and our generation, it flickers for others – refugees fleeing religious intolerance and oppression, people targeted for their faith, people whose faith is perverted by others,” McDonough said, before being transported to the chilly heights of the massive menorah.

“That’s our challenge during this Chanukah season,” Obama said at the second White House party. “Whether it’s standing up for the dignity of refugees, standing up against anti-Semitism — or any kind of bigotry or discrimination leveled at any religion — or standing with our ally the State of Israel, we can raise our voices, each of us, for the security and dignity of every human being. “

And Obama, at the afternoon party: “It’s no accident that when we’re called out to speak on behalf of refugees or against religious persecution, American Jews remember what it was like to be a stranger, and are leading the way.”

Taken one at a time, each party is packed with good food and camaraderie. Collectively, with the same folks attending each, the experience becomes otherworldly, like being stuck in an endless loop of encomiums to religious freedom. It’s like Groundhog Day, but without the fun parts.

And then comes President Ruvi. The merry scion of one of Israel’s oldest families, the president who hopes to transform a ceremonial office into a nexus of reconciliation among Israel’s warring tribes, gets what this minor holiday is about: Having unironic, even childish fun.

“This is my 76th Hanukkah,” he tells the White House crowd, to laughter. “I remember nearly all of them. I love all of them.”

He adds: “They told me that the latkes and the donuts would be worth coming all the way.”

He lavishes praise on Obama, likening him to the Shamash candle – “not a civil servant, it is the leader.” He extols Obama’s “strong and clear moral leadership.” Talking to Israeli reporters in Hebrew, he uses two words for friend to describe the president — the more common one, “haver,” the other from the root for shepherd, “re’ah.”

The contrast is sharp with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who tends to praise the “relationship” with the United States more than he does the man who steers it. The difference is not lost on Obama, who relaxes and smiles as he listens. Nor is it lost on the Jews at the party, many of whom twice helped lead Obama to resounding victories among Jewish voters, who whoop with cheers.

Rivlin’s joy is evident throughout the long preamble to the blessing delivered by Rabbi Susan Talve from the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis. Rivlin nods cheerfully through references to the Black Lives Matter movement – Talve was a leader of the Feguson, Mo., protests – justice for Palestinians, compassion for the Syrian refugees and even a pointed reference to religious pluralism in Israel, which Rivlin has resisted.

“I stand with my sisters who lit these lights at the Kotel!” she cries out, referring to the Women at the Wall protest group.

Then Santa Ruvi steps forward and joins in the prayer, smiling as Talve shouts out “veimahot” — “and the mothers ” — during the blessing.

When it’s time, he lights the candle and belts out Maoz Tsur.

Tis the season to be Jewish

The Florida evening outdoors were filled with glittering lights, as a lone man took in the scene from his office window.

So begins one of my favorite stories about Jerry Levine putting in a late night at work, and wondering what his place is…what the Jew’s place is…in a country that is predominantly Christian, with tall pine trees and red and green decorations to show for it.

He wished G-d…someone…would send him a sign to let him know where he belonged.

Let’s face it, Jerry thought, Judaism is quaint…even fun at times…but it’s not a glamorous religion.

In fact, if one in dire straits cut potatoes in half and scooped out the centers and used them as candle-holders, it would be rendered a kosher menorah.

Contrast that to the glittery scenes of the Season.

It’s true that one will see holiday décor everywhere…but that’s when we need to look at our own identity the most, and bask in what is ours.

Following are three components of the menorah to create our own meaningful, beautiful backdrop to this Festival of Lights.

1- The Oil

As Chanukah commemorates the Jews’ triumph over darkness, remembering the miracle of the Maccabees finding one pure cruise of oil to light the Temple menorah- oil that was only enough to keep the flames burning for one day that ultimately lasted for eight days- we do the same, by lighting a menorah, preferably with pure olive oil, for eight days.

The oil itself represents who we are as a people- it simultaneously permeates all it comes in contact with, permanently saturating, and at once will immediately separate and rise above when mixed with other liquids. One can say that the Jewish nation, with its sacred obligation to influence their surroundings with light and morality, have always historically impacted each and every land and culture they’ve intermingled with, from ancient Mesopotamia to the media’s fascination with Israel today. At the same time, while our contributions to the world are irreversible, and while Jews have gone to great lengths to express appreciation for others’ love and friendship and kindness, one can say that our place in society is also a separate one. We are still the moral conscience of the world- but while many embrace this fact, others abhor it. As individuals, we, too, have a responsibility to bring comfort and goodness and kindness to any environment or people we come in contact with. At the same time, we must never feel pressured to abandon the Torah values which make us who we are, even when it’s hard, even when it hurts.

We stay within, and rise above.

2- The Order

A menorah contains eight candle-holders. If one is lighting on Day Two, the empty holders are still there. The ultimate way to maximize growth and potential is to fully act on one moment at a time, while looking ahead to more growth and potential- as we celebrate each accomplishment, we can look to the future and know that there is more.

Judaism teaches us that we never arrive at perfection; that bettering ourselves is the work of a lifetime. My teacher and mentor the Lubavitcher Rebbe embodied this mindset. When a college student visited him in the 60’s and told him frankly that he admired him greatly and would love to be his Chassid but couldn’t wrap his head around the Chassidic garb, the Rebbe responded, “If all you do is wake up each morning and ask yourself, ‘How can I make today better than yesterday? How can I bring even more goodness to this world?’ I will be proud to call you my chassid.”

There’s always more light to ignite.

So how is it done on Chanukah?

-We make the blessing (on the first night one is lighting the menorah they also make the Shehechiyanu blessing)

-We add one additional candle each night, lighting the wicks from left to right, using the shamesh, a separate candle designated for lighting the menorah

-Even if we attend a public menorah lighting, every Jewish home should have its own menorah lighting.

3- The Flames

We watch the candles for 30 minutes after they are lit to complete this mitzvah, as the flames, in the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe‘s words, “tell us the story of Chanukah, of the Jewish people,” perhaps together with some crispy hot latkes and sour cream.

And finally, let’s think about how tomorrow evening when we light yet one more candle, we will have yet one more accomplishment- in how we related to the people around us, in how we related to G-d, in how we related to our soul. Judaism is big into taking stock of our lives.

Like our friend Jerry at the window.

But the story doesn’t end there, dear readers.

In middle of Jerry Levine’s musings, his world went dark; there was a power outage in his business district.

Realizing that it would take some time to rectify, he locked up his office and cautiously made his way through the darkness to the parking lot.

When he walked outside he was hit by a scene he would not soon forget: All the street lights were down, the decorations off, the holiday tree barely visible against the ink-black sky.

But there was one halo of light still going strong, defying electricity and all the other forces going against it, that told him he had already come home- a menorah with three flames proudly publicizing the third night of Chanukah, telling the story of millions of flames and millions of souls…still burning bright. We don’t have trees with tinsel. But our menorah- be it of potatoes in a concentration camp or of the finest silver in the White House- reminds the world, and reminds ourselves, that we are a magnificent, miraculous, everlasting flame.