Bob Schwartz

Tag: Jon Stewart

Thanksgiving and Hanukkah in America: A History

Hanukkah in America
Hanukkah is getting lots more attention this year than it usually does, because it starts on Thanksgiving, rather than on or about Christmas.

This is nearly unprecedented. Of course there’s lots of controversy about just how rare it is, partly because Thanksgiving has officially moved from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday, partly because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, partly because of some esoterica of interest to extreme calendar freaks. Some say it won’t happen again for 70,000 years, others say it will never, ever happen again. If you happen to be around when it does, if it does, please e-mail, post, tweet, or whatever sort of advanced messaging will be used then to communicate with the curious but departed.

Thanksgivingukkah, or whatever other ridiculous and ear-hurting names people are coming up with, is second only to Black Friday as a cultural meme this week. We will be seeing lots of turkeys with Hanukkah candles stuck in them—actual ones, not just Photoshopped ones, at actual Thanksgiving tables, with plenty of videos to prove it. Might even see some turkey selfies. On the food front, we will have combined cuisines, where things not usually seen on the Thanksgiving table make an appearance, such as latkes and sour cream. (Note: I am promoting latke stuffing as the best of all possible hybrids.)

There’s a lot to talk about when Hanukkah and Christmas collide and coincide, theologically, historically and socially. Both involve charismatic Jewish religious leaders taking on tyranny—though one battles on the military and political front, while the other wields an entirely different set of weapons. As a central theme, both at some point take on the profaning of the Temple, in one case made unholy by soldiers, in the other made unholy by turning sacred space into a commercial enterprise. Both involve miracles and miraculous lights challenging the darkness. Not to mention that at the time of Jesus, Jews knew and marked the events of the Maccabee revolution, which had taken place less than two hundred years earlier.

Whether you are Jewish, or just newly fascinated by Hanukkah because it is for once not getting lost in the Christmas mishegas (“craziness” in Yiddish), have I got a book for you. Hanukkah in America: A History by Dianne Ashton is more than just a review of how American Jews regarded and celebrated this once-minor holiday. It is the definitive and delightful book about how Hanukkah evolved to become a laboratory for what it means to be a Jew in America, and for that matter what it means to be Americans of any kind.

Here’s something Ashton writes about Thanksgiving and the “deluxe Hanukkah turkey dinner”:

Many Jews combined food products available in America with recipes they deemed appropriate for Hanukkah meals. Even with a simple meal at home, immigrants could imagine a different Hanukkah past than the one in Eastern Europe. They could envision a personal bond with Judah Maccabee by selecting Carmel wine, which claimed to be “what the Maccabees drank.” Local food shops such as Goldman’s Tea and Coffee Store held special sales in honor of Sabbath Hanukkah. Jewish restaurateurs sometimes targeted immigrants’ desires for American foods at special occasions. Perhaps no food is so identified with America as the turkey, an animal native to North America and the featured dish of the Thanksgiving dinners that take place across the country only a few weeks before Hanukkah. When Gorfein’s, a kosher restaurant, advertised a deluxe Hanukkah turkey dinner in the Forverts, it apologized in print the next day to “hundreds [who had to be] turned away” because the restaurant “had no space or food left for them.” Gorfein’s offered the same dinner a second night.

My usual Hanukkah post, sometime around Christmas, ends with a mention of a wonderful Comedy Central special, A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All. Our comic saviors Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert perform the song Can I Interest You In Hanukkah? with Stewart making the case for the Jewish holiday:

Jon: Can I interest you in Hanukkah? Maybe something in a Festival of Lights. It’s a sensible alternative to Christmas. And it lasts for seven – for you – eight nights.
Stephen: Hanukkah huh? I’ve never really thought about it.
Jon: Well, you could do worse.
Stephen: Is it merry?
Jon: It’s kind of merry.
Stephen: Is it cheery?
Jon: It’s got some cheer.
Stephen: Is it jolly?
Jon: Look, I wouldn’t know from jolly. But it’s not my least unfavorite time of year.
Stephen: When’s it start?
Jon: The 25th.
Stephen: Of December?
Jon: Kislev.
Stephen: Which is when exactly?
Jon: I will check
Stephen: Are there presents?
Jon: Yes, indeed eight days of presents. Which means one nice one, then a week of dreck.
Stephen: Does Hanukkah commemorate events profound and holy? A king who came to save the world?
Jon: No, oil that burned quite slowly.
Stephen: Well, it sounds fantastic!
Jon: There’s more. We have latkes.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: Potato pancakes. We have dreidels.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: Wooden tops. We have candles.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: THEY ARE CANDLES! And when we light them, oh the fun it never stops. What do you say, Stephen, do you want to give Hanukkah a try?
Stephen: I’m trying see me as a Jew. I’m trying even harder. But I believe in Jesus Christ
So it’s a real non-starter.
Jon: I can’t interest you in Hanukkah? Just a little bit?
Stephen: No thanks I’ll pass. I’ll keep Jesus, you keep your potato pancakes. But I hope that you enjoy ‘em on behalf of all of the goyim.
Jon: Be sure to tell the Pontiff, my people say “good yontif”.
Stephen: That’s exactly what I’ll do.
Both: Happy holidays, you
Jon: too!
Stephen: Jew!
Jon: Too?

That’s it for this holiday mashup. Read the book; it’s great. Celebrate religious freedom by eating too much food. Spin the turkey. Light the candles. But whatever you do, don’t smoke the turkey, because it is impossible to keep that thing lit.

Happy holidays. Be safe.

John Kerry’s Munich Moment: Is Political Reporting Too Polite?

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
Hunter S. Thompson

About a week ago, President Obama said that if Syria’s Bashar Assad was not stopped from using chemical weapons, we might find those same weapons used against America. When asked about this days later, a presidential spokesman ignored the question. This weekend Secretary of State John Kerry said that the decision to stop Assad’s use of the weapons was a “Munich moment.” Meaning: Just as the Munich Agreement of 1938 condoned Hitler’s occupation of Czech territory, emboldening and enabling his vision of global conquest, so would our failure to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons further his insidious master plan.

Experts who have bothered to talk about the prospect of these chemical weapons being used against America have dismissed it out of hand. As for the “Munich moment,” that requires a bit more nuance. Nobody claims, at least not yet, that Assad has any extra-territorial plans or delusions of regional grandeur. His plan seems to be simply to punish any Syrians who stand in the way of him and his family fiercely holding on to power. Garden variety despotry; Assad is no Hitler. If “Munich” means appeasing his inhumanity, that is also silly. The bulk of Assad’s inhumanity is also garden variety: guns, bombs, etc. Nothing that Obama has proposed is intended to take care of that.

The region really did have a Munich moment in 1990. Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait. A thirty-four nation coalition, led by the U.S., pushed him back to his own borders. Both the history of the Gulf War and its aftermath—including the decision by Bush 1 to go no further and the decision by Bush 2 to finish the job—are beyond the scope of this note. This is just to say that if you want to know what a Munich moment looks like, that was it.

The authenticity and civility of our political life are always in question. We ask whether politicians and their supporters are speaking truth, saying what they mean, meaning what they say, and saying it all in a way that is reasonably respectful and polite. That’s a lot to ask of them, and our expectations are right now pretty low. It’s also a lot to ask of political pundits and commentators. Unconstrained by the limitations of office or election, some of them, left to right, go wherever their opinions take them. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.

Then there are political journalists. This is where things get tricky. Calling a political statement a lie or stupid, or calling a politician a liar or stupid, is supposed to fail the professional standard on a few scores. It supposedly puts a journalist’s objectivity in question; that sort of discourse is best left to political minions and commentators. And if not carefully couched or softened, it can come off as inappropriately impolite and uncivil, another professional faux pas.

We should all miss Hunter S. Thompson right about now. His suicide in 2005 left a gap in political journalism that hasn’t been filled and probably never will be. He didn’t begin as a political reporter. He came up as a writer during the time of the so-called “new journalism” in the 1960s (Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, et al), when the lines between the factual, the personal and the expressive broke down. By his own admission, Thompson was crazy, formally or informally; he was also a stunningly talented observer and writer. When he hit the political beat, it was right place, right time, right writer. If politics was an exercise in duplicity, venality and near-insanity, it needed a professional journalist just as insane. The collection of his Rolling Stone coverage of the 1972 presidential election, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, is not just on another planet from the classic campaign coverage up to then; it is in another solar system.

Thompson had a special relationship with Richard Nixon. He ended up respecting and applauding Nixon’s brilliant mind as an expert football strategist, but otherwise Thompson despised him. He wrote a 1994 obituary of Nixon.  In it he continues the case for that untempered loathing, but in this excerpt also explains why it is an appropriate attitude for a journalist:

Kissinger was only one of the many historians who suddenly came to see Nixon as more than the sum of his many squalid parts. He seemed to be saying that History will not have to absolve Nixon, because he has already done it himself in a massive act of will and crazed arrogance that already ranks him supreme, along with other Nietzschean supermen like Hitler, Jesus, Bismarck and the Emperor Hirohito. These revisionists have catapulted Nixon to the status of an American Caesar, claiming that when the definitive history of the 20th century is written, no other president will come close to Nixon in stature. “He will dwarf FDR and Truman,” according to one scholar from Duke University.

It was all gibberish, of course. Nixon was no more a Saint than he was a Great President. He was more like Sammy Glick than Winston Churchill. He was a cheap crook and a merciless war criminal who bombed more people to death in Laos and Cambodia than the U.S. Army lost in all of World War II, and he denied it to the day of his death. When students at Kent State University, in Ohio, protested the bombing, he connived to have them attacked and slain by troops from the National Guard.

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

It’s not that we don’t have good and great political journalists working today; we may have more than ever. And it’s not that there aren’t plenty of partisans pointing out gaps in someone else’s facts and reasoning.

It’s just that an amazing amount of stuff gets said and seems to get by far too unchallenged or challenged too narrowly or politely. It wasn’t so long ago that the Republican party produced a nominating spectacle that is widely characterized as a circus or a clown car. But at the time, journalists were unwilling to even hint at how ridiculous some of it was, as the party of Lincoln earnestly considered nominating Herman Cain or Donald Trump as their standard bearer.

Sure we need objectivity, maybe now more than ever in a social media enriched/poisoned environment. What we shouldn’t do is confuse objectivity with comity and politeness. If Hunter Thompson was shockingly blunt—and so much fun to read—it was to wake people up from the soporific effect of treating truth and lies, intelligence and stupidity, as rhetorical equivalents, in the name of objectivity, politeness and respect. In the name of keeping the peace. That would be the media Munich moment.

Update: Rereading this post, I have to add that the closest we come to Hunter S. Thompson’s “gonzo” political journalism is The Daily Show on Comedy Central. This revelation came watching the first few days of Jon Stewart’s return after his summer away, coming back to a grim and arguably ridiculous political crisis. The Daily Show’s trick is to protest (too much) that it is a “fake” news show, which gives it total license to completely get its facts straight while speaking truth to absurdity. And when, as this week, vicious jokes aren’t quite enough, Stewart vents his frustration directly and straight, no humor. Oh, to see what The Daily Show would have made of the Nixon Years.