Jewish Journal

Illuminating Tales of Modern Maccabees

by Gaby Friedman

Posted on Dec. 22, 2005 at 7:00 pm

In Myra Goldberg's short story, "Who Can Retell," reprinted in the National Public Radio anthology, "Hanukkah Lights, Stories of the Season" (Melcher Media, 2005), a young girl is concerned that her school's holiday glee club is singling out all the Jewish students to sing Chanukah songs.

The story, about the trauma of having an identity that cannot assimilate completely into the dominant culture, perhaps embodies the American Chanukah experience, which more than any other holiday in the calendar, reminds Jews that they are different.

Although it is not a biblical holiday, unlike say, Passover, Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, Chanukah has managed to carve its own place in the American cultural pantheon. It is the one holiday in the Jewish calendar that even the most assimilated Jews tend to acknowledge. It is also a holiday that the more affiliated Jews commemorate as a ritual-laden eight days, replete with olive oil lights, prayers, latkes, and discussions and songs of a tiny army hell-bent on defending their God's and nation's holiness.

In "Hanukkah Lights," the stories not only exemplify the dichotomous nature of the holiday for American Jews, but also the way in which Chanukah has, to some degree, become synonymous with so many facets of their Jewish identity.

The book was borne out of the popular NPR broadcast of the same name, an hour-long show of Chanukah stories read aloud, created in 1990 by Susan Stamberg and Murray Horowitz. Initially, the stories read on the program had been previously published. But as the program became more popular, the producers started commissioning their own choice of writers.

"Hanukkah Lights" has broadcast 40 original stories, of which 12 are included in this anthology, with an additional four on the accompanying CD featuring original NPR readings by Stamberg and Horowitz. Printed on high-quality paper, the book has beautiful full-color, collage-like illustrations by Sandra Dionisi.

The stories include modern takes on the Maccabean legacy of die-hard nationalism. In "Nona Maccabeus," by Gloria Davidas, Kirchheimer, a grandmother in a Sephardic old-age home, holds firm to her Ladino roots, thwarting "the Ashkenazim who controlled her daily activities," by dressing up and singing a Ladino Chanukah song instead of listening to the hip-hop Chanukah act that the home's manager thrust upon them. In "Stabbing an Elephant," by Max Apple, a young rabbi defiantly decides to not modify a pictorial detail of an elephant being stabbed in a Chanukah story book, despite intense pressure from the heavyweights in his community.

Other stories deal with the Chanukah miracle itself. The oil, which burned for eight days instead of just one, was the result of modern technology placed in the Temple through time travel, recounts Harlan Ellison in "Go Toward the Light." In Eli Weisel's "A Hanukkah Story," the miracle is one where a mysterious, anonymous laborer who helps a boy up after he has been beaten by thugs, turns out to be a holy man who studies privately with a mystical rabbi.

Like the little girl in the Myra Goldberg story, other stories deal with the prominence of Chanukah as an element of Jewish American identity. In "The Demon Foiled," by Anne Roiphe, a Jewish mayor, newly elected to a fractious city, invites the TV cameras into his house when he is lighting the menorah. But the candles do not behave, and they self-extinguish before the mayor has a chance to give his prepared speech. Instead, the mayor says, "This is a promising sign, a menorah in rebellion against taking things for granted ... a positive miracle...."

"I believe that we might have caught a sweet spot," said Charlie Melcher, founder and publisher of Melcher Media, who helped put together the book. "Often a lot of Judaica publishing is not that great looking in terms of its design and artwork [so we wanted to create] something that is attractive and interesting and contemporary but clearly for the Chanukah Jewish market -- [which] might be underserved. I hope this book will serve it well."


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