Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hanukkah Boosters Light a Fire Under Holiday 

The Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska traditionally hosts an art show to celebrate Hanukkah. This year, however, Rabbi Joseph Greenberg wanted to go bigger.

So on Tuesday, the first night of the holiday, the center will present Cirque de Hanukkah. A troupe of professional acrobats is flying into Anchorage to perform feats including using their bodies to create a living menorah—the traditional candelabra lighted during the eight nights of the holiday. There will be carnival games, and kids will be invited to take whacks at a piñata shaped like a dreidel.

"I know it's not directly Hanukkah-ish, but we're going to make it Hanukkah-ish," Rabbi Greenberg says. Any congregation that hopes to stay relevant to modern American Jews "has to do a big Hanukkah," he adds. "That's the key."

For years, many American Jews have treated Hanukkah as a low-key holiday celebration, giving children gifts, inviting friends over to light the menorah and decorating with blue-and-white lights. But now, all across the nation, Hanukkah celebrations have shifted into overdrive.

Young adults are hosting "vodka and latkes" parties where the alcohol is served along with traditional potato pancakes. Hip-to-Hanukkah musicians are updating the holiday's slim repertoire of songs in genres like heavy metal, reggae, hip-hop and rap.

And then there are the Schlep Sisters, two burlesque dancers who have booked the 400-seat Highline Ballroom in Manhattan for their Menorah Horah show, a striptease shot through with Hanukkah history. The Sisters have been performing the act for five years, to ever-bigger crowds, on the theory that Hanukkah needs to be more fun.

"It's not like Yom Kippur, where you sit in synagogue and fast," says one of the Schlep Sisters, who goes by the stage name Minnie Tonka and says she has a master's degree in Jewish education.

Even the stodgy dreidel, the little wooden top which children traditionally spin for chocolate coins at Hanukkah, has gotten an update. An outfit called Major League Dreidel sponsors spinning tournaments across the country, held on game boards called, of course, Spinagogues.

All this would make Rabbi Benjamin Blech weep, except, he says, "it is almost hysterically funny."

Rabbi Blech, who teaches Talmud at Yeshiva University in New York, says Hanukkah commemorates a clash in about 165 B.C. between a pious Jewish community and the rather raucous Greeks who had conquered much of the Middle East. The Jewish group, led by the ragtag Maccabee army, beat back the Hellenist hedonists. Then they purified a defiled temple by lighting a sacred flame—which miraculously remained lighted for eight days, though there was only enough oil for one night.

Hanukkah should be about Jews standing proudly apart from mainstream culture, resisting frivolity and assimilation, Rabbi Blech argues. For Jews today to celebrate Hanukkah with carnivals, rowdy parties—even piles of presents—"means not only losing the rationale for the holiday, but distorting it in a very dangerous way," he says.

Jennie Rivlin Roberts, an Atlanta psychologist, begs to differ. She runs a website, ModernTribe.com, that sells all manner of Hanukkah knickknacks, including menorah-shaped cookie cutters. She also created a game that combines traditional tops with poker: No Limit Texas Dreidel.

December "is a very difficult time for Jewish families in the U.S. because Christmas is ubiquitous," Dr. Rivlin Roberts says, describing questions from her 7-year-old daughter about Santa's dominance. Decorating the house with blue and white lights doesn't fully compensate, she says—which is why she's all about making the holiday more fun.

"We're OK with embracing Hanukkah 100%," she says.

So is Daniel Flaster Siskin of Long Beach, Calif., who invented a vengeance-themed board game called "Operation: Maccabee" in which players use a dreidel to defeat Nazis during World War II. He has big plans for the humble top: "Why not a million dreidel games?" he asks.

Of course, some elements of Hanukkah are easier to amp up than others. The heavy metal band Gods of Fire struggled trying to write a hard-driving song about potato pancakes for their 2009 album "Hanukkah Gone Metal."

"What's metal about frying latkes in oil? Nothing," says Seth Diamond, who plays keyboard and guitar. The group finally decided to write about a mythical quest to procure a precious supply of latke oil that was guarded by a fierce dragon.

"We made it into a 'Lord of the Rings'-style epic," Mr. Diamond says.

He sees his album as its own sort of epic quest—to make Hanukkah "more relevant, modern, fresh and fun," especially for young adults who have outgrown the sheer joy of getting presents eight nights in a row.

Hanukkah is actually a minor holiday on the Jewish religious calendar. But enterprising entrepreneurs have long seen its potential.

Back in the 1870s, when Christmas was just starting to come into its own as a mass-market cultural phenomenon in the U.S., two Cincinnati rabbis looking for a way to cheer up Jewish kids who felt left out—and bring more young families into synagogue—launched the first big Hanukkah festivals, with games, music and plenty of good food. The concept was wildly popular and soon spread across the country, says Dianne Ashton, a religious scholar and author of the coming book "Hanukkah in America."

Today's Hanukkah promoters share the goals of the Cincinnati rabbis: Making the winter season fun for Santa-deprived kids; giving Jews a reason to reconnect; and boosting the holiday's profile among the general public.

So Jews in Metairie, La., will celebrate this year with a "latkes on roller skates" party at a skating rink. In Dallas, Rabbi Zvi Drizin has requested approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to fashion a celestial-scale menorah by beaming searchlights into the night sky on each night of the holiday.

And in Boulder, Colo., a vodka-and-latkes party for young adults will feature presentations on topics ranging from roller derby to gender roles to racier fare. The hosts expect all 200 tickets to sell out, as the event did when first held last year.

"There are not a lot of Jewish events that people talk about," says Joel Wishkovsky, who is helping to organize the party. "People are talking about this."


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