The Hanukkah Song: A 2011 update
Bill Funt parodies Adam Sandler’s holiday gem, “The Hanukkah Song.”
Bill Funt parodies Adam Sandler’s holiday gem, “The Hanukkah Song.”
In August, in the heat of the summer, a Boston-area mother of three began to worry about how she would pay for Chanukah gifts. Across the country in San Francisco, a 33-year-old Russian-born mother of six said that thinking about this Chanukah made her cry.
Both women—Lauren of Boston and Lilya of San Francisco (they asked that their last names not be used)—are struggling in a down economy to provide for their families. Still, they are hopeful that with support of Jewish organizations, they will find meaningful ways to celebrate the eight-day Festival of Lights.
As American Jews prepare to celebrate Chanukah, which this year begins on the evening of Dec. 20, Jewish social service agencies across the country are gearing up to help the growing number of needy American families.
In the five boroughs of New York City, the magnitude of Jewish need is huge, according to William Rapfogel, CEO of the New York-based Met Council, a Jewish anti-poverty agency. Even before 2008, when the recession hit, Rapfogel estimated that one-third of the 1 million Jews living in New York City live at or near poverty.
Since ‘08, more middle-class and upper-tier earners have experienced job loss and other financial crises.
“There now really is no unaffected group, except maybe the very top income earners,” Robert Moffitt, a professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, told The Associated Press. “Recessions are supposed to be temporary, and when it’s over, everything returns to where it was before. But the worry now is that the downturn—which will end eventually—will have long-lasting effects on families who lose jobs, become worse off and can’t recover.”
At Chanukah, Rapfogel expects his agency to distribute 15,000 to 20,000 toys. In New York, kosher pantries serving those in need will offer Chanukah food, he said.
Understanding the growing need for families, Lauren began calling Jewish groups in the summer hoping to get a head start to arrange for her three young sons to receive Chanukah gifts. She has tried to manage the gift-giving expectations, but admits it’s stressful.
Three years ago, her middle-class family faced an unpredictable crisis that left Lauren to raise her children on her own. Lauren sold her home and is living in a smaller house with the financial support of her family. She is juggling four separate part-time jobs, from caring for an elderly blind woman to office work for a seasonal service company.
Her children participate in the Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters program in New England, which provides some gift cards and will host a Chanukah party for its families.
Lisa Cohen, a licensed social worker and vice president of programs and services for the organization, says the program is inundated at Chanukah time.
“We anticipate a lot of tough stories this year,” she told JTA in a phone interview. Noting that the hard times have hit middle-class families, Cohen said, “We hadn’t experienced that as much before.”
Chanukah once was Lilya’s favorite holiday. She had immigrated to America in 1993 at the age of 14 with her parents and siblings. After she married, she would decorate her home and host a large family gathering, setting a table with special Chanukah dishes.
But last year, Lilya ended a difficult marriage and now is the sole support of her children. She is struggling to find work.
Lilya, trying to make significant changes in her life, says staff members at Jewish Family and Children’s Services in the San Francisco Bay Area have helped with everything from resume-writing assistance to emergency funds and supermarket vouchers.
“I don’t feel alone,” she said.
Jewish Family and Children’s Services in the Bay Area over the last several years has seen an increase in families who had never utilized a social service agency, said Gayle Zahler, the agency’s associate executive director. She said her agency will see a 15 percent increase in the number of families seeking help, with a total of 3,000 families in some kind of economic distress.
At Chanukah, people feel more isolated, Zahler says. Her agency maintains five regional food pantries, including one at the San Francisco office. For the High Holidays it collected a record 11,000 pounds of non-perishable food. The office is gearing up for a similar drive for Chanukah, she said.
Rapfogel says the proximity this year between Chanukah and Christmas on Dec. 25 has an impact on how the holiday is observed. Even in predominately Jewish neighborhoods, Christmas ornaments and decorations are on full display.
“It’s a fact of life. There’s pressure on families to buy gifts,” he said.
For retailers, that proximity provides some optimism.
Naftoli Versch, who directs Internet marketing for Rite Lite, a large manufacturer of seasonal Judaica, told JTA that when the two holidays fall at approximately the same time, retailers can market the holidays together.
“There’s a lot more excitement,” he told JTA.
And Chanukah already is the biggest season for Rite Lite, which this year is offering 50 new products for the holiday. Expected to be among the most popular are home-related items such as Chanukah cupcake kits and environmentally “green” products, including organic vegetable wax candles in a biodegradable box.
The economy plays an important role in how Americans celebrate Chanukah, according to Dianne Ashton, whose book “Hanukkah in America” will be published next year. At the end of the 1800s, when Christmas became more child-centered and sentimental, the rise of department stores led to gift giving for children for both holidays.
By contrast, in the 1930s, during the Depression, the Jewish women’s magazine Women’s League Outlook featured paper cutouts for a headband for kids that had paper candle holders, like a Chanukah menorah. Throughout American history, Chanukah has offered Jewish families the opportunity to shape celebrations that are meaningful to them in their own homes, Ashton said.
“It will continue to be shaped by American Jews as they wish to shape it,” she suggested.
Last year, Lilya didn’t decorate her house. Her 14-year-old daughter told her that it didn’t feel like a holiday. That saddened Lilya, so this year she intends to bring her children to community Chanukah programs.
“I do have hope,” she told JTA.
For Lauren, Chanukah is a time to slow down her family’s hectic pace to celebrate the holiday, using homemade menorahs and dreidels her sons made in Hebrew school—the local Chabad congregation provided a scholarship that allows her sons to attend Hebrew school and summer camp.
Lauren sees a positive outcome from the upheaval in their lives.
“This has brought me closer to Judaism,” she said. “My boys wouldn’t be in Hebrew school.”
Latkes and sufganiyot, the jelly-filled doughnuts especially popular in Israel, are well-known Chanukah fare made with oil to signify the holiday tale.
Lesser known is the tradition of cheese and the story of Judith.
Like the Chanukah story, which is part of the Apocrypha—books not incorporated in the Bible—the book of Judith tells of a beautiful widow whose town was under siege by the army of the Assyrians and decided to visit the commander in chief of the army to ask him not to overtake the town. As the story goes, she gives him wine, he gets fall-down drunk and falls into a stupor. Judith beheads the king and saves her people and the town.
Legend has it that Judith fed him cheese to make him thirsty, and since she lived in the same period as the Maccabees, Jews of various communities instituted the custom of eating cheese dishes in honor of her heroism.
On my cookbook shelf is a a classic written in the 1970s—“A Taste of Tradition” by Ruth Sirkis, the “Julia Child of Israel.” Sirkis has written numerous cookbooks and was the food editor for a major Israeli women’s magazine; she also had a popular radio show.
“A Taste of Tradition” covered all the Jewish holidays; below are some of her Chanukah recipes. Plus to celebrate Judith, some cheese recipes are included from various sources.
This recipe is from “Spice and Spirit, The Complete Kosher Jewish Cookbook of the Lubavitch Women.”
1 cup milk
1 cup drained cottage cheese
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup oil
1. Place eggs, milk, cottage cheese, flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and vanilla in a bowl and mix until smooth.
2. Heat oil in a frying pan (if using nonstick pan, use less oil.) Drop batter by spoon into hot oil. Fry until brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels and continue until all batter is used. Keep warm until serving. Serve with sour cream or applesauce.
VANILLA RICOTTA FRITTERS
This recipe comes from a Chicago chef Gale Gand, who got it from her mother-in-law.
3 large eggs
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
1 1/4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1. In a large saucepan, heat 2 inches of vegetable oil. Set a large wire rack over a baking sheet, top with paper towels and position near the saucepan.
2. In a large bowl, beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the ricotta and beat until smooth. Add flour and baking powder and beat until just blended.
3. Using a very small ice cream scoop or 2 teaspoons, slide 8 walnut-size rounds of batter into the hot oil. Fry over moderate heat until deep golden all over and cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fritters to the rack to drain. Continue frying the remaining fritters in batches of 8. Arrange the fritters on a platter and dust well with confectioners’ sugar. Makes 8 servings.
If the thought of spending too much Chanukah gelt on lavish gifts for friends and loved ones seems a little dim this year, adding a little tikkun olam to the presents can give your Festival of Lights a memorable glow.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has assembled a Social Justice Chanukah Gift Guide with gift-giving ideas suitable for all the do-gooders on your list. Buying fair trade products, adopting a U.S. serviceman or servicewoman, donating blood or joining the National Bone Marrow Registry are just a few of the suggestions that can be found easily on their website. There’s an idea for each of the eight nights of Chanukah.
The organization created the guide two years ago, says Naomi Abelson, the social action specialist at the Union for Reform Judaism, “when we realized no such resource existed” to help those interested in giving gifts for Chanukah with a social justice bent.
Some rabbis and synagogues go even further in aiding their congregants with non-commercial gift-giving ideas.
Congregation Beth Israel in Austin, Texas, has been hosting a Chanukah Mitzvah Bazaar for the past 15 years, says Rabbi Cookie Olshein, as an alternative to gift shopping for the holiday.
A philanthropic cause is chosen each year—like hunger, aging, Israel or the environment—and several charitable organizations devoted to the cause are invited to come to the bazaar and introduce their work, services and mission to the holiday shopping congregants. The shoppers select an organization that they would like to support, and purchase a donation for friends and loved ones in lieu of buying them an actual present. A beautiful, personalized card is included.
“Chanukah isn’t Yom Kippur, it isn’t a major holiday,” Olshein says. “It is a celebration of Jewish identity, and small acts can make a big change in the world.”
And unlike Purim, says Rabbi Sari Laufer of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in New York, there is no religious commandment instructing us to give gifts on Chanukah.
Still, every year, Laufer compiles an “8 Nights, 8 Ways” list for her congregants with suggestions for them to “Bring Hope on Chanukah,” she says. For families who want to bring a social action spirit to their holiday celebration, Laufer encourages parents to have their children pick out a toy for a child in need instead of receiving one themselves or volunteering as a family at a soup kitchen one night instead of making latkes at home.
Since gift giving is probably not what the Maccabees had in mind for celebrating the Chanukah miracle, Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.J., says the home-based aspect of the holiday lends itself to an ideal opportunity for families to also reinforce traditional values like learning, humility and acts of loving kindness.
During the lighting of the menorah, Frishman encourages families to take the time and ask questions: Who are these candles for? What matters to us as a family? Who might we think of tonight?
If children in need of books come to mind, Reading Village, a nonprofit organization that promotes literacy in impoverished villages in Guatemala, has created a family discussion guide geared to Chanukah.
With its Light Up Literacy program, children are encouraged to forgo a toy on the seventh night and instead give tzedakah to Reading Village. Guided learning material for having a discussion about the importance of books and literacy are also part of the program, along with a special blessing to be recited over the Chanukah candles.
The program, says Linda Smith, founder of Reading Village, not only “helps to lessen the consumerism angle” of Chanukah but creates a shared bound between Jewish families and the families in Guatemala, since candle-lighting rituals are also symbolic in Mayan culture.
Rabbi Isaac Jeret, of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., however, says the Chanukah candles should ultimately serve as a reminder “of our unique Jewish light.”
“We won’t be able to be there for anybody else if we don’t ensure our own sustainability,” Jeret says. “We teach the world by way of example, but we are the miracle of Chanukah and we must preserve that light.”
They’re making sufganiyot on the streets of Israel; Chanukah must be near.
Actually it started feeling like Chanukah here about two days after Sukkot, when the first vendors started frying the delicious and caloric doughnuts in vats of oil in front of bakeries and on the street in towns throughout the country.
As malls in America rush the Christmas season by putting up decorations right after Halloween, some vendors in the heart of Jerusalem were making sufganiyot in the middle of Sukkot.
I spend the weeks until Chanukah checking out the sufganiyot offerings—jelly, chocolate, custard, you name it. At a rumored 1,000 calories each, I can only allow myself one or two throughout the whole season, so they had better be good.
One of the highlights of my family’s Chanukah is our annual venture to a fancy coffee shop for sufganiyot and hot cocoa (for the kids, coffee for me). Last year’s offerings included sufganiyot filling with flavors such as champagne, taffy and pistachio.
But Chanukah in Israel is not all about sufganiyot. With the kids out of school for a week, family fun rules. Workplaces mostly stay open, but stay-at-home moms and parents who manage to get some end-of-the-year time off do not want for kid-friendly activities during Chanukah.
Cities throughout Israel offer many cultural extravaganzas during the holiday. There are musicals and plays for children, often starring some of the best known old and new Israeli television and music personalities. Malls feature children’s programming like arts and crafts stations, or they set up stages with visits from jugglers, singers and often characters from beloved Israeli children’s shows such as “Yuval Mibubal” (“Yuval the Confused”) or “Kofiko” (a monkey with very human traits).
One of our favorite happenings in recent years featured candle dipping. Others included demonstrations of making olive oil and pita (and eating).
There are also plenty of Chanukah parties to attend in the evenings, either public or private. Like in America, synagogues, schools and other institutions host parties, and kindergartens put on pre-Chanukah extravaganzas with song-and-dance presentations for parents. Families get together to light candles and fry latkes in celebration of the miracle of the oil.
Our extended family gets together every year for Chanukah, though coordinating the event becomes more difficult each year as more of the nieces and nephews marry, move away from the community and have children of their own. One of the highlights of our party is the family sing-along, which begins with songs for Chanukah, moves on to well-loved national Israeli songs and finally moves into a different realm—Simon and Garfunkel and show tunes.
There are plenty of public lightings of the chanukiyah—in the Knesset, on army bases, at the Western Wall. The president and the prime minister travel to significant spots throughout the country, and sometimes the world, to kindle the Chanukah lights.
Also as in the United States, and throughout the world, Chabad is a palpable presence in Israel during Chanukah, with their chanukiyot sprouting in town squares, public parks and on the backs of cars. In our own community, the local Chabad lights a tall chanukiyah in the middle of our open-air mall, inviting children to come each night to sing the blessings and enjoy sufganiyot.
Perhaps the best part about being in Israel during Chanukah is walking down the streets of many cities and seeing Chanukah lights burning, often in special glass containers, outside next to the front door. With the mezuzah on one side and the Chanukah lights on the other, the home is surrounded by mitzvot, according to tradition. And since everyone lights their own chanukiyot, it is not uncommon to see a home with dozens of lights burning in the window.
It truly makes Chanukah feel like a national celebration.
President Obama hosted 550 people at the White House Chanukah reception.
The annual event, held Thursday in Washington, was attended by the president and vice-president and their wives and attracted a mix of Jewish dignitaries from the political, community and cultural worlds. The president reiterated his “unshakable support” for Israel and noted that the festivities were being celebrated a week before the holiday begins.
“We’re jumping the gun just a little bit,” said Obama. “The way I see it, we’re just extending the holiday spirit. We’re stretching it out. But we do have to be careful that your kids don’t start thinking Chanukah lasts 20 nights instead of eight. That will cause some problems.”
The West Point Jewish Chapel Choir performed at the event, while the menorah used was made in a displaced persons camp after World War II and donated by the Jewish Museum in New York.
“Let’s extend a hand to those who are in need, and allow the value of tikkun olam to guide our work this holiday season,” Obama said. “This is also a time to be grateful for our friendships, both with each other and between our nations. And that includes, of course, our unshakeable support and commitment to the security of the nation of Israel.”