Tuesday, December 11, 2007

How Do You Spell Chanukkah?

As I was driving home on Friday afternoon, I heard on the radio a Chanukkah song I had not heard before: "How Do You Spell Channukkahh" by The LeeVees. It was a catchy tune, and at first it was refreshing to hear something other than the perennial Adam Sandler songs.

But as the song went on, I was increasingly bothered by the fact that the song had nothing to say about the holiday other than the fact that it was hard to spell! And it's not that hard to spell; it's simply hard to represent any Hebrew word in the Roman alphabet. By the last verse, my brain was screaming CHEIT-NUN-VAV-KAF-HEI!!! THAT'S HOW YOU SPELL IT! But if the topic is confusing enough to justify a song, maybe it's worth a blog entry.

The name of the Jewish winter holiday is not hard to spell in Hebrew. The preferred spelling is Cheit-Nun-Vav-Kaf-Hei, shown at right below. An alternate but equally legitmate Hebrew spelling is shown at right. The letter Vav in the middle of the version at right (a hook with a dot in it) makes the "u" sound, and can be represented as a consonant, as at right, or as the diagonal three-dot vowel, as at left.

The problem comes in trying to represent these Hebrew letters in the Roman alphabet, which doesn't correspond well to the Hebrew. The process of writing Hebrew in Roman letters is referred to as "transliteration," and it is more an art than a science.

Let's start with the first letter, the Cheit on the right side of the word (Hebrew is written right-to-left). It makes a throat-clearing noise that does not exist in the English language. In German, a similar sound would be written as "ch," so many people write that first letter as a "ch." Orthographers would write that sound as an H with a dot under it, so you may see it that way. Some people represent the throat-clearing sound as a "kh", but you rarely see the holiday name spelled that way. Many people write the first letter as an "h," which isn't really correct, but gets you a pronunciation that is closer to the correct one than if you were to mistakenly pronounce that "ch" as in "chair"! I prefer the "ch."

Underneath the Cheit is a dash and two dots, a vowel that makes a short "a" sound as in "father." This is always transliterated as an "a."

The next letter (second from the right) is Nun, which makes an "n" sound. Some people transliterate this as "nn," but there is really no reason to do that. The better way to transliterate it is a single "n".

The next letter is either the Vav with a dot or the diagonal three-dot vowel, both of which make the same sound: the "oo" in "boot" or the "u" in "rule." This is most commonly transliterated as "u," but it would not be incorrect to transliterate it as "oo."

The next letter, which looks like a backwards "c" with a dot in it, is Kaf. It makes a "k" sound. Now, the dot inside a letter in Hebrew commonly doubles the sound, which explains why many (including myself) spell the holiday name with a double-k. But actually, in the letter Kaf, the dot is not used to double the sound, but only to distinguish between the hard "k" sound and the soft "kh" sound of the letter. Accordingly, it would probably be more correct to spell it with a single "k." My preferred spelling may not be right, but at least I'm consistent.

Next is the "T" shaped vowel under the Kaf. This one is tricky even to pronounce! In Sephardic pronunciation (historically the pronunciation of the Jews of Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East, which has become the preferred pronunciation because it is the one used in Israel), it is pronounced like the "a" in father, just like the dash with dots discussed above, and is transliterated as an "a." But in Ashkenazic pronunciation (the pronunciation that was used by Jews of Eastern Europe, which continues to be preferred by older Jews and by the Orthodox), that vowel is pronounced like the "aw" in "saw" or the "o" on "or"! That pronunciation is commonly transliterated as "o," so you might see the holiday name transliterated with an "o" at the end!

Finally, we have the letter Hei on the left side of the word. It makes an "h" sound, but at the end of the word it is silent, as in "Sarah." Some people write the "h," to more accurately reflect the Hebrew spelling, while others leave it off because it is not pronounced.

So here's what we're left with:

The most popular spellings are apparently Hannukkah and Chanukah, but you may see any variation of these. And this discussion reflects only the way it is written in America; in other countries, you may see other variations. For example, the LeeVees' song seems to indicate that in Spanish-speaking countries, it starts with a "J", as in Julio or jalapeno!

Friday, December 07, 2007

A Delicious Irony: Chanukkah Ham

If you follow the weird news as I do, then you have probably already heard the story about the New York grocery store that was selling hams marked "Delicious for Chanukah." The news articles all point out that ham and other pork products are forbidden under Jewish dietary laws, making this shelf tag ironic at best.

But every news article I've seen has missed the most peculiar aspect of this advertisement: the forbidden status of pigs is at the heart of the Chanukkah story!

The Jews of Seleucid Greece were being oppressed by a tyrant who wanted uniform religion in his lands and outlawed the practice of Judaism. Torah study was forbidden and so forth. But the last straw came when the Jews were compelled to sacrifice pigs on the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem. This outrage sparked open rebellion against the oppressive Greek government and the assimilated Hellenistic Jews who chose Greece over Torah. So ham is certainly a part of Chanukkah... but not in the way that the grocery store intended!

Friday, October 12, 2007

"Perfecting" Jews

A certain right-wing pundit recently stated in an interview that she thought Jews needed to be "perfected." The same woman has said in the past that we should send people over to the Middle East to forcibly convert the Muslims to Christianity, which would make them more peaceful (apparently she missed the history class about the Crusades).

Suffice it to say that I don't think her remarks are even worth dignifying with a response. Like Howard Stern and Don Imus, this woman makes money by shocking people. Like Stern and Imus, it's not even entirely clear whether she believes the outrageous, insulting, divisive things she says, or whether she just says them to get attention, publicity and of course, money. Why should I give her the publicity she seeks?

Frankly, I am far less concerned about her and her remarks than I am about the state of a society that makes such things profitable. I know that a lot of people gleefully listen to "shock jocks" and read extremist literature (both right and left) not to learn anything, not to understand anything, not even because they agree with it, but only for the sheer amusement value of seeing what outrageous thing these pundits will say or write next. Of course, once those outrageous things have been said, the bar is raised and the pundits must say or do something even more outrageous to get attention. It is a vicious circle, and there is no end to it in sight.

But one person responding on a news article about this situation made an excellent comment that suggests a way forward: if a blowhard speaks and no one is there to listen, does she make a sound?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Rolling Over (Minutes) in their Graves

Mobile phone service provider T-Mobile plans to put a 130-foot tower in Shalom Memorial Park, the Jewish section of non-sectarian Forest Hills Cemetery near Northeast Philadelphia. They will, of course, disguise it to look like a fake tree, but I gather that these fake trees aren't very convincing.

T-Mobile is currently trying to use cemeteries for tower locations in several cities, probably because the residents aren't in any position to complain and the owners are happy to take the lucrative lease contracts. T-Mobile currently seeking to place towers in Holyhood Cemetery in Massachusetts and Manoa Chinese Cemetery in Hawaii. The plan at Shalom Memorial Park, however, seems to have generated more controversy than the other plans, with hostile protests at the zoning board meetings to address the plan. Initially, it appears that the objections were primarily directed at the light and noise generated by a tower, but at yesterday's zoning board meeting included testimony from religious leaders concerned about the desecration of the cemetery.

The board has not yet reached a decision. There will be further hearings in October.

The following news links worked at the time I posted this article, but may be taken down at any time:

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

And the Christian Legal Society shall lie down with Lambda Legal Defense...

When conservative Christian groups agree with gay rights groups, when arch-conservatives in the vein of Ann Coulter line up with the ACLU ... can moshiach be far behind?

For those who haven't heard: Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court rendered its controversial decision in Morse v. Frederick, in which a high school student was suspended for displaying a banner that said "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" across the street from his school. The student claimed that he simply meant the sign to be funny. It appears that he was seeking attention during the Olympic torch run past his school, and probably wanted to annoy his principal. The principal and the school defended their actions, claiming that this banner was a pro-drug message and they had the right to suppress student speech regarding drugs.

The case attracted attention across the political spectrum, and garnered a remarkable array of amicus curiae briefs (arguments by "friends of the court," people not directly involved in the case, advocating one side or the other). Both conservative Christians and drug legalization advocates lined up with the student ... drug advocates presumably agreeing with the "bong hits" part of the sign while Christians favored the "4 Jesus" part. Gays and conservatives both sided with the student, recognizing that their points of view are offensive to some and that this case could allow schools to censor their side of a debate. The ACLU has a lengthy list of pro-student amicus briefs on their website, linked below, and the ACLU list links to the complete text of each brief.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court took the side of the school, but conservative Christians will be pleased to know that the court took issue only with the "bong hits" part of the sign and not with the "4 Jesus" part of the sign. The High Court upheld the suspension on grounds that preventing illegal drug use is part of the school's mission.

The following links go to sites not under my control. They were accurate at the time I wrote this post, but may disappear at any time:

Friday, April 27, 2007

Remembering Steve

Last night was "Dining Out for Life" in Philadelphia and many other metropolitan areas. Participating restaurants donate a portion of their proceeds for the nights to local charities that provide quality-of-life services to people with AIDS. (And yes, there are kosher restaurants that participate). I make an effort to "Dine Out" every year, and it always reminds me of Steve, a person I knew in Georgia who died of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic. Apologies in advance to anyone from the old minyan who remembers this story differently; this is how I remember it:

I met Steve in the Fall of 1986, shortly after I started law school in Athens, Georgia. Those first few weeks in Athens were quite a culture shock for me, both religiously and generally. I was having a hard time getting my Jewish life in order in such a remote place, and it was very painful. I knew that the college Hillel had an egalitarian Orthodox shabbat prayer group, but it took me a few weeks to figure out where it was and get myself over there.

I walked about a mile to the Hillel, and I arrived at what I thought was a normal time for services, but no one was there. I waited for what seemed like an eternity, then gave up and headed for home, heartbroken. I was almost halfway home when I passed a tall, thin man wearing a kippah (yarmulke, Jewish religious head covering). I said "gut shabbes" to him, and he replied in kind. We both kept walking in opposite directions. It took me a few minutes to realize that he was obviously headed to the Hillel for services, so I turned around and followed him back. When I got there, we were still the only two there. He explained that it was still a little early.

I suppose I noticed that Steve was very pale, thin, balding, that his teeth looked unhealthy, but I just sort of assumed that was normal for him and didn't give it much thought. We talked for a while. I don't remember what we talked about; only that I was crying at the time, in pain with the culture shock and in joy that I had finally found the Jewish community. He acknowledged that it was a small community, that they almost never got a minyan (the ten people needed for a complete service), so they started late and ended at a normal time. After a while, the two of us started davening (praying). Eventually, several others joined us.

The next week, Steve didn't show up for services. I heard that he was in the hospital, but it was a few weeks before I heard anybody say anything about what was wrong with him. Even then, the disease was never named. Somebody mentioned the "stigma" of his illness, and I knew they must be talking about AIDS. That was late 1986, when people were still afraid to share a toilet with someone who had AIDS.

The group was very supportive of Steve. They helped get kosher food to him in the hospital; the hospital wasn't really equipped for that sort of thing.

Eventually, Steve got out of the hospital and started coming to services again. He was very weak from the disease, and it was quite a strain for him to walk to Hillel for services, but he did it anyway. He usually got there early, so he could take a nap after arriving. And I am convinced that his presence helped keep that group together, by guilt if nothing else: if Steve can make it to services on time in his condition, how can I do less?

He was taking one of the early AIDS drugs at $400 a month for treatment. At the time, that seemed like an outrageous sum of money, though with the insane rate of pharmaceutical inflation, that seems like peanuts today. He signed up for a trial of a new AIDS drug, but the rejected him because he was "too sick."

He held on for two years, but became too tired of fighting for his rights, and moved to San Francisco, where he thought things would be easier for him. He died there within the next year, if I remember correctly.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Yom ha-Shoah

Today is Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, on the Jewish calendar, a day to remember the tragic loss of 6,000,000 Jewish lives, the brutal pruning of one-third of the branches on our collective family tree.

Over the years, I've seen many exhibits about the Holocaust, showing the camps, the packed trains, the luggage left behind, the walkways made from tombstones taken from Jewish cemeteries, the crematoria and so forth. It tends to provoke in me a bit of a cringe, but mostly a "yeah, yeah, seen it," reaction. When the atrocities are explicitly and repeatedly displayed, we become desensitized to the horrors of that era.

The exhibit that moved me the most showed none of these atrocities. It was a collection of hundreds of photographs of Jews in Poland before the war, titled "And I Still See Their Faces: The Vanished World of Polish Jews." I saw the exhibit several years ago, when it came to Lancaster PA, and it still brings me to tears to think about it. These pictures were all taken before the Nazis came to Poland. They were family group photos, school class photos, college-aged men and women frolicking in the park, families on vacation and so on. They were pictures much like those that your grandparents probably have sitting around in their closets. The power of this exhibit lies not in what it says or what it shows, but in what we know: that 90% of the Jews in Poland were murdered in the Holocaust, 90% of those children in those schoolrooms, 90% of those families sitting for their portraits, 90% of those young adults frolicking, 90% of those families on vacations, died a horrible death for the high crime of being Jews.

Learn more about "And I Still See Their Faces" at Yeshiva University, where the exhibit is currently displaying:

Yom Ha-Shoah and other modern Jewish holidays at Judaism 101:

Thursday, March 29, 2007

A Passover Story

With Pesach (Passover) coming up next week, I thought I would pass along this amusing true story about a seder I attended in college.

My Hillel (Jewish student organization) used to hold a seder every year. Usually our advisor, Herb, came to the seder with his family, but one year Herb did not come. In the absence of adult supervision, the college students drank (ahem) more than the halakhically required amount of alcohol. To give you some idea of how intoxicated we became: when we got to the part of the seder where we hold up the maror and say, "These are the bitter herbs...", someone called out, "I thought he wasn't coming"! (sorry, Herb: not a reflection on you, but only a reflection on our blood alcohol level!)

At the end of the seder, after most people had gone and only a few members of our Hillel board remained, someone looked over and noticed the Cup of Elijah. Elijah is a biblical prophet who, according to tradition, will return as the herald of the Messiah. During the seder, we pour an extra cup of wine for him and open the door to welcome him. We looked at this cup at the end of the seder and noticed that it was nearly empty. The cup was in the middle of a large table, too far from the seats for someone to drink it without being noticed. We all shared a brief, awestruck moment...

... then we noticed the large purple stain on the tablecloth at the bottom of the cup. The Cup of Elijah was cracked, and most of the wine had leaked out onto the table.


  • For more information about Pesach (Passover), see Pesach (Passover) at Judaism 101
  • Looking for a seder? Chabad probably has one near you! See their Seder Directory

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Principal Deems Jesus Chant Offensive

I was looking for some information about James Cameron's "Jesus tomb" film (more on that in a later post) when the above headline caught my eye.

For those who haven't heard about it: there was a high school basketball game in Virginia between a Catholic school and another school, which was marred by an "antisemitic chant" and "antisemitic graffiti." The "antisemitic" chant was, "We love Jesus," and the "antisemitic" graffiti was the word "Jew" painted on the gym wall below the name of the home team.

I confess, I was a bit puzzled that anybody would perceive "We love Jesus" as an antisemitic chant. They weren't even playing against a Jewish school: the game was on the night of February 2, and no Jewish school would host a basketball game on a Friday night, Shabbat! But apparently, the hosting school is known to have a significant Jewish population, and anti-Jewish sentiment was the essence of the message expressed.

The important thing to understand about antisemitism (and all bigotry for that matter) is that hatred lies in the heart, not in the words. The word "Jew" is not an offensive term. I use the word all the time. It's much less cumbersome than the politically correct "Jewish person." But the word "Jew" becomes offensive when it is used to express the hatred in the heart, when it is used as a shorthand for, "This is a person you're supposed to hate, and you're supposed to hate him because he is a Jew."

Likewise, there is nothing wrong with the words "We love Jesus," nothing inherently offensive about them. But when the hatred lies in the heart and the words are used as a shorthand for, "We love Jesus, but you don't, and we're going to make you suffer for it," then yes, that's hate speech. And it saddens me that young people are apparently using words of love to express hate. At least, that seems to be what the Catholic school's principal thought.

Let me emphasize: it was the Catholic school's principal, not any Jew in the community, who drew the conclusion that this was antisemitic. The ADL, usually the first to jump on any perceived antisemitism, says absolutely nothing about this incident. But I suspect there will be a backlash against the Jewish community anyway.

It has been reported that the students of the Catholic school will get some sensitivity training. But I have a bad feeling that this compulsory training will only teach them the message that "those dirty Jews think it's offensive to love Jesus." I doubt any of them will notice that the person who described this as antisemitic, the person who organized the sensitivity training, was their own Catholic principal. Hatred is invulnerable to logic.

News Link:

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Should Jews apologize for killing Christ?

The problem with getting most of your news from Comedy Central is that I was very late to pick up on this news story...

Frank D. Hargrove Sr., a delegate to the Virginia legislature, made headlines last month when he expressed his opposition to a resolution expressing regret for slavery. He commented, "Are we going to force the Jews to apologize for killing Christ?"

Let's stop and think about that statement for a moment before we jump to a knee-jerk condemnation. Let's be clear: Mr. Hargrove did not demand that Jews apologize for anything; rather, while opposing Virginia's apology, he said that Virginia's apology would be as wrong as demanding an apology from the Jews. If what he's saying is, today's Virginians are no more responsible for slavery than today's Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus, that today's Virginians do not owe an apology any more than today's Jews do ... is that such a bad thing to say? It is, after all, the essence of the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, the landmark document that opened up a new era of Jewish-Catholic relations, to say that today's Jews should not be held responsible for the actions of some of their ancestors.

But the analogy falls apart very quickly. It is one thing for a perceived victim to say that no apology is necessary; quite another thing for a perceived oppressor to say, "get over it." Mr. Hargrove would not force an apology from Jews (how nice of him), but I wonder how he would react if a prominent Jew were to tell him to "get over" the death of Jesus, as he told African-Americans to "get over" slavery.

I've found that those whose people have not suffered oppression are very quick to tell others to "get over it." They're very quick to tell others that they are "too sensitive." Every year, around Holocaust Memorial Day, we hear people tell Jews to "get over" the systematic murder of one third of our population. Now we hear Mr. Hargrove telling blacks to "get over" the fact that their ancestors were enslaved for 100 years, and telling a Jew who objected to his remarks that his skin was "too thin."

I wonder how Mr. Hargrove would react if an Arab told him to "get over" 9/11. Not so easy to "get over" it when you consider yourself connected to the victim instead of to the oppressor, is it? Not so easy to have a thick skin?

News Links (be aware: these links are on other sites and may disappear at any time):

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Office Humor

At my office, our Human Resources director loves small children and jumps on any excuse to bring children into the office. I tease her that her policies are "speciesist." We celebrate "Bring Your Daughter or Son to Work Day," but we don't have "Bring Your Cat or Dog to Work Day." We have a Halloween costume parade for human children 5-15, but I wasn't allowed to bring in my 6-year-old tuxedo, Ritz. I could put her in "costume" as a black cat, perfect for Halloween! But no dice.

At our admin meeting earlier this week, our HR director unveiled her latest excuse to bring children into the office: Holiday Breakfast with Santa! But she jokingly apologized to me, saying that this was another speciesist event and I wouldn't be able to bring my cats.

Without missing a beat, I said, "That's OK. My cats are Jewish."

Monday, January 15, 2007

Martin Luther King

On this Martin Luther King day, I thought I might share a few words from MLK.

From his I Have A Dream speech:

"Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring — when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children — black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics - will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

During an appearance at Harvard University shortly before his death, a student asked Dr. King about Zionism, in a tone clearly hostile to Zionists. Dr. King responded:

"When people criticize Zionists they mean Jews. You are talking anti-Semitism."

Friday, January 05, 2007

Muslim in the House

I applaud Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison for asserting his constitutional right to take his oath of office on the scripture he holds most dear: the Quran.

Our founding fathers, though all Christians, were a very diverse group of Christians. Many of their sects were persecuted in Europe for their non-standard beliefs, but they held those beliefs so strongly that they or their ancestors were willing to be persecuted for them. None of them would give up their own brand of Christianity in favor of another, so the framers were wise enough to include this clause in the Constitution:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
United States Constitution, Article VI

Over the years, the oath (or affirmation) of office has been given on many different books, scriptural or otherwise, and even on no book at all. Our Catholic president, JFK, took his oath on a Catholic bible (one that includes the Apocrypha); Jewish officeholders like Joe Lieberman have used the Jewish scriptures (what you would call the "Old Testament" without the "New Testament"), and I wouldn't be remotely surprised if a Mormon officeholder wanted to take the oath on the Book of Mormon, though apparently the only Mormon currently in Congress did not ask for that. According to the State Department, our fourth president, John Quincy Adams, took the oath on a legal treatise, Theodore Roosevelt used no book at all, and Quakers have chosen to "affirm" rather than "swear."

The important thing is that the officeholder should swear by what he (or she) holds dear, that he should swear to the One he believes will hold him accountable if he breaks that oath on the document that he believes makes him accountable. If Keith Ellison believes that Allah holds him accountable and the Quran is the document that makes him accountable, then I would rather have him swear to that being on that document than swear to a being he doesn't believe in on a document he doesn't believe in.

I suspect that the real reason for the objection to the use of the Quran has nothing to do with the choice of book itself, but to the choice of religion. Do they really care what book he's using? Or, as I believe is more likely, do they object to people choosing to swear by Allah instead of by Jesus?

A brief aside: It's probably worth noting that Israel has had Muslims in its legislature for a long time. I have no idea what document they swear on, if indeed they are required to take their oath of office on a document at all.

The State Department's website has an excellent article about the oath of office and Keith Ellison here:
U.S. Swearing-in Ceremonies Highlight Religious Freedom Legacy