A Holly Jolly… Hanukkah?

I made a terrible mistake last week in my Hebrew Bible class.

The course is actually called “Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.” “Old Testament” comes first because most of our students have never heard of the “Hebrew Bible.” The latter is a respectable academic effort to avoid sectarian bias in naming biblical scriptures. Calling the Jewish scriptures the “Old Testament” assumes said scriptures existed only to give rise to the New Testament. For Jews, this is a pretty perilous proposition. It makes them grind their teeth.

Jews call their texts the Tanakh, an acronym for Torah-Neviim-Ketuvim. The Torah includes the Five Books of Moishe. These, in turn, are also known as the Chumash, Hebrew for “five” and/or the Pentateuch, which is Greek for the same. Neviim is Hebrew for “prophets” and Ketuvim is Hebrew for “writings.” The former includes prophetic texts and histories like Joshua, Judges, and Kings. The latter includes, among other writings, Psalms, Proverbs, the books of Esther and Ruth, Lamentations, and Job.

Academic types call all this stuff of ancient times the Hebrew Bible because the vast majority of the texts are written in Hebrew. A very small portion is written in Aramaic, which can look and act like Hebrew, but isn’t. The name “Hebrew Bible” is neutral. It makes no sectarian statement. It has no religious connotations.

Religious connotations, as I tell my students, are inadmissible in a secular classroom. “This class,” my syllabus reads, “assumes a scholarly attitude to religious beliefs and texts. We will look at religion scientifically as a historical phenomenon. We are not here to talk about personal beliefs, or to make moral judgments about the text. This is not the setting to deal with our own views on God or spirituality; the setting for that is a nice, comfy chair with some good coffee, and maybe a Danish.”

Or a bialy.

But, hey, I was in a silly mood last week. It was our last day. The students were about to take a final exam in which, among other things, they would have to explain intertextuality at work in Numbers 22 and Genesis 22. (That meant comparing the seer Balaam, who converses with his donkey, to Abraham, who doesn’t seem able to talk to his own son.)

I decided to let down my hair.

“Let’s sing some Christmas carols while we wait for everyone to get here,” I suggested brightly. “How about ‘Winter Wonderland’?”

You would have thought I had announced that the final was going to cover Sumerian hymns, insist on intimate knowledge of Ugaritic, and test knowledge of ancient Persian governance. There was a loud and raucous outcry. There was an “Occupy UNC-Charlotte” spirit adrift in the room. The peasants were revolting.

“Whoa,” I said. “Wassup? I was just trying to bring a little seasonable cheer into the room.”

I teach many students who have to work their way through college. A good many informed me in no uncertain terms that they had been forced to listen to Christmas carols since Halloween as they bagged motley plastic goods. They were mortally, thoroughly sick of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Little Drummer Boy.”

Some may have heard “Silver Bells” as many as fifty times in less than six weeks.

They threatened to gag, upchuck, or make rude noises if I so much as jingled a bell or decked the hall.

I demurred, of course. The room assigned for Old Testament/Hebrew Bible last semester is already dark and dank. It has no windows. The artificial light, as Shakespeare would have said, sucketh. We had studied in a version of Sheol all semester long, the gray and wretched place everyone lands after death according to Hebrew Bible. It doesn’t matter if you were naughty or nice in life – that’s where you go when you kick off. It’s like a nursing home with tenure.

Had said students done as threatened, the next group to trudge in would be met with gory smells and sights unbecoming to the student body. Any of them.

Sadly, I handed them their final exams. I watched them stress and worry, gnash their brows and furrow their teeth.

I mightily resisted the temptation to cheer them up by dreaming about a white Christmas – a song written by a Jew, by the by. I did not conjure up the image of old Frosty, who could have been Jewish. (He reminds me a lot of my Uncle Max – incessantly cheerful, that man and oy, the shnoz). I most certainly did not think of Scrooge. He evokes terrible associations and clichés about, well, Jews.

Instead, very softly – very softly indeed, I hummed a song that could not possibly offend anyone.

“I have a little dreidel. I made it out of clay…”

P.S. Chag sameach to clay-handling readers!

P.P.S.  A list of my Top Ten Christmas Songs Written or Composed by Jews is provided for general edification below, as is a link to explanatory materials.

  1. Silver Bells
  2. Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
  3. Winter Wonderland
  4. I’ll be Home for Christmas
  5. Let it Snow
  6. White Christmas
  7. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  8. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
  9. A Holly Jolly Christmas
  10. Sleigh Ride



6 Replies to “A Holly Jolly… Hanukkah?”

  1. I’m not even Jewish and I become worn out by the holly, jolly Christmas stuff by Christmas. I assume the worn-out thing could be age (I’m ancient after all) but I think it’s just commercialism–I imagine packaging hundreds of pieces of Chinese-made plastic crap, while listening to someone dreaming of a white Christmas in Idaho could be termed cruel and unusual punishment, and perhaps should be forbidden under the Geneva Convention. Everyone in our neighborhood switches on the lights before the Halloween candy (also made in China) has even been consumed. Carfol and I give into the spirit of the season on Beethoven’s birthday by buying and decorating our two trees (the porch needs its own). That gives us a week to get our grandchildren properly in the mood. But we try to await The Eve before playing actual Christmas Carols. We actually, on Christmas Eve, sit by, sometimes around, the tree and hold hands while singing our own carols, just before opening the presents (one at a time please). Each child goes to the tree, one at a time, with the eldest being first, picks out a present with eyes closed, announces to whom and from whom and everyone is allowed to gaze and oooh and aaah on the present and the gifted one, before the next lucky child gets to go.
    This is all by way of saying that I am not a Scrooge, but I still heartily endorse your class’ rebellion. But happy holidays, Christmas and Hannukah both, to one and all.
    And you do keep telling me things I never learned in the sixth grade. All is not lost.

  2. Here, here!! Hooray for those college students! There may be hope for the younger crowd yet. I too get tired of the incessant pounding of jollyness from before Halloween (soon to be Labor Day) through December. I avoid all retail establishments playing such drivel for all but the shortest time buying the barest necessities. It is cruel and unusual punishment of the employees and insensitive to nonobservers. Of course, Christmas is no longer a Christian holiday. Trying to keep the lid on the insanity, and focus on the religious reason, when the children were small was a struggle every year.

    As to the songs, I imagine composers of all persuasion recognized a moneymaking opportunity when it appeared. Of the ten top songs, two do not mention Christmas at all (Sleigh Ride and Winter Wonderland) and the rest are referring to universally secular themes of family and love and community during a winter period popularly called Christmas that falls during the bleakest and scariest time of the year. Just as Chanukah candles can light up the long nights of winter, so can thoughts of home and hearth. Just wish those great songs were not being beaten into irrelevance.

  3. Isn’t it sad that such a joyous holiday has become so lost in commercialism for gift buying and the singing of Christmas realted songs and carols from befrore Thanksgiving. The fact that your students were so turned off by listening to or singing another Christmas song is right on. But how sad that at their tender age, the season is already a bust for them.

    I had heard that most of the popular Chrsitmas songs were written by Jews on NPR. But just think of all the plays and musicals that have been composed by Jews as well.
    Yet, I have never heard the deidel song on the radio around this time of the year or rarely any songs relevent to Hanukkah.

    Still have a wonderful Hanukkah and Happy New Year and let’s hope that 2012 is good to us all for health and happiness, those are the reall presents we all hope for.

  4. I would not feel bad. I used to sing in Christian churches, and on one occasion in December the minister brought his son and other children up to the front, and asked what holiday were they looking forward to. The minister’s son stood up with confidence and swaid, “Hanukkah!”
    On another note, one of the most popular religious Christmas songs, known as “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” was written by Felix Mendelssohn, whose family had converted to Christianity (his grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was instrumental in trying to combine elements of Judaism with the Englightenment). However, he did NOT write this as a Christmas song. He wrote it as the middle movement for a piece, “Festgesang,” in honor of Gutenberg and the anniversary of the invention of the printing press. It begins, “Vaterland, in deinen Gauen,” and then proceeds to honor “Gutenberg, der Deutsche Mann: (Gutenberg, the German man). In a letter, Mendelssohn specifically stated that, if English words were to be adapted to the melody, it should be a martial or inspiring text, but not a religious text. Ironically, within 10 years of his death, the well-known Christmas lyrics were added.

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