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Finding Old Testament Fun in a Season of Good Cheer

By Robi Polgar

DECEMBER 7, 1999:  "Chanukah is that time of year between Christmas and Misgiving when all the bestest holiday shows are on TV."-- Angelica Pickles (Rugrat)

Indeed. A quick peek at the onslaught of holiday season fare reveals why, in the modern era, the dominant religion is particularly given to domination at this time of year. And I do mean onslaught: For the first time in my life it seems that Christmas began sometime around Labor Day and should continue right on through the New Hampshire primaries. Halloween, Thanksgiving, New Year's Day: All are tentacles of that hideous marketing monster, Christmas.What's a Jew to do?

In the olden days one might turn to a Catskill comedian for a little Yuletide levity -- a good old dose of sour cream on the oily potato latkes of Christian entertainment excess. Where does one turn for some live entertainment of a Jewish sort when confronted with innumerable kiddie shows with Santas corpulent and corporate; Scrooges sneering from theatres large and small; highbrow holiness with Handel? While we await our Jewish Messiah, his title has been appropriated by a Mass of Germans! Gambling, a national growth industry of staggering proportions, got its start with the innocent child's toy, the dreidel: Jewish culture and custom have been absorbed like credit cards recalled from my wallet.

And television? Don't get me started. Everywhere you look: Christmas specials, Christmas episodes of your Nielsen favorites, the Santa Doppler on your local news. And the ads, ads, ads, ads. "Da-hoo dorey," indeed! Even the time-honored refuge of football is tinted in shades of red and green; imbibe that extra dose of seasonal cheer and take too close a look at portly John Madden standing beside white-haired Pat Summerall: They merge into Jolly Old Saint Nick.

Alas, the Jewish answer to all this holiday madness comes up a bit short. Can there be a holiday more suburban, more keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, than Chanukah? Eight nights of presents, three different spellings. Hanukah is the attention-seeking little brother to Christmas and company: an unpredictable zephyr of a holiday that springs up sometime between its siblings, but never in the same place twice. Hanukkah clamors for attention and receives none.

So one has to delve into one's past to find mementos of Chanukah-style entertainment -- spectacle, company, and the purity of the season, which combine to create a Jewish experience. Ah, the memories.

I think back to that oddly warm, collegiate December day in Somerville, Massachusetts. Shirt sleeves and ice cream were the order of that late afternoon as we stood outside our dorm, the fire alarm ringing alarmingly for the umpteenth time that semester, sans incident. The guys on my hall all looked a little down, since, having been banned from climbing in and out our second floor via the fire escape (a much more direct route), all that remained were such fire drills as these to play on the adult monkey bars, free from university policing. Except, we were already outside -- a tempted audience staring wistfully at that empty ladder, a throng trapped on the sidewalk until the police came to turn off the bells. Imagine our surprise, then, when a fire truck pulled up and a fireman rushed past us, knocking my ice cream cone out of my hand. "Where's the fire?" one of our crew demanded, to be answered by puffs of black smoke billowing from the third floor window. Funny no longer, we watched as the men in black rubber suits went to work for all of about 10 minutes, then pronounced the fire out. The cause? A lit menorah had overturned, and the candles, burning with the zeal of those oil-less lamps of yore, had torched someone's dorm room. True holiday spectacle, if a little less than pure.

Well, if such a group audience doesn't a holiday spectacle make, what about a one-man show? That is, a show for one man. While traveling back to London from the south of France, I found myself in Paris with five hours to spare between connecting trains. It was a crisp, sunny Sunday morning just before Christmas (and right in the middle of Chanukah), and I figured I'd kill some time walking about the city. I emerged from the Metro near City Hall with backpack, camera, and scruffy beard and began my trek past the Louvre, the gardens at the Tuilleries, the Place de la Concorde (with its hieroglyphic, elongated dreidel-cum-obelisk), up the Champs Elysées, to the Arc de Triomphe. I noted rather soon into my journey how strangely quiet the city was. Not a creature was stirring, to steal a phrase. I made my way over to the Eiffel Tower, then doubled back down the Left Bank. No one. I had the city to myself on that glorious Sunday morning. Something about the air, the eerie tranquility of this usually explosively busy city, the cold rays of filtered light upon the centuries-old edifices of intricately carved Parisian stone brought on thoughts of Chanukah -- the miracle of an empty Paris mirroring one that occurred thousands of years before, where much older stone edifices witnessed more supernatural events. A Paris jaunt of matchless purity, to be sure, but a lonely one, all the same: Holidays are meant to be shared.

Perhaps, then, Chanukah finds its true mix of purity, spectacle, and comradeship on a smaller scale. The sun sets peacefully and the long shadows of the afternoon have faded into that thick, amber light of winter. Gathered around a little table, upon which stands the menorah (properly weighted at its base), a few pieces of geld, some presents, and a gambling device or two, are mother, father, and children. All share in the traditional rites: Blessings are recited, in Hebrew and English; candles lit; kisses then presents exchanged. The moment is intimate, almost holy, and fleeting to be sure as we all settle down for the next Christmas special. But then, we'll be doing it all over again tomorrow night, too. Now that's entertainment.

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