Gelt and Innocence

A feverish love of collecting masked a family’s shameful truth: There was no money.

(Liz West/Flickr)

When I was a child living in Springfield, Massachusetts, in the 1980s, Hanukkah was the Jewish Christmas. This was how I explained it to my friends in our vastly non-Jewish neighborhood, and they nodded, confused but willing to buy it. At home, we dutifully lit the menorah, my mother reciting the blessing, a gesture I remember as rare yet fervent. There were also piles of gifts, in accordance with the holiday season. In retrospect, these seem garish, excessive, a symbol of all the work done in my childhood and adolescence to create the illusion of having money, in spite of the painful reality.

In my sophomore year of college, my mother died. Her illness was long, breast cancer that played hide and seek. My grandmother, my co-parent since my parents divorced when I was 7, collapsed under the weight of her daughter’s death. With her went the ability to pay the mortgage on our house.

In the end, our house was foreclosed on. Weeks before, I was told to collect everything—furniture, papers, clothes—I wanted; everything else would be sold or thrown away. I took very little; I had no room for the rocking chair, the loveseat, the vases, the china. For the most part, I don’t regret the things left behind, but although I wasn’t there to see it, I’m haunted by the image of the contents of our home being thrown into a trash bin, leaving the green Victorian an empty coffin. (more…)

The Unbearable Dumbness of Dreidel

How does this game possibly make any sense?

The Spinagogue. Two dreidels enter; one dreidel leaves. Or something.(Modern Tribe)

Hanukkah starts tonight, and Major League Dreidel is offering something called a Spinagogue, which is sort of a stadium for dreidel-spinning. The Spinagogue encourages you to aim to make your dreidel move impressively or in specific directions, or simply to make it spin for a really long time. Setting aside the obviously-made-by-and-for-people-who-are-high video (after the jump), there is actually something ingenious about it, in that it divorces the dreidel itself—the ceremonial Hanukkah spinning top—from the game that is basically synonymous with it. (Yeshiva U. also did this, yesterday setting a new Guinness World Record by simultaneously spinning 618 dreidels.)

Because—and here’s my point—has anyone actually ever successfully played the game? You know the rules. You put your gelt in the center and take turns spinning. Get a gimel, you get the pot. Get a nun, nothing happens. get a hei, you get half the pot. Get a shin, you put back in the pot (depending on various rules I’ve played) one of your gelts, half your gelt, or all your gelt. (more…)

Sweet and Light

A well-oiled selection of Hanukkah fare—from a new twist on latkes to salads and savory ‘gelt’

There’s no escaping the oil. But if the celebration of Hanukkah conjures up memories of soggy foods drizzled, drenched, and fried (as Gil Marks points out, the word latke means “little oily”), keep the following in mind: the use of oil doesn’t automatically translate to greasy.

Chef Melissa Petitto, a private chef in New York City, has opened up the gustatory possibilities for Hanukkah with four recipes below. (In the above video, you’ll see her cooking two of them with Vox Tablet‘s host Sara Ivry.) You’ll find a colorful winter salad tossed with walnut oil; an inventive gelt coin made out of cheese instead of chocolate (a hat tip to the tradition of eating dairy on this holiday); apple fritters with two different toppings; and latkes made out of sweet potatoes and parsnips, all of which do well to remind us on Hanukkah that light, too, is being honored along with the miracle of oil. (more…)

Anander Mol, Anander Veig

Another Time, Another Way: Tablet Magazine’s Hanukkah album, remixed versions of holiday and Jewish classics

Download the entire album. [.ZIP file, 47 MB]

They are a people, albeit a diverse and dispersed one, spread throughout the world, separated by geography and language, yet still connected through a rich and shared cultural lineage.

I’m speaking, of course, about remixers.

Remixers are electronic musicians who take a pre-existing piece of recorded music and turn it into something else, sometimes something else entirely. They delight in finding choice moments in the original and rearranging what was there until it resembles the source material yet feels wholly new, wholly its own.

As Hanukkah approached this year, I sent a note to various remixers, asking if they’d be interested in selecting a holiday staple, or a song from another festive Jewish event, and taking a stab at remixing it. The response was swift, strong, and positive—as was the supportive response from the musicians and bands who had recorded the originals from which the remixers would subsequently work. Permission having been granted by the originating musicians (or their respective record labels), the remixers dove in deep, enacting their alterations with everything from laptops to modular synthesizers. (more…)

Children of the Book

Part II: As Hanukkah approaches, a look at the year’s best Jewish books for older kids

Some favorite chapter books from 2010. (Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine)

Let’s look at the year’s best chapter books and graphic novels. Bear in mind that I’m not G’veret Newbery; I don’t require that books be “distinguished.” They just have to be good and enticing to young readers.

I was shocked at how much I liked An Unspeakable Crime: The Prosecution and Persecution of Leo Frank, by Elaine Marie Alphin. It’s rigorously researched and very, very gripping. One spring day in Atlanta in 1913, 13-year-old Mary Phagan put on a pretty violet dress and went to pick up her paycheck at the National Pencil Company. She intended to go from there to the Confederate Memorial Day parade. She never made it. Her body was found in the factory basement, a cord around her throat, her dress pushed up past her knees. Leo Frank, the pencil factory’s supervisor, who was seen as a rich, dirty Yankee Jewish interloper, was convicted of the crime in a rigged trial. When Georgia’s governor commuted Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment, a crowd of furious citizens kidnapped Frank from prison and lynched him. The miscarriage of justice led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League. Alphin’s book, chock-full of photos and newspaper clippings, tells the story in an immensely readable way, like a horrifying, absorbing mystery novel. Alphin presents evidence about who really committed the crime, offers a picture of post-Reconstruction-era Southern bigotry, and names the prominent citizens who led the lynching party. For budding true-crime readers, this book would be a terrific Hanukkah gift. It’s my pick for both the Newbery Award (it actually is distinguished!) and the National Jewish Book Award. (Recommended for ages 12 to adult.) (more…)

Remixing Hanukkah

(Eric Molinsky)

For those of you who are faithful (or even semi-faithful) listeners of our weekly Vox Tablet podcast, this music ought to sound weirdly familiar.

It is the Vox Tablet theme song, originally composed by Jewlia Eisenberg and re-conceived here by remix masters Cedar AV. They did it on assignment from Marc Weidenbaum, founder of the popular music and sound blog Disquiet, who himself took on a much more ambitious assignment from Tablet Magazine: Commission eight songs for a Hanukkah remix album. The results are in, and we’ll be posting the album for free download on Monday. Plus, also on Monday, Vox Tablet’s Sara Ivry interviews Weidenbaum about the project. Get psyched!

Children of the Book

As Hanukkah approaches, a look at the year’s best Jewish picture books

(Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine)

Perhaps you’ve heard: We Jews love books. And we like to indoctrinate the little Jews. So, why not give a kid a picture book for Hanukkah? It comes early this year, which means my annual rundown of the best Jewish children’s books of the year is early too. Behold your idiosyncratic gifting guide: Some of the choices will appeal to the littlest kids; some are for older elementary schoolers, and next week we’ll look at the year’s best Jewish chapter books and graphic novels.

Beautiful Yetta, the Yiddish Chicken

My favorite Jewish picture book this year, by far, is Beautiful Yetta, the Yiddish Chicken by Daniel Pinkwater and illustrated by Jill Pinkwater. This multi-culti immigration fantasy is funny and sweet. Written in simple, poetic sentences, it is the story of Yetta, who will not be soup. After being delivered to Phil’s Poultry World, she escapes and finds herself on the streets of Brooklyn. The pigeons are unhelpful schmucks. All seems lost until she rescues a parrot from cat-related disaster, and suddenly Yetta has friends to show her the ropes of city life. She speaks only Yiddish and her new parrot friends speak only Spanish (there are translations), making this book hilarious to read out loud, especially if you speak neither language. My 6-year-old now wanders around the house exclaiming “Gevalt!” and cooing “Meyn teyehreh kinder!” at her stuffed animals. The Yiddish feels organic to the plot, not grafted-on. (Recommend for ages 4-8).

The Rooster Prince of Breslov


Bright Spots

The best of this year’s chanukiahs, the menorahs used for Hanukkah, are beautiful, sometimes clever, and occasionally poignant

Candlesticks United, by Reddish, an Israeli design studio. (Reddish)

God is hard; stuff is not.

Throughout the vagaries of my connection to religion, I’ve never once had doubts about my connection to its material culture—the challah knives, washing cups, mezuzahs, etc., of Jewish life. Of this stuff, and it is stuff, none has been more alluring for me than our various candle holders. That these pieces occupy the particularly female realm of our religious universe is relevant, but that the point of these accoutrements is to hold fire is even more so. The Hebrew word shamayim—the heavens —is comprised of two words: aish, or fire, and mayim, which means water. As rabbi Shlomo Riskin, among others, has noted: “[While] fire has the ability to bring warmth, it can also devour and destroy. … [C]loud and fire—the lack of clarity expressed by a cloud and the inability to gaze directly into a flame—likewise express one of the deepest truths of the Jewish message: religion is not so much paradise as it is paradox. God demands fealty even in the face of agonizing questions and disturbing uncertainty.”

Sabbath candles certainly fit the bill, as they demand our weekly attention to the challenge of this uncertainty. But what of the chanukiah, the nine-armed fire-holder that represents, in addition to Judaism’s essential paradox, the assertion of a miracle—an alleged interruption into our earthly landscape by the Divine? And here we are, back at the original problem: God. (more…)

Meet Your 2009 Major League Dreidel Champion

You don’t need to be Jewish to be a great spinner

Congratulations to John Heywood—spinning name: Jonny Hei-z (“Hei” as in Nun, Gimel, Hei, Shin)—who won the honor last weekend in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, despite the arguable disadvantage of not being Jewish. Heywood told Tablet Magazine that the competition, which is run by friends of his, rates how long spinners can keep their dreidel spinning, rather than which letters their dreidels land on. Moreover, the tournament is decided via a March Madness-style bracket, so it’s all about performing under pressure: Heywood eked out victory even though his (admittedly impressive) 16-second high was not the best of the night. “This is my first year doing it—I’m a rookie spinner,” he said, adding: “I’m the first non-Jew to win—I found it funny. I think it’s great that everyone can be involved. I had friends who were Jewish growing up, so we had dreidels around.”


The Annotated Child: Coping with the December dilemma

The Annotated Child: Festivismukkah graphic


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