“Hanukkah is the festival of lights,
instead of one day of presents we have eight crazy nights…”
Adam Sandler, “Chanukah Song”
It’s not coincidence that much of what I know about Hanukkah (not much) is from Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” performed on Saturday Night Live. The show and many of the comedians whose careers were born there have occupied my mind and heart for the last thirty years.
Back in the late 1970s and early 80s, sugar cereals, caffeine and SNL were just a few of the things that were banned at my parents’ house. Which is exactly why I spent every weekend at my grandparents, where Murray and Morris, Belushi and Curtin and Ackroyd and Newman — various cast members from the first seasons of Saturday Night Live — became “my people.” There was one cast member, however, who stood out from the rest and was my favorite. Her name was Gilda, and she had me at, “You’re so funny, I forgot to laugh”.
Today, I admire Gilda Radner for many reasons: her emergence as one of the most celebrated American comediennes; her fierce sense of the absurd; the humor she found even in suffering; the bravery with which she faced death at a young age (she was diagnosed at 39 and died at 42); how she furthered research on ovarian cancer and began Gilda’s Club, now an international non-profit organization dedicated to serving people living with cancer. And she married Willy Wonka!
When you love someone, you want to know everything about him or her. When you love someone you’ve never met, the stakes are even higher. It was because of Gilda that I wanted to become a comedienne. It wasn’t the Old Testament, but Saturday Night Live that made me want to know more about Judaism.
Here’s what I know so far about Hanukkah: it’s an eight-day “festival of light” that begins at sundown sometime in December. Historically, it marks the victory of Judaism over Hellenism when “the Maccabees successfully triumphed against Antiochus IV. The temple in Jerusalem was purified and the menorah miraculously burned for eight days, even though there was only enough oil for one day’s lighting. Hanukkah is symbolic of the miraculous survival of the Jews; the oil represents their refusal to assimilate.” (Courtesy of the Idiot’s Guide to Judaism.)
“Yeah, there’s a lot of oil involved,” said my housemate Claire. Last Sunday, I noticed that she had placed a menorah on the mantelpiece in the living room. On that first day of Advent, I knew I also wanted to experience Hanukkah alongside the people with whom I live. Claire celebrates Jewish holidays with her 16-year-old daughter Katie (who is now upstairs opening a box of art supplies, her first gift on this first of “eight crazy nights.”) I got Katie a box of “Jiffy” Buttermilk biscuit mix; because 1) she and Claire visited the Jiffy headquarters in Chelsea, Michigan a few years ago and loved it, and 2) the mix was seventy-nine cents and in keeping with my Hanukkah budget, which was initially “zero.” (The budget will increase over the next week because I’m preparing (Oy vey!) some kosher dishes for this self-imposed quest of a curious gentile who would do most anything to justify the consumption of fried food for eight consecutive days.)
The name “Gilda” means many things: “sacrifice” “tribute” “value” and “golden.” It seems that these notions apply to the symbolisms and beauty of Hanukkah as well.
In her memoir It’s Always Something, Gilda wrote: “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. Life is about not knowing, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.”
I’m not sure what’s going to happen next in this blog. I’m not completely sure why, as a confirmed Catholic, I’ve been drawn to Judaism since I was a teenager. I identify with many aspects of Jewish culture: humor; the literature and films of many Jewish writers; the sitcoms Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm; Zabar’s and Russ and Daughters, which is a few blocks from an apartment I shared on Ridge Street during my mid-twenties. My first love was with the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was there that I began a committed relationship with salt bagels with lox, halvah and knishes, and with a group of friends who were stand-up comics — many of whom were Jewish — whose talent onstage I longed to one day possess.
This blog does not have a clear beginning or middle and I have no idea how it’s going to end. I hope you’ll join this journey through latke land, if for no other reason than it’s bound to generate some angry comments, and it’s free. In keeping with the meaning of the word Hanukkah itself — dedication — these posts are dedicated to Gilda Susan Radner — comedienne, ballerina, and heroine of my heart.