Seeking a Hanukkah miracle: Why can't the Gray Lady 'get' the Festival of Lights?

Now here is a headline that a GetReligion scribe has to pass along, pronto: “Why can’t the New York Times get Hanukkah right?”

What we’re talking about is a Religion News Service commentary by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin. Consider this a kind of early weekend think piece, since it’s talking about op-ed page work.

However, religion-beat professionals will certainly want to read (and maybe file way) this to get a refresher on some history and facts about the eight-day “Festival of Lights,” which is a relatively minor Jewish holiday that punches way above its weight class for reasons that are quite ironic, to say the least.

The opening is very clever and slightly snarky at the same time.

Every few years, the New York Times runs a contest: “Best Essay About Hanukkah By An Ambivalent Jew.”

That is the only explanation for this past week’s crop of New York Times op-ed pieces about Hanukkah.

“The Gray Lady” is showing signs of advanced Jewish arteriosclerosis.

Take yesterday’s article, “That’s One Alternative Santa.”

The author, a comedy writer, begins with the traditional disavowal of any substantive Jewish connections or affiliations.

In theological terms, there is little love lost between me and Judaism. But culturally — with my unwavering devotion to [Howard] Stern on the radio, [Philip] Roth on the page, [Bob] Dylan on the stereo and kugel in the oven — I am a Hasid.

This self-identification as a Rhett Butler Jew — “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” — points him in the direction of embracing the “traditional” Hanukkah symbol — Hanukkah Harry — a fictional character on Saturday Night Live.

You get the idea. Somehow, I had missed “Hanukkah Harry.” Just lucky, I guess.

Here’s the big question: What does all of this have to do with Judaism? That leads to a common debate topic this time of year: Are we talking Judaism the religion or Judaism the culture.

The answer, of course, is “yes.” Salkin continues:

I love culture — high, low, and middle. Same with Jewish culture.

But, all forms of Jewish expression are not created equal. Maimonides is still better than Matisyahu — if only because two hundred years from now, people will still be studying Maimonides.

The self-proclaimed cultural Jew must realize that laughing at Howard Stern and loving Dylan, however enjoyable, is Jewishly infertile. It will not create another generation of committed Jews.

At the end of the column, Salkin calls back memories of an earlier op-ed train wreck.

This story, however, has a happy ending — editorially speaking.

This December marks the fortieth anniversary of one of the most explosive articles to ever hit the New York Times. It appeared in the “Living” section. It was “Christmas Comes To A Jewish Home,” by Anne Roiphe.

Uh-oh.

In that article, Anne described how her Jewish family celebrated Christmas — complete with Christmas stories, fables from other cultures (none of them Jewish) — and yes, the tree.

The you-know-what hit the fan. Postal workers suffered from hernias carrying sacks of angry letters to the Times office. Rabbis had enough sermon fodder to last until Passover.

Then, something happened. Anne Roiphe endured an unexpected tsunami of anger. She got to thinking. Hmnn: if people are this angry, then perhaps, just perhaps, I have missed something in Judaism.

Maybe I need to take another look. The result: her memoir, Generation With Memory — one of my favorite Jewish books, the chronicle of her quest for meaning in Jewish life.

Read it all, and file away a few thoughts for future features related to this complicated day on the newsroom religion calendar.

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