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A Transcontinental Spin on an Ancient Festival

Linda Gritz
December 19, 2016


by Linda Gritz

A RESOURCE FROM JEWISH CURRENTS’ SCHAPPES CENTER FOR CULTURAL JEWISH LIFE. Sponsored, in part, by the Kurz Family Foundation. Reprinted from the 2011 Jewish Currents Winter Supplement.

FOUR GENERATIONS of our mishpokhe (family) are spread around the country, from Boston to New York to St. Louis to Provo to Phoenix. But every night of Khanike, the entire clan gathers to celebrate the holiday and share some time together, thanks to the wonders of 21st-century technology.

Back in the 1980s, we began our cross-country communications with 19th-century technology: We gathered in two locations, New York and St. Louis, and linked together with a telephone line. In the 1990s, we felt very sophisticated graduating to a two-line phone for three-way conference calling between New York, St. Louis, and Boston. That sufficed until the eyniklekh (grandchildren) started moving out on their own. We tried computer technology for a while, using free services such as Skype, which offered the great advantage of being able to see each other via cameras hooked up to each computer, but we were again restricted to two locations, because we were not willing to pay to upgrade to a higher level of service that included multiple locations.

Now we’re back to the telephone, using a free conference-calling service that allows everyone to call in from their homes around the country. Before the holiday, we arrange a time to gather on the first night of Khanike, taking into account the different time zones of each family member and the early bedtimes of the ureynikleh (great-grandchildren). We all call in at the appointed hour and have a bit of a shmues (shmooze, chat). Then we light our menorahs together, taking turns to recite, in Yiddish and English, our secular candlelighting ceremony, originally written by Martin Birnbaum and more recently updated by Hershl Hartman.

This is followed by reading a story. There are many Khanike books, but the annual tradition in our mishpokhe is The Animated Menorah by Ephraim Sidon and Rony Oren. It combines ancient history and modern technology, featuring a dreydl that turns into a time-traveling space ship called Star Dreydl, controlled using a latke (potato pancake) as a floppy disk. This book was written in 1986, and some of its “modern” technology is long obsolete. Floppy disks? Maybe in a future edition that latke can be amended to a candle that doubles as a thumb drive.

Each night, a different member of the family reads aloud a chapter. Then we sing and shmooze some more. We set a time to meet again the next night, and we say good-night. This continues through the eight nights of Khanike.

SINGING ENLIVENS any holiday. There are khanike songs in many languages, including Yiddish, Ladino, Hebrew, and English. When my children were in elementary school, I visited their classes and taught about Khanike (at times they were the only Jewish students in their entire school). Their classmates particularly enjoyed the dreydl song and invented variations on the verses.

I have a little dreydl/I made it out of mud/And when I went to spin it/It fell down with a thud.

I have a little dreydl/Made from a CD-Rom/It helped me launch a start-up/Called!

I have a little dreydl/I made it in my mind/An imaginary dreydl/Is very hard to find.

I have a little dreydl/I made it on my own PC/It’s really fun to spin/In virtual reality.

There are other interesting variations on songs. The popular “Khanike O Khanike” (“Come light the menorah/Let’s have a party/we’ll all dance the hora”) has variations in Yiddish that may identify the background of the singer. If she’s from a religious background, the penultimate line of the first verse might be “Zingt al hanisim, loybt gut far di nisim” (Sing the prayer of gratitude for the miracles, praise God for the miracles). Growing up in the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, where prayers and miracles are treyf (forbidden), I sang “Zol yeder bazunder bazingen dem vunder” (Let everyone sing of the wonder). Growing up in the International Workers Order, where “wonder” is just another word for miracle, my husband sang, “Lomir ale zingen un lomir ale shpringen” (Let’s all sing and leap).

Then there are the variations of the dreydl game. We usually start with the traditional game of spinning and giving or getting pennies based on nun (get nothing), giml (get all), hey (get half), or shin (put in). When we get tired of waiting our turn, we all spin our dreydls at once to see whose spins the longest, either rightside up or upside down. Another variation is Texas Dreydl, loosely based on the poker game Texas Hold’em. The dreydl letters take the place of cards. Each person spins or tosses multiple dreydls and wins or loses based on the pattern of matching letters. For example, three gimls and two shins make a full house.

A THORNY ISSUE for secular Jews is the zealotry of the Maccabees. Our family likes to think of Khanike as a struggle for religious freedom for all peoples, in the same way that we view the Puritans’ courageous journey to the New World. Although the Maccabees and the Puritans were striving for religious freedom for themselves, they were intolerant of others’ choices. Secular, progressive Jews would likely have incurred the puritanical wrath (and the spear) of the Maccabees. Nu, were the Maccabees terrorists or freedom fighters? Pass the latkes and let’s have a lively discussion!

Khanike dates to pagan festivals that illuminated the darkest part of the year. The holiday has evolved over the millennia, and there is no reason to stop now by codifying some unchanging ritual. Variations are a natural part of the folk process and help keep Khanike fresh and relevant. Gut yontef aykh ale! Happy holiday to you all!

Linda Gritz chairs the ritual committee of Boston’s Workmen’s Circle and sings in its Yiddish chorus, A Besere Velt.