The Hanukkah Spelling Confusion

I was excited when I saw that J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of The Forward, wrote an article referencing my recent “Jewish Techs” blog post about the Hanukkah (חנוכה) spelling confusion on The Jewish Week‘s website (“How Do You Spell Hanukkah?”). And then I started reading the first paragraph of Goldberg’s piece. Say what?

Goldberg asserts that I start off with “an incorrect premise” and then look for an answer “in the wrong place” as I lead my readers on “a bit of a goose chase.” Fortunately, he concludes his opening paragraph by maintaining that I eventually get to the right place. So, I wondered… What was Goldberg’s beef with my blog post?

At the end of Goldberg’s treatment of how Hanukkah got to be spelled with so many variations, my head was spinning faster than a battery-operated dreidel. Goldberg didn’t like that I began by asserting that there are different acceptable spellings of Hanukkah, but then demonstrated through the rules of Hebrew-to-English transliteration that there are, in fact, more than one possible spelling. He then gave a terse lesson in Hebrew grammar followed by a lesson in Arabic grammar (why he prefers a K or Q for the former Libyan leader’s name over a G).

Goldberg also took exception with the fact that I showed which transliteration spellings of Hanukkah were most popular through Google search results. What Goldberg might not have understood is that most people who are confused about which spelling of Hanukkah to use aren’t concerned with learning about Hebrew consonant letters that take a dagesh. They don’t want a lesson in Arabic gutturals either. They just want to know which is the most common spelling. And for that, Google is very helpful. So, I don’t think I was doing a disservice to the many people wanting to know which English spelling of December’s Jewish holiday is the most prevalent. Wikipedia chooses the Hanukkah spelling as well. Other encyclopedias like Encyclopedia Judaica have its own rules for transliteration.

No matter which spelling of Hanukkah you choose to use, the holiday’s over. At least until next December… when this conversation begins anew.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Revised USCJ Luach

Today is the second day of Rosh Chodesh Tevet, the beginning of the new Jewish month. It is also the seventh day of Hanukkah. That means that the past two mornings have been long, complicated prayer services with Torah readings from two separate Torah scrolls, Hallel (songs of praise for both Hanukkah and Rosh Chodesh), and a Musaf service for Rosh Chodesh that includes an insertion for Hanukkah. It’s unusual for morning minyan to last for a full hour, but Rosh Chodesh Tevet is always a long service (of course, it’s even longer when it falls on Shabbat).

There are a few days when morning minyan gets complicated and requires a road map (like Hoshanah Rabbah for example). A gabbai (one who runs the synagogue service) often uses a luach (calendar and service guide) for assistance in coordinating the services and making sure that nothing was left out that should have been included or included that should have been omitted. There are several Orthodox versions of a luach and many Conservative Jewish leaders will use those, however, the newly revised official luach of the Conservative Movement is a wonderful resource.

My teacher Rabbi Miles Cohen (pictured below) took over the responsibility as editor of the USCJ Luach (or Luah with a dot under the ‘h’ as its rendered therein). Kenneth Goodrich created the first Luach for the Conservative Movement 17 years ago for the Jewish year 5755. Upon Goodrich’s untimely death in 2004, Rabbi Robert Abramson edited and managed the publication of the Luach. This is the first year that Rabbi Cohen has taken on the editorial tasks.

I studied with Rabbi Cohen at the Jewish Theological Seminary and found him to be an amazing teacher who takes synagogue skills very seriously. He is punctilious when it comes to nusach (Hebrew pronunciation and melody) and is one of the world’s experts in Hebrew grammar pertaining to the Torah text and liturgy. Rabbi Cohen is also a master typesetter, and has created guides and interactive software for learning to read Torah, haftarah, and megillot, as well as guides for nusach skills and Hebrew grammar.

The USCJ Luah can be purchased from the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism online book service. It is an indispensable tool for the Conservative synagogue and Rabbi Cohen has superbly improved this important resource.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Tamir Goodman’s Sports Tzitzit

Tamir Goodman, known as “The Jewish Jordan,” made national headlines in the late 1990s when he decided not to play for the University of Maryland because they wouldn’t adjust their schedule to meet his Sabbath observance. Sports Illustrated even reported on Tamir’s decision to play for Towson State in 1999. However, a few years later SI reported:

In retrospect, maybe we went a little too far with the whole ‘Jewish Jordan’ thing. Three years ago (SI, Feb. 1, 1999) this magazine put that label on Tamir Goodman, described his game as ‘enthralling’ and reported breathlessly how he played ‘a foot over the rim when rebounding or dunking.’ The Orthodox Jew who starred for Talmudical Academy in suburban Baltimore was, we wrote, ‘built for basketball.’
Only, as it turned out, Goodman wasn’t built for college basketball. In September 1999 he reneged on an oral commitment to Maryland when he felt the school was lukewarm about his playing ability. He ended up at Towson, where any doubts the Terps might have had about him were borne out As a freshman Goodman scored 6.0 points a game, and last year he played in just seven games, averaging 1.9 points and 2.3 turnovers. His playing days at Towson ended after he accused his coach, Michael Hunt, of brandishing a chair at him in the locker room.

After staging a return to the spotlight in 2007 to capitalize on his high school and college fame, Tamir Goodman has been running basketball camps, putting on clinics, and doing speaking engagements. Now he is turning into a businessman as well.

As any Orthodox Jewish basketball player will tell you, it’s not easy running up and down the court with four woven sets of strings dangling from the four corners of your undergarment. The photos of Tamir hooping it up with a yarmulke on his head and his tzitzit flying through the air as he leaped for a layup became famous and were sources of pride in the observant Jewish community. However, it was not comfortable for ballers like Tamir to wear mesh tzitzit under his jersey.

Now Tamir Goodman is releasing his own brand of sports shirts that come with tzitzit attached. ColLive.com reported on Tamir’s invention which he unveiled at the recent OK Kosher conference:

At OK Kosher Certification’s 13th annual international Mashgiach Conference held Monday, Tamir introduced the “Sport Strings Tzitzit.”
He described it as revolutionary tzitzis garment that features hi-performance properties and a compression fit – offering the wearer ultimate comfort and style for sports and everyday wear.
Tamir was joined at the conference in Chovevei Torah in Crown Heights by a friend who also embodies the notion that being religious does not interfere with his career: boxing champion Dmitriy Salita.
While Salita did not say if he wears the “Sport String Tzitzit” himself, Tamir made it clear that anyone would enjoy wearing them for their UV protection, moisture wicking and anti-odor features.

Goodman’s tzitzit are certified kosher by the OK Kosher certification agency. No word yet on whether NBA star Amare Stoudemire will be wearing the Sport Strings Tzitzit.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Keep the Han in Hanukkah

Just like some Conservative Christians want to ensure that people keep the “Christ” in Christmas, I think it’s important to keep the Han in Hanukkah (Han Solo and the Han Dynasty that is):

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Miketz: Kim Jong Un, Joseph and Ultimogeniture

In biblical times the concept of primogeniture was practiced widely in the Ancient Near East. That is to say, the eldest son would inherit the entire estate to the exclusion of younger siblings. In Jewish law, the eldest son was promised a double portion of the estate (Deuteronomy 20:17). However, in the Book of Genesis we see that this is not the case. Rather, it is the younger brother who, time and again, receives the birthright (albeit through deception) and the promise of succession.

Throughout the Genesis narrative (what my teacher Rabbi Burt Visotzky calls “an ugly little soap opera about a dysfunctional family”) the eldest son appears unsuitable to succeed as leader of the family dynasty and thus the younger son becomes the heir to the clan. With the sons of Adam and Eve, God chooses the younger Abel’s offering instead of the firstborn Cain’s sacrifice. Abraham is the eldest son of Terach, but when he leaves his father’s home, he gives up the birthright to his younger brother Nahor. Abraham’s firstborn son Ishmael is kicked out of the house and the patrimony goes instead to the younger Isaac. Then Isaac’s younger son Jacob receives his father’s birthright and coveted blessing through trickery. The trend continues when Jacob favors his younger son Joseph, the son of his true beloved Rachel. This favoritism of one son leads to horrible events for the family.

The last act of patrilineal ultimogeniture in the Book of Genesis is at the end of the narrative when Jacob blesses his grandsons Manasseh and Ephraim (Joseph’s sons). The grandfather crosses his hands, laying his right hand upon the younger Ephraim and his left on the elder Manasseh, thus granting the birthright to the younger brother.

In this week’s Torah portion, Miketz, we learn more about the interesting character of Joseph who flaunts his “most favored son” status in front of his brothers causing their enmity toward him. Joseph makes his dreams into a reality by lording over his brothers in Egypt when they come looking for food during the famine. While things seem to have worked out well for Joseph, we cannot ignore the series of unfortunate events (including his near death experience of being hurled into a pit by his brothers) that occurred because of ultimogeniture, the emergence of the youngest son as leader. (Technically Benjamin was the youngest son of Jacob, but Joseph was Jacob’s favorite because his beloved Rachel died during the birth of Benjamin.)

Following the sudden death of North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il, we are beginning to learn more about his youngest son and the successor to his dynasty. The new leader of North Korea is Kim Jong Il’s third and favorite son Kim Jong Un.

It will be interesting to see how Kim Jong Un’s two older brothers respond to their younger brother’s leadership. I don’t suspect they will throw their brother into a pit or sell him into slavery, but I am certain there exists a fair amount of jealousy following their younger brother’s transition to power. Perhaps the day will come when Kim Jong Un’s brothers come to him in a time of need just as Joseph’s older brothers had to come to him in Egypt during the widespread famine.

The lesson we can learn from the family in Genesis is that leadership succession in a family dynasty will always be wrought with emotion. Primogeniture might have been the way of the world in biblical times, but the younger brothers always emerged as the chosen successor. And so it is in our day. We can only hope that North Korea’s new 28-year-old leader will rule with a level head. Joseph might have been in charge of the stockpile of food during a famine, but this young ruler is charged with North Korea’s nuclear program. Let’s hope his older brothers are able to put aside any animus and envy that exists so that sibling rivalry doesn’t cause a grave situation that could impact us all.

Shabbat Shalom!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

December Dilemma and Decorative Hanukkah Lights

Each winter the “December Dilemma” becomes a hot topic. This month, it seems like it’s hotter than ever with every rabbi, Jewish educator, social worker, intermarried parent, grandparent of interfaith grandchildren, and children of intermarried parents writing about the subject. Perhaps the topic isn’t any more popular this year than in years past, but just about anyone who wants to publish their opinion on the subject can now do so thanks to the openness of the Web.

Jordana Horn took the harsh stance that families should not celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. Writing on the Kveller blog, Horn opens with the warning that “There is a good chance that this post will make you hate me. I don’t want to be hated but feel I should put this out there. Please do comment and do not take this post as insulting you: it is simply my viewpoint. The fact that I feel the need to put a warning on a blog post is, in and of itself, terrifying.” I don’t believe Jordana received any death threats after telling families they can’t have it both ways and celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah together, but there were many comments that emanated from hurt feelings. Kveller even posted an opposing viewpoint in response to Jordana’s opinion from a woman whose “agnostic family celebrates both Jewish and Christian holidays, despite the fact that such cross-practice is technically anathema to both religions.”

One interesting article written about the December Dilemma is by Paul Golin of the Jewish Outreach Institute and the co-author of How to Raise Jewish Children Even When You’re Not Jewish Yourself. Golin argues that people should stop telling intermarried couples what to do and what not to do during the winter holiday season.

Now is the time of year when my wife and I renew our annual, uncomfortable conversation about why we will never have a Christmas tree in our home, despite her having grown up with one. I’m fairly crummy at explaining my reasoning, but we eventually remind ourselves that all marriages require give-and-take, and this is one time where she’s giving and I’m taking.

However, I’ve never felt more like getting a Christmas tree than this past week, thanks to the trend in Jewish media of non-intermarried Jews telling intermarried Jews not to have Christmas trees. Articles like these make me want to put up a Christmas tree just to symbolize my defiance of self-appointed assimilation police.

After reading these opinions I raised the question on my Facebook page: “Should intermarried families celebrate Christmas?” The respondents were mostly Jews by Choice who explained that while they don’t have a Christmas tree or observe Christmas at their home, they do visit Christian relatives on Christmas and take part in the holiday’s customs out of respect for family. One woman wrote, “We do both, and teach respect for all holidays around this time of year. Hanukkah is religious for us, christmas cultural and respectful of the grandparents who are christian. So far, no problems although lots of discussions.”

One question I often receive during this time of year has to do with affixing Hanukkah themed lights on the house. This question was raised by New Jersey Jewish News columnist Johanna Ginsburg in her 2003 article “To light or not to light.” Many people get upset when they see “holiday lights” on a Jewish home. These holiday lights usually take the form of blue and white (somehow the official colors of Judaism) lights that could easily be mistaken for Christmas lights. In Ginsburg’s article the example was decorating the exterior of the house with LED lights in the shape of dreidels. In my opinion, hanging Hanukkah light displays outside ones home should not be cause for the alarm.

The commandment of Hanukkah, as dictated in the Talmud, is Pirsume Nisa (to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah). We do this by lighting the chanukkiah and placing it in the window facing the street for all to see. In fact, this public religious display is a sine qua non for the proper performance of this mitzvah. Putting our Hanukkah candles in the window (or decorating our home with flashing lights in the form of dreidels or otherwise) is certainly a way to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah.

We should also be grateful that we live in a country and at a time when we are able to freely publicize the miracle of Hanukkah. I really don’t see the problem if some families choose to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah by decorating their homes with lights for a couple weeks in the winter (they should of course remember to put their lit Hanukkah candles in the window too). And if families that have non-Jewish relatives choose to join them on Christmas as they’re celebrating their holiday as a show of respect, then that seems acceptable as well. We live in a time when most Jewish families in America include some non-Jews as well. It would be wonderful if the “December Dilemma” stopped being such a dilemma. It would certainly make the holidays a less stressful time for everyone involved.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Gilad Shalit on Hanukkah (Photo)

Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights and also a time when we acknowledge God’s miracles. This year we witnessed the miraculous return of Gilad Shalit to Israel and then back home to his family.

This truly is a remarkable photo in which we can thank God for the lights of Hanukkah as well as for the safe return of the captive soldier Gilad Shalit.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Best Hanukkah Videos for 2011

Tonight begins the Festival of Lights – Hanukkah 2011. As Hanukkah parody videos have become more popular on YouTube it’s getting more difficult to find the best ones. One thing is certain however, if the video has “Best Hanukkah Video” in its title… it’s probably not. Here are the best Hanukkah videos of the year (according to me). Enjoy and Chanukkah Sameach!

The Shlomones – Rocky Hora Chanukah Song

Cantor Eyal Bitton – Rock Me Maccabeus (Falco Cover)

Aish – Chanukkah Rock of Ages

Fountainheads – Light Up the Night

Maccabeats – Miracle (Matisyahu Cover)

Pella Productions – Holiday Party (Tonight, Tonight)

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert – Can I Interest You in Hanukkah

Six13 – Hanukkah Rights

Jew-Z – Hanukkah Groove

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

A Rick Perry Hanukkah

Governor Rick Perry made it clear in his “Strong” campaign commercial that he believes kids can’t celebrate Christmas in our country. Apparently, however, governors can celebrate Hanukkah each year in the Capitol building with members of the local Chabad Lubavitch.

Here’s a video I uploaded to YouTube showing Rick Perry’s dismay that kids can’t celebrate Christmas followed by his Hanukkah dancing and menorah lighting:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Candlestick Park Lacks Light Before Hanukkah

Irony. On the night before Hanukkah, tonight’s Monday Night Football game was delayed because there was no light in Candlestick Park in San Francisco. As if it’s not funny enough that a stadium named Candlestick had no electricity, it brings to mind the story of Hanukkah.

Perhaps if they could just find enough electricity at Candlestick Park for one quarter of the football game, it would miraculously last for all four quarters?

Here is the article I wrote for Patch.com about the “Five Things You Should Know About Hanukkah”:

While Christmas is among the top two Christian holidays in terms of importance, Hanukkah is considered a minor holiday for the Jewish people. Nevertheless, it has become one of the more widely celebrated Jewish holidays and it is certainly a favorite among children. 

Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the Jews over the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE (Before Common Era) and is celebrated by lighting one additional candle in a candelabrum, called a hanukkiah (or menorah) for eight days. The holiday is also known as the Festival of Lights. Hanukkah means rededication and refers to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE (or BC). 

History
Beginning in 167 BCE, the Jews of Judea rose up in revolt against the oppression of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire. Judah the Maccabee was the leader of the Jewish army. Judah and his followers were able to capture the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been turned into a pagan shrine. They cleansed it and rededicated it to God. Following the rededication, they observed an eight-day celebration, which was patterned after the autumn harvest festival of Sukkot. The Jewish people were not able to properly celebrate Sukkot during the siege and thus observed it in the winter, which later became Hanukkah. 

The Miracle of Oil Story
A much later story written by the rabbis of the Talmudic period claims that the eight day festival of Hanukkah was to celebrate the miracle that a small amount of oil that was only enough to keep the menorah burning for one day actually lasted for a full eight days. 

Home Rituals
For the most part, Hanukkah is a home-based holiday with many rituals that take place in the home rather than the synagogue. Central to the holiday is the lighting of the hanukkiah, an eight-branched candelabrum. Each night of the holiday (beginning this year on the evening of Dec. 20) an additional candle is added to the menorah. It is also customary for children to play a dreidel (spinning top) game during Hanukkah. 

Food
To celebrate the legend of the miraculous cruse of oil that kept the menorah lit for eight days, it is customary to eat foods fried in oil. The most familiar Hanukkah foods are latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts). Small pieces of chocolate in the shape of small coins are also traditional treats during the holiday. 

Gifts
Likely as a response to the gift-giving custom of Christmas, Hanukkah has evolved into gift-giving holiday as well. Some families exchange gifts during each night of the holiday, while other families may only give one gift over the course of Hanukkah. It is customary to send Hanukkah greetings cards to friends and family.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller