Watching Hanukkah

Some very different videos to start getting you ready for this holiday season.

Let’s start with the basics. How do you spell the name of this holiday in English? And what’s the deal with latkes? From the senior citizens at the Los Angeles Jewish Home, some of the more pressing questions of the season:

A mashup of top hits from decades past (a different era for each night of Hanukkah?), rewritten to explain the history, story and rituals of Hanukkah:

Then, Sarah Silverman‘s take on the December dilemma. Warning: her lyrics are, unsurprisingly, explicit. So I’m going to let you click over to it yourself.

Of course, there’s our favorite video, Lighting the Hanukkah Menorah:

“It's time to light the hanukkiah, the Hanukkah menorah!” might be my favorite line.

And if you’re more a gastronomical celebrant than religious enthusiast, you might enjoy the Potato Tabernacle Choir’s performance of Cheryl Wheeler’s Potato Song:


(Wondering why there are so few videos here? Check out what our friends at the Jewish Women’s Archive had to say about the lack of progressive Jewish viral videos.)

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Christmas time in our family is spent with my in-laws. Church for a 4:30 p.m. mass on Christmas Eve and then back to my in-laws’ house for an extended family, buffet-style, Christmas dinner, complete with Portuguese-style cocktail weenies and finger sandwiches. We eat around the Christmas tree while the kids (5 of them – all boys!) run around downstairs. For the past couple of years, Santa has visited after dinner, ringing the doorbell and coming inside with gifts for the kids. They seem to love this and are in awe of the large man in a red suit. While I never grew up with Santa, and I don’t have the nostalgic feeling that comes from a visit from him, it is neat watching the kids get all excited. And it’s fun to look forward to their reactions.

This year, however, I’m worried.

About a month ago, my six-year-old said, out of the clear blue, “I think Cousin Johnny is Santa.”

Shocked and stunned, I had no idea how to respond. “Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Well, he’s never around when Santa comes to the door.” Again, I am shocked. I can ask my son 100 times to put his dirty clothes in the laundry room and not drop them on the floor, and he is incapable of doing this. But he’s perceptive enough to realize that Cousin Johnny is not in the room when Santa comes and remembers it 11 months later!

I’m not worried that by answering this I’m going to ruin Christmas for my son. I’m worried that my response is going to be repeated to my nephews and end up ruining Christmas for them. I never had to answer questions about Santa or the Easter Bunny before! I can’t check in with my mom and see how she responded. What do I do?! 

I ended up mumbling something under my breath and changing the topic. This worked for the time being, but I needed to nip this one in the bud before I single-handedly ruined Christmas for my extended family.

As soon as possible, I consulted the expert, my sister-in-law. After all, her kids were the ones who would be potentially scarred for life (depending on my answer). She helped me out by telling me how she responded when her kids got confused when they saw Santa standing in front of the grocery store ringing a bell after they had just taken pictures with him at the mall. “I tell them Santa has a lot of helpers around Christmas in order to get everything done. But, he’s always watching to see if you’ve been naughty or nice.”

The threat of the omnipresent Santa looking down on the kids aside, I think the “helping Santa out” response may work. For now, I’m hoping that the question doesn’t come up again. And, if it does, maybe I can quickly shove a cocktail weenie in my son’s mouth as Santa comes in the door this year…

12 Days of Hodgepodge

Let’s just call this a random hodgepodge. A bunch of stuff came across my desk (or over the series of tubes that make up the internet) this week that were too interesting not to share:

Step aside Chelsea Clinton and Mark Mevinsky, here comes Lauren Bush and David Lauren! Yup, the grandaughter of former President George H. W. Bush, and niece of former President George W. Bush, is marrying David Lauren, son of the famous Jewish fashion designer Ralph Lauren. The Jewish press has run plenty of headlines proclaiming that she’ll become “Lauren Lauren” but, really, let’s hope she keeps her birth-name.

Remember that General Assembly that Ed’s mentioned a few times? Well, our friends at Keshet were there too. And they made a great video while they were there:

After seeing one of our tweets, Rachel Barenblat wrote a blog post expanding on her reply to our tweet, “Having a Christmas tree doesn’t make you “less Jewish” – or does it?” And it isn’t just about conifers. And in response to that blog post, MiriyaB posted her thoughts as well.

The Public Religion Research Institute released a survey today that showed that Americans are divided over what greetings businesses should use during the December holidays. This time of year, do you prefer a generic “happy holidays” or “merry Christmas”?

A contributor to our website blogged about a teachable moment: teaching children about God. How do you teach your children about God?

The San Francisco Chronicle offered up a list of 11 musicians who “found religion.” I enjoyed the photo of rapper Shyne Moses Levi in his Breslover garb.

If you’re visiting a church this Christmas for the first time, the Old First Reformed UCC church of Philadelphia has some helpful hints.

And our friends at suggested that this is the “most” Jewish of Christmas songs:

Bonus: Have you ever wondered, “Jew, or Not?” Given how many of you read our interfaith celebrities column, I’m guessing you have. You’re welcome.

Chrismukkah in Vegas

I was on the radio yesterday! KNPR’s “State of Nevada,” a show on the NPR station in southern Nevada, did a program that you can listen to: “Chrismukkah, anyone? How Interfaith Families Celebrate the Holidays.”

I enjoyed doing the program because it was an opportunity for dialogue with Ron Gompertz, who is not the creator of the Chrismukkah idea, but has created a website and a line of greeting cards around it. Back in 2004, I wrote an article for, “Chrismukkah” Is a Bad Idea. A year later, I invited Ron Gompertz to writeImagine! It’s Chrismukkah Time Again! And I responded with, I Still Say “Chrismukkah” Is a Bad Idea.

After doing the program, I have to say, I still think “Chrismukkah” is a bad idea. Basically, for interfaith couples who are raising their children as Jews, mushing Hanukkah and Christmas into one hybrid holiday blurs and eliminates the meaning and integrity of each holiday, and risks confusing children. In our recent December Holiday Survey, 89% of these respondents said they planned on keeping their holiday celebrations separate, or mostly separate.

But doesn’t pass judgment or tell people that what they are doing is wrong. Ron Gompertz and his wife, who is not Jewish, are active members of a synagogue community in Bozeman, Montana, and they are raising their daughter as a Jew. Ron is a very thoughtful person and I’m not worried that his daughter will be confused. But if any interfaith couple asked for advice, our advice at would be – keep the holidays distinct.

The program also included Karen Boyer, the executive director of the Interfaith Council of Southern Nevada, who was raised Jewish by a Jewish mother and a father who was not Jewish, now also practices Buddhism, and was married to a Muslim from West Africa, and Imam Aslam Abdullah, the director of the Islamic Society of Nevada. Dr. Abdullah’s description of his response to interfaith marriage among Muslims and others sounded similar in many ways to our approach – especially in his expression of hope and invitation to such couples to raise their children with one religious identity.

Take a Break

It’s that busy time of the year (is there ever not a busy time of the year?). Hanukkah’s over but we’re still celebrating the December holidays with friends and family, colleagues and communities. You need a break, we need a break, time for a hodgepodge of links. Happy reading!

Take a break…


And now back to the holidays…

Until the next hodge podge…

And on the Shabbat of Hanukkah…

Because there are still six more nights to fill… Hanukkah hodgepodge: part deux!

From the folks at Jewcy, Ten Songs We Wish Were For Hanukkah: songs about fire, donuts, potatoes, candles and gelt.

Today we posted a historic essay about Hanukkah in the new United States. If you want more American history, the 92nd Street Y has a post about the 19th Century trend of formal Hanukkah balls.

It’s not history, but in keeping with the Americana I have going here, check out Country-Fried Mama’s post about Hanukkah Traditions from the Deep South. I particularly enjoyed learning about the visiting “Hanukkah Man.”

Jewish Women’s Archive has a blog post about Hanukkah songs written by Jewish women. But even better? Their new Hanukkah video that tells the story of Judith and Hanukkah, and celebrates contemporary women who share her name

For something a little different, Cake Wrecks shared a bunch of disastrous Hanukkah cakes, including the one seen in the video below. (I don’t know about you, but I won’t be making that for my Hanukkah party this weekend!)

“And of course HHHHanukah will be blue…”

If you’ve used our video to learn how to light the menorah, but are looking for an app for your iPhone/iPad/iPod to learn the blessings (and maybe practice your Hebrew along the way), Berman House’s iHanukkah app might be for you.

How often do you hear fiddle and bass Hanukkah music? Not nearly often enough. I’ll leave you with this final ditty:

For the first night of Hanukkah…

So. Much. Hanukkah.

With the festival of lights starting this evening (are you ready to light the menorah? Check out our new video for candle lighting instructions, below, if you’re unsure or just want a refresher), this week I’m bringing you a Hanukkah hodgepodge.

Let’s start with the folks at BBYO/Panim, who have a great new resource. In Those Days, At This Time links the history of Hanukkah to the virtues of service and advocacy today – and tomorrow! Be sure to watch their video guide and start a conversation as you light the candles in your homes.

Hanukkah always bring out new music, and this year there’s plenty to choose from:
[*] – Matisyahu turns pop singer with “Miracle,” his new Hanukkah song;[/*]
[*] – the a cappella group from Yeshiva University, the Maccabeats, has reworked “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz to bring us Candlelight;[/*]
[*] – from Chana Rothman, Naomi Less, and Sara Aroeste comes “A New Light,” recorded in Hebrew, English, and Ladino (available streaming or as free download);[/*]
[*] – Fa La Freezing by My First Earthquake is a cute holiday song – with a bonus interfaith angle;[/*]
[*] – and Bible Raps brings us Light Is in the Air.[/*][/list]

And if you want to sing your own songs, Original Jewish has compiled a whole bunch of them, and offers up the songs for download in English, Hebrew, and transliteration.

Looking for a new spin on the Hanukkah story?  chanukah:s9ln24lm">G-dcast Spins Hanukkah in this retelling of the history of the holiday. Meanwhile, PunkTorah gives you the whole story in 62 seconds, below. (You can also check them out doing a live candle lighting tonight, Dec. 1st at 7pm EST, on Meanwhile, Storahtelling has Judy the Maccabee for the preschooler in all of us.

Jennie at ModernTribe has some fun Hanukkah swag (and you might recognize our favorite kosher pig amongst the gift ideas!).

For those of you who are creative DIYers, check out the Lifehacker DIY Holiday Contest. (My favorite entry thus far? The Peznorah!)

And, lastly, I leave you with this video, below, made by teens of the Gay-Straight Alliance at the A. J. Heschel School in New York, shared by Keshet, encouraging us all to make our communities more welcoming as we light the menorah tonight.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah 2010

Happy Hanukkah! I don’t know about you, but I am already wondering if there is any way, when I make latkes this weekend, to avoid making the entire house smell like a fryolator for several days. Do you have any suggestions?

This year I have to make a double batch. Every year we help my wife’s college roommate and her husband, among our oldest and dearest friends, decorate their Christmas tree (neither are Jewish); our gathering is early this year, so I’ll be bringing latkes to them (they love it when it’s Hanukkah so we can light our menorah with their family). The next batch is for our annual Hanukkah gathering with my parents (who are now 93 and 92, still living on their own) in Connecticut. This year I may try some latkes made of both potatoes and butternut squash. We have a lot of great recipes to choose from on the site.

I am really pleased this year with’s first in-house produced video,Lighting the Hanukkah Menorah. One of our long-range goals is to provide a comprehensive set of introductory “how-to-do-Jewish” resources, and we know that many people prefer to learn from video rather than or in addition to text. We hope this will be one of the first of many helpful videos. Benjamin Maron, our new managing editor, gets the writer/director/producer credit, and we want to especially thank our on-screen talent, our good friend from Liz Polay-Wettengel, and her family. They should be movie stars!

I’m also pleased that we have a new article by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, who has also made a series of videos for us, “Rabbi Reuben’s Ruminations,” professionally produced by the Jewish Television Network. I’m happy about it because there are people who say that the meaning of Hanukkah is antithetical to welcoming interfaith families to Jewish life and community. They say that Hanukkah commemorates a rebellion by the Jews against assimilation into the Hellenistic Greek society that surrounded them – and they make the common mistake of equating intermarriage with assimilation. Rabbi Reuben explains that “Jewish civilization represents a value system that declares to every single individual human being on earth, that what they say matters, and what they do matters, and who they are matters.” The Jews were resisting assimilation into a culture where “the only rule that mattered was that whoever had the most power and carried the biggest club got to make the rules,…”  a culture of bigotry and prejudice based on “might makes right.” He concludes,

Light the lights this year with pride as we continue to stand for the enduring values that celebrate the fundamental spiritual worth of every human spirit.  That is why Hanukkah continues to matter.

That’s hardly a message that is antithetical to embracing interfaith families.

Finally, we do two surveys a year, around Hanukkah and Christmas, and again around Passover and Easter. We just released the report on our seventh December Holidays Survey. Cathy Grossman blogged about our survey on her Faith & Reason blog on I really respect Cathy’s writing but I’m not sure I agree with her take on our survey results this year.

Our holiday surveys have consistently focused on interfaith families that are raising their children as Jews, to illuminate how such families deal with potential conflict between Hanukkah and Christmas, and how they participate in Christmas celebrations at all. Over the years almost all of these families celebrate Hanukkah, and about half have a Christmas tree in their own home. An extremely small percentage, as low as 1%, “tell the Christmas story” – which of course is fundamentally religious in nature, and in comments our survey respondents say that Christmas doesn’t have religious significance to them, it is just a warm family time with traditions from the parent who is not Jewish. Kind of like Thanksgiving is a warm family time that isn’t religious.

The surveys have consistently shown a higher percentage of respondents who treat Hanukkah as a religious holiday. This year, for example, 55% said they would tell the Hanukkah story. When asked to rate the religious or secular nature of their holiday participation, 23% said their Hanukkah celebrations were religious and 28% said they were secular (49% said half and half), vs. 2% who said their Christmas celebrations were religious and 89% who said they were secular (only 9% said half and half). We did note in a press release that there was an increase this year from 20% to 28% who said their Hanukkah celebrations were secular, and that is what Cathy zeroes in on in her blog post.

But there was another finding noted in our press release suggesting a different trend. We saw in increase in the percentage who said they would celebrate Hanukkah in the synagogue this year, from 62% last year to 71% this year. So I don’t think it’s quite fair to suggest that the prevailing way that interfaith families raising Jewish children celebrate Hanukkah is in a secular way without religious significance. What do you think?

Memo to Elena Kagan: Not All Jews Spend Christmas at Chinese Restaurants

The blogosphere is lit up with Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s response to a question at her confirmation hearing. The Washington Post reported that a senator asked, “’Christmas Day bomber. Where were you at on Christmas Day?’ Kagan … seemed confused by his query and started answering him seriously. But Graham cut her off and said, ‘No. I just asked where you were at on Christmas.’ Kagan’s response – ‘Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant’ — was brilliant in its humor, timing and the self-effacing manner in which it was delivered.”

Most of the commentary is about Kagan’s sense of humor, like that from JTA, the Jewish Week, and the Christian Science Monitor. Over at Jewcy, Jason Diamond said “a serious burst of pride shot through my being when a person who is possibly (hopefully) going to sit in the highest judicial seat in the land, made mention of one of my favorite Jewish traditions.”

I also hope that Elena Kagan is confirmed. I’m proud that she’s Jewish. I’m even proud of her association with one of my alma maters – yes, I have a degree from Harvard Law School, something I don’t ever emphasize in my current position.

But Supreme Court justices shouldn’t make factual errors, and she ought to know, and the commentators ought to know, that we are way past the time when “all Jews” are at Chinese restaurants” at Christmas. In fact, we all ought to realize that we are either at the time, or close to the time, when half of young adults who identify as Jews will have grown up participating in Christmas celebrations with their interfaith families. The Jewish partners and children in interfaith families aren’t going to Chinese restaurants for Christmas – they’re having Christmas dinner with their relatives who aren’t Jewish.

Christmas is coming

December is our busiest season at We’ve already had over 30,000 unique visitors to our site this month, and the most popular content is about the December holidays.

With Hanukkah over and Christmas coming this week, with many interfaith couples getting ready to celebrate Christmas and many Jews not comfortable with that, I’d like to highlight the lessons of our sixth annual December Holidays Survey. We started doing these surveys in response to a book by Sylvia Barack Fishman called Double or Nothing, where she argued that interfaith families who said they were raising their children as Jews, really weren’t, because they had Christmas trees in their homes and as a result the children turn out not to be Jewish. I felt that was a ridiculous conclusion, that she did not understand the couples she interviewed, and set out to ask our readers about their experiences.

Our respondents have been strikingly consistent over six years:  high percentages of interfaith couples raising their children as Jews participate in Christmas celebrations, close to half with Christmas trees in their own homes, but doing so in a secular, non-religious manner, and confident their children’s Jewish identity is not compromised.

This year we looked for trends in over recent years and found that more of these families were celebrating Christmas at the home of relatives (79%, up from 66% in 2007) and keeping their Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations separate (89%, up from 83% in 2007). The percentage who thought their Christmas celebrations do not affect their children’s Jewish identity increased from 73% in 2008 to 81% in 2009. In our press release announcing the survey results, I said we were seeing an increasing normalization of interfaith couples raising Jewish children and participating in Christmas.

Our survey has attracted a lot of publicity this year. It was featured on USA Today’s Faith and Reason blog, in Jewish papers in Cleveland and Boston, and most recently in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent’s A Merry Little Chanukah? where Aaron Passman interviewed two of the respondents to our survey. Passman quotes Steven Bayme, one of the Jewish intellectual leaders most critical of intermarriage, as saying that a Christmas tree is “suggestive of the very thin nature of the Jewish identity of the home.” But the article features the family of Dr. Andrea Kesack — they belong to a synagogue, their children go to religious school, and their oldest daughter recently became bat mitzvah. It is insulting to them — and to the thousands of families like their’s — to say that the presence of a Christmas tree in their home indicates “thin” Jewish identity, and I’ve written a letter to the editor to make that point.

Jews have the hardest time understanding that Christmas does not have any religious significance to many interfaith families. But from what we hear from many of the interfaith couples themselves, it’s really like Thanksgiving. The first time we did our survey, I was amazed at the very low percentage of interfaith couples raising Jewish children who  “tell the Christmas story.” That story is of course fundamentally religious, and the fact that this year only 4% are telling the Christmas story at home is a pretty clear indicator of the non-religious nature of these families’ celebrations.

This morning I got a Google alert of a story in a secular paper, the Monterey County Herald, titled Embracing your inner Santa. It turned out to be an advice column by a marriage counselor, responding to someone who wanted to celebrate Christmas with her child but was getting objections from her “rigorously secular” spouse: 

Most people would agree that the religious holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus has been significantly transformed into a secular celebration. “Holiday” parties are now the norm at most businesses. Images of starry-eyed children opening packages has become almost completely disconnected from the day’s religious meaning.

As best I can tell, neither the therapist or the couple involved were Jewish, but I wish that the therapist’s description of Christmas as a secular holiday would be taken to heart by those in the Jewish community who are uneasy about Christmas. Today, half of the young adults who identify or could identify as Jews have one Jewish parent, so most of them grew up participating in some form in Christmas celebrations. It used to be that someone who celebrated Christmas wasn’t Jewish, but that simply is no longer the case.

For those of you for whom the December holidays aren’t over — I hope you have a very happy holiday.