A complaint from Jewish comedian Jackie Mason reminded me once again that the holiday season can be a political briar patch for candidates. After all, a politician can’t utter the phrase “happy holidays” without being attacked as anti-Christmas.
That’s what made Mason’s grievances so interesting. He was attacking President Obama for celebrating Chanukah (alternately spelled Hanukah or Hanukkah, depending on background and tradition) on the wrong day, and for giving it short shrift. “You want me to tell you the truth? I don’t think he cares, or knows or remembers which Hanukkah it is, or what Hanukkah means,” Jackie Mason said on Aaron Klein Investigative Radio on WABC in New York on Monday, as reported in The Hollywood Reporter.
Clearly riled by the fact that the President and Vice President Joe Biden had held a Chanukah event on December 8 when the holiday didn’t begin until the evening of December 20, Mason was also disturbed by the lack of seriousness in Obama’s remarks.
“We’re jumping the gun just a little bit,” Obama joked during the early celebration. “The way I see it, we’re just extending the holiday spirit. We’re stretching it out. But we do have to be careful that your kids don’t start thinking Hanukkah lasts 20 nights instead of eight.”
Mason was not happy with this light-hearted treatment of what the former rabbi views as an important religious holiday:
“I don’t even think he knew that he was talking about something that’s Jewish. It could have been Muslim, it could have been all together a religion he never even heard of. He doesn’t know, he doesn’t care. He’s strictly in there to take a picture, and the picture could have been about anything,” Mason said.
It’s hard to know what to make of Mason’s comments. The reality is that Chanukah is not considered a major holiday by most Jews. It receives only passing reference in the Talmud and does not generally have a special synagogue service associated with it. Perhaps ironically, as Jon Levenson pointed out in a recent Wall Street Journal piece, “Jews know the fuller history of the holiday because Christians preserved the books that the Jews themselves lost.”
Jews are not required to cease work or restrict themselves from any normal activity during the eight days of Chanukah. Many modern, more skeptical experts consider the “story” of Chanukah – about an oil lamp that miraculously burned for eight days even though it had fuel enough for only one – a myth. But the holiday has taken on greater meaning than it religiously deserves because of its proximity to Christmas.
The major rituals of Chanukah including lighting candles on the menorah each night followed by the exchange of small gifts. As with most Jewish holidays, food plays an important role. Consuming potato pancakes (latkes) doused with sour cream or applesauce, and topping it off with jelly donuts (sufganiyot) is the mark of a typical Chanukah evening.
Mason had his own ideas about why Obama held the Chanukah event, and it had to do with winning the Jewish vote:
“A bunch of advisors, most of whom are Jewish anyways – because he has more Jews in his cabinet than Netanyahu. He’s jammed up with Jews all around him – and they told him, if you wanna get them back, Hanukkah is a good idea,” Mason told Klein and his audience Monday. “You don’t have to go any place. We’ll put down the tchotchke and you’ll see a candle, you’ll light it from this side, and that’s enough information for him to accumulate without a teleprompter. So he did it in 10 minutes.”