“If ISIS and Trump had a baby, it would be a Maccabee,” Ayelet Waldman said, getting a big laugh.
That was just one of the revisionist reasons the noted novelist and Berkeley resident coughed up to argue against the beloved holiday of Hanukkah, in a tongue-in-cheek debate hosted Sunday, Dec. 3, by Reboot, an organization that promotes creative new ways of looking at Jewish traditions.
The “debate,” done parliamentary style with each side getting an argument and a chance for rebuttal, was the closing event of a four-day pop-up that Reboot ran in a Mission District space in San Francisco that officials say is the “future home” of the Enthusiast, a planned Jewish event space. The Hanukkah-themed pop-up was so successful that the store was nearly out of its “jew-jitsu” socks and bagel trays by the time the debate happened.
Back to the great Hanukkah vs. No-Hanukkah debate: Waldman took a historical approach in arguing for the “no” crowd, calling the Festival of Lights a “fake news” holiday. “It’s about religious fanatics who hate the idea of pluralism and multiculturalism,” she said.
Those fanatics would be the Maccabees, revolting against the Seleucid Empire’s progressive, modern program of Hellenization, along the way killing Jews that didn’t agree with them.
That was Waldman’s view, anyway. Used to taking and defending contrary positions, Waldman was joined on the “anti” side by comedian and Oakland resident Heather Gold, who presented mostly aesthetic reasons against the holiday, calling it “straight to video” and pointing out that all the best Christmas music was by Jewish writers anyway.
“I think Jews need to accept the invention of the great Jewish holiday of Christmas,” she said.
On the other side, filmmaker Tiffany Shlain of Mill Valley embraced the kitsch as she showed images of menorahs — menorahs with kittens, menorahs with Star Wars action figures and one menorah made out of raw fish heads with candles in their mouths. The last one got the biggest response.
She also showed a video featuring Congregation Emanu-El Rabbi Sydney Mintz, who couldn’t attend in person. Mintz had a roster of reasons to love Hanukkah, from it being fun to get “stuff,” to its existence as something to get locals out of their California rut by encouraging some unhealthy eating for a change. “Have you ever had a kale latke?” she asked while staring into the camera.
The event also included a look at a 12-minute film by Shlain and her husband, Ken Goldberg, titled “The (Whole) Cinemagillah,” a mash-up of famous Jewish moments in film made for the National Museum of American Jewish History. Its official premiere is set for next week at the museum, which is located in Philadelphia.
The idea for the Hanukkah debate came when David Katznelson, Reboot’s executive director, was trying to get Waldman to come and do something for the Hanukkah pop-up. When she said she hated Hanukkah, he got to thinking. “I’m like, well, that’s interesting. Maybe we should talk about that,” he said.
And Waldman isn’t alone. A vote before the debate found 16 in favor of Hanukkah and a surprisingly high six against in the crowd. After the debate, the audience — slightly larger by then — voted again.
Not to give anything away, but at the end of the second vote, Hanukkah still won, to no one’s surprise, although the “anti” party saw a rise of one vote.
Maybe the holiday pressure was just too strong. Even Waldman admitted she had presents wrapped for her four children at home. Still, she stuck to her position. “I have four children!” she said. “Four times eight!”
But if Mintz had her way, Waldman’s budget would get an even bigger hit. Mintz thinks the holiday is such a great time of year that it should be extended.
“Instead of eight nights, why not 16?” she asked.