WSJ: Hanukkah, oh Hanukkah, come light the ‘Menurkey’

To purists, Hanukkah, sometimes rendered Chanukah, is the red-headed stepchild of Jewish holy days: it’s not a liturgical event, per se, but it’s also, to borrow a phrase, “not chopped liver, either.”

As Wikipedia summarizes it,  Hanukkah is “the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt against the Greeks of the 2nd century BCE.”

Significant? Yes. A “holy day” on the order of Passover, Pentecost (“Shavuot” in Hebrew) or Yom Kippur? Not at all.

In the face of what might be considered a tsunami of post-World War II American Christmas marketing — are we seeing layaway ads in August now? — America’s Jews, principally, have amped up Hanukkah as an alternative winter holiday for “members of the tribe,” especially those who fight back against the dominant culture. The Pew Research study discussed here earlier, The Los Angeles Times (among others) noted, reported that nearly one-third of American Jewish homes display a Christmas tree annually.

Regardless, and, pace Adam Sandler, Hanukkah has gained a lot of currency in American life, and now even the calendar has conspired to make it a tad more special in 2013.

Why? For the first time since 1888, the first day of Hanukkah falls on America’s Thanksgiving Day, the first night having occurred the evening before, and won’t happen that way again for more than 70,000 years, if the calculations are correct. So, bring out the Menurkey everybody!

Or so suggests The Wall Street Journal, which gave “Thanksgivukkah” pride of place on its October 4, 2013 front page as the “A-Hed” story, usually a slightly offbeat-but-informative feature to lighten things up amidst the bond rate reports, not that those aren’t gripping on their own. Reporter Charles Passy appears to have just the kind of well-rounded background to parse this one. One of his sources (a friend) told me they spent 45 minutes on the phone, yielding all of one quote for the story.

Just as America’s Hanukkah Celebration tends more towards the commercial, so does Passy’s reporting:

A few see commercial opportunities in Thanksgivukkah as well. Dana Gitell, a community specialist with Boston-based elder-care provider Hebrew SeniorLife, has started a Thanksgivukkah Facebook page and is promoting a line of Thanksgivukkah commemorative items, including a T-shirt done in a Woodstock rock-festival motif with the catchphrase “8 Days of Light, Liberty and Latkes.” (Latkes are the potato pancakes typically served throughout Hanukkah.)

Not to be outdone is Asher Weintraub, a 9-year-old New Yorker who has created what he dubs the Menurkey—a menorah, the candelabrum that is the centerpiece of the holiday, in the shape of a turkey. With help from his filmmaker parents, Asher funded his project with a successful $25,000 campaign on Kickstarter, a fundraising website, over the summer (it netted $48,345). The family is now hoping to sell as many as 2,500 of his creation in versions both ceramic (for $150) and plaster ($50).

Even some Jewish congregations are jumping into this, the Journal reports:

Synagogues and Jewish organizations are also joining in the Thanksgivukkah chorus. In Boston, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, a local fundraising group, has created a website, ThanksgivukkahBoston.com, to promote the holiday and suggest ways to celebrate it (one example: making Hanukkah-themed corn-husk dolls). As project director Jeff Levy explains, the occasion is too significant to go unheeded. “This is like the new millennium,” he says.

At Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, Calif., synagogue member Hollis O’Brien, a caterer, is leading a Thanksgivukkah cooking class at the end of October, replete with recipe tips for such hybridized holiday dishes as sweet-potato latkes and a Jewish-style brisket with a cranberry glaze. And since doughnuts are also popular at Hanukkah as part of the holiday’s emphasis on oil and fried foods, Ms. O’Brien has plans to showcase them as well. “Usually, I fill them with strawberry jelly, but this year, I’m going to use pumpkin cream,” she says.

But there are purists who aren’t as happy:

Not everyone sees the point to Thanksgivukkah or any sort of modern reinterpretation of Hanukkah: Traditionalists argue that it turns the holiday into something it’s not. “It’s really pathetic that to sell Judaism to the next generation it has to be made into a gimmick,” says Binyamin L. Jolkovsky, publisher of JewishWorldReview.com.

That is hardly the only issue facing Thanksgivukkah boosters. It isn’t exactly something that can be parlayed into an ongoing celebration: The next Thanksgivukkah isn’t slated until 79043, according to researchers.

While I would encourage my friend Binyamin (disclosure: his website carried my Washington Times tech column for many years) to lighten up a bit, I understand his plaint. It would have been helpful for Passy to have explored this point a bit more, though I imagine this might be difficult, since even the Chabad Lubavitch movement, which normally won’t take a back seat to anyone on piety, acknowledges the non-majorness of the celebration:

Many define major Jewish holidays as those that feature traditional holiday meals, kiddush, holiday candle-lighting, etc., and when work is forbidden. Only biblical holidays fit this criteria, and Chanukah was instituted some two centuries after the Bible was completed and canonized.

So everybody, enjoy! If you’re vegan, have some Tofurkey and light the Menurkey. But save room for a doughnut!

IMAGE: This is not a “Menurkey,” the design of which is copyrighted, but a traditional Hanukkah menorah from Wikimedia Commons.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post said the first night of Hanukkah aligned with Thanksgiving Day, which was incorrect.

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About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

  • Julia B

    In current Western-style dating – what year would the Jewish year 79043 be?

  • chazpbg

    Hmmm… In my world, spending time with a source is usually a good thing. A lot of interviews can last just as long and not even yield a quote. But it’s all in the name of research.

    • Mark A. Kellner

      I’m not saying it isn’t: it would, however, have been nice to hear a bit more from Binyamin Jolkovsky, who has a lot of smart things to say.

  • wlinden

    Oy gewalt!

  • codeczar

    If you read the WSJ story correctly, or checked a calendar, you’d see it’s the first DAY of Chanukah that falls on Thanksgiving this year, not the first NIGHT.

    • Mark A. Kellner

      You’re right, and I’ve made the correction above. Thanks!


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