One writer’s family has a different spin on the Festival of Lights, with no strings attached.
It was sometime before Halloween when one of my daughters first mentioned how she was looking forward to seeing Latke Larry again. Latke Larry, in case you don’t know, is a bearded, 7-inch-tall animatronic doll, dressed in a white apron and voiced by Jerry Stiller. He holds a frying pan of latkes in his right hand and wears a chef’s hat on his stuffed head. Push the button on his left foot and he sings a funny little ditty to the tune of “Rock of Ages” (aka “Ma’oz Tzur”) punctuated at the end by: “You! Stop eating my latkes!”
Non-Jewish friends gave Latke Larry to our family many Decembers ago. In the years since, he’s become an integral part of our Chanukah celebration, looked forward to almost as much as the dancing lights themselves.
How did this happen? You must understand: we go all out in our house for Chanukah. I know, I know, as we’ve been repeatedly told, it’s a minor religious holiday, falling somewhere between Tzom Gedalia and National Secretaries Day. And I realize that savvy marketers and retailers have propped it up to compete with that other December happening.
But on a calendar of Jewish holidays involving more sober topics like freedom and repentance, observing one that commemorates a successful uprising and the overestimation of a quantity of olive oil is downright delightful. Chanukah is one of the happy ones. So we celebrate.
Fanny, Flanken and Sobbing Neighbors
We festoon the yard in blue lights. We stick Chanukah-themed gels to our windows. Each night after we recite the brachas, light the candles, and Latke Larry has done his thing, we have our own unique Chanukah celebration. We’ll spin some dreidels, open a present or two and eat some gelt, but then we sing. Loudly. I strum my ukulele as my wife and two daughters, ages 7 and 10, belt out off-key but enthusiastic versions of “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah,” (you’d be surprised at how good it sounds on ukulele), “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” and that underappreciated Tom Lehrer classic “(I’m Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica.” We’ve even been known to dance around the kitchen. I’m not kidding. You can ask our neighbors.
Each season, we invite them over — both Jews and non-Jews — and cook up some traditional Jewish fare. (Last year, I channeled my great-grandmother Fanny and prepared flanken. Flanken! Nobody knew what it was.) Those who have menorahs bring them over and we light them up. They shine brightly, illuminating the dining room, as we turn off the lights, pass out song sheets and begin our Chanukah chorus. The kids love it. The adults love it. One year my eldest daughter sang a solo of “Sunrise, Sunset.” Our tough, Italian-Catholic neighbor began to sob.
A Secure Tether
There is, perhaps, an ulterior motive to our Chanukah madness. My wife grew up Catholic and never lit a menorah until she met me, but we have chosen to raise our children Jewish. Like I did, they attend a school where the number of Steins, Goldbergs and Rosens can be counted on one hand. Our neighborhood has so few Jews that every Chanukah, the well-meaning but misinformed staff at the local Giant supermarket puts boxes of matzoh and Manischewitz macaroons on sale.
As a kid, I remember all the fuss over Christmas and wondered why Chanukah didn’t get the same attention, why it didn’t seem to possess the same pizzazz. People may argue that the Christmas-ification of Chanukah is yet another sign of Jewish assimilation, if not into a Christian society then into a crass, commercial one, but I disagree. Kids need to associate their religion with fun and fond memories.
“The recent evolution of Hanukkah represents not a capitulation to the forces of Christmas but an assertion of Jewishness amid a multicultural society,” the author David Greenberg wrote for Slate.com several years ago. “Just as Kwanzaa has returned many black Americans to their African heritage, so Hanukkah has helped tether Jews to their heritage.”
I admit our celebration might be a little over the top, but, hey, I’m trying to create a secure tether here. And when my daughter tells me she can’t wait to see Latke Larry and celebrate Chanukah — and it isn’t even Halloween yet — I feel like we’re doing something right as Jewish parents.
However, I have to add that this Chanukah will be a little different. Latke Larry is getting a friend. My wife recently returned from Bed Bath & Beyond with an animatronic rabbi. She tells me he performs a fine rendition of “Hava Nagila.”
Joe Sugarman is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
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