Commentary Magazine


Topic: Chanukah

What the Festival of Freedom Means to Us

For many Americans, the festival of Chanukah, which began at sundown tonight, is a blue-tinseled version of Christmas as they participate in the consumer frenzy of the holiday season in a somewhat futile attempt to compete with the appeal of the latter. Some have even merged the two into a hybrid celebration they call “Chrismakah,” in which both Judaism and Christianity are given short shrift. Equally unappealing is the way that some on the Left have drafted the Festival of Light into the ranks of the environmental movement by attempting to make it a “green” holiday, in which energy conservation and hysteria about global warming are the keynotes.

Though the tension between the parochial aspects of the faith and its more universalist tendencies is as old as Judaism itself, Chanukah is not an empty metaphor into which other narratives or unrelated themes — whether praiseworthy or not — can be poured at will. Far from being a Jewish version of “goodwill toward men” or some trendy contemporary cause, the original story of Chanukah is about something very different: the refusal of a people to bow down to the idols of the popular culture of their day — their resolve to remain separate and faithful to their own traditions.

Read More

For many Americans, the festival of Chanukah, which began at sundown tonight, is a blue-tinseled version of Christmas as they participate in the consumer frenzy of the holiday season in a somewhat futile attempt to compete with the appeal of the latter. Some have even merged the two into a hybrid celebration they call “Chrismakah,” in which both Judaism and Christianity are given short shrift. Equally unappealing is the way that some on the Left have drafted the Festival of Light into the ranks of the environmental movement by attempting to make it a “green” holiday, in which energy conservation and hysteria about global warming are the keynotes.

Though the tension between the parochial aspects of the faith and its more universalist tendencies is as old as Judaism itself, Chanukah is not an empty metaphor into which other narratives or unrelated themes — whether praiseworthy or not — can be poured at will. Far from being a Jewish version of “goodwill toward men” or some trendy contemporary cause, the original story of Chanukah is about something very different: the refusal of a people to bow down to the idols of the popular culture of their day — their resolve to remain separate and faithful to their own traditions.

The miracle of Chanukah is more than a story of oil that lasted for eight days instead of one. The true story of the Festival of Light is one of a particularly bloody Jewish civil war whose outcome has stood ever since as a warning against the perils of discarding faith and freedom in order to conform to the dictates of more popular ideological movements. This is a lesson that applied to the Maccabees, who sought to resist the pull of Hellenism more than 2,000 years ago, as well as to those fighting back against the siren song of totalitarian ideas in the last century. The sacrifices of the sons of Mattathias are a reminder that we too must continue to ensure that the lamp of liberty here and around the globe is never extinguished.

As much as the specific religious message of the holiday ought to resonate with Jews, this element of faithfulness and resistance against the pull of both fashion and conventional wisdom is one that can inspire everyone, no matter their faith or origin. With that in mind, we wish all of our readers a Happy Chanukah!

Read Less

Are Chinese Mothers Superior?

A certain essay appeared in the Wall Street Journal last Saturday, titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” to which one excerpted reaction from the Journal community itself was “I am in disbelief after reading this article.” The author is a Chinese mother, Amy Chua, a professor of law at Yale perhaps best known for writing the New York Times bestseller World on Fire.

The essay affirms that stereotypical Chinese parenting produces stereotypical cases of success for the children raised in that fashion — impeccable grade reports, precocious competence in the violin and piano (but mind you, those instruments and no other!), and fortitude of mind in the child to boot — and it explains how all this can be achieved by drawing on representative episodes from the author’s own experience as a Chinese mother. The most instructive and blood-chilling of these is the story of how little Lulu, Chua’s youngest daughter, was compelled to learn, just in time for her piano recital, how to play “The Little White Donkey” — a most difficult piece, apparently requiring uncommon ambidexterity, and, one would think, rapid and fluent communication between the hemispheres of a seven-year-old’s brain, across its not fully developed corpus callosum:

Lulu couldn’t do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off. “Get back to the piano now,” I ordered. … She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have “The Little White Donkey” perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, “I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?” I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic. … I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress. … Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.

The author beams with pride over this “success story” and seems to consider it a vindication of her school of parenting against all naysayers. And throughout the article, starting from its title, she does little to disguise her scorn for Western parents, their tolerance for underachievement in their own children, and their squeamishness at the sight or report of the treatment other (luckier) children undergo every day in the hands of their Chinese mothers.

Having long been convinced that nothing harms stereotypical Western children more than their parents’ stereotypical laxness, I nevertheless find appalling much of what Chua states and even more of what she implies. Perhaps the foibles of modern Western parenting have grown so obvious and so ridiculous that any criticism of them is allowed to stick and any proposed alternative is welcomed; the more diametrically opposed to the status quo, the better even. But what Chua is prescribing in her article should not be rashly applauded by even the most frustrated critics of modern parenting mores. Read More

A certain essay appeared in the Wall Street Journal last Saturday, titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” to which one excerpted reaction from the Journal community itself was “I am in disbelief after reading this article.” The author is a Chinese mother, Amy Chua, a professor of law at Yale perhaps best known for writing the New York Times bestseller World on Fire.

The essay affirms that stereotypical Chinese parenting produces stereotypical cases of success for the children raised in that fashion — impeccable grade reports, precocious competence in the violin and piano (but mind you, those instruments and no other!), and fortitude of mind in the child to boot — and it explains how all this can be achieved by drawing on representative episodes from the author’s own experience as a Chinese mother. The most instructive and blood-chilling of these is the story of how little Lulu, Chua’s youngest daughter, was compelled to learn, just in time for her piano recital, how to play “The Little White Donkey” — a most difficult piece, apparently requiring uncommon ambidexterity, and, one would think, rapid and fluent communication between the hemispheres of a seven-year-old’s brain, across its not fully developed corpus callosum:

Lulu couldn’t do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart. Finally, the day before her lesson, Lulu announced in exasperation that she was giving up and stomped off. “Get back to the piano now,” I ordered. … She punched, thrashed and kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have “The Little White Donkey” perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, “I thought you were going to the Salvation Army, why are you still here?” I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic. … I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress. … Then, out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together—her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing—just like that.

The author beams with pride over this “success story” and seems to consider it a vindication of her school of parenting against all naysayers. And throughout the article, starting from its title, she does little to disguise her scorn for Western parents, their tolerance for underachievement in their own children, and their squeamishness at the sight or report of the treatment other (luckier) children undergo every day in the hands of their Chinese mothers.

Having long been convinced that nothing harms stereotypical Western children more than their parents’ stereotypical laxness, I nevertheless find appalling much of what Chua states and even more of what she implies. Perhaps the foibles of modern Western parenting have grown so obvious and so ridiculous that any criticism of them is allowed to stick and any proposed alternative is welcomed; the more diametrically opposed to the status quo, the better even. But what Chua is prescribing in her article should not be rashly applauded by even the most frustrated critics of modern parenting mores.

What’s right with Chinese parenting? It demands and expects the attainment of competence through perseverance and industry. It accepts no excuses for failure. It discourages trivial pursuits. It desensitizes children to occasional harshness from others, even loved ones. Now, is there anything wrong with Chinese parenting? I’d say plenty. The readiest hint can be found in Chua’s own opening: stereotypical Chinese parenting is responsible for cases of stereotypical success in the children subjected to it. It’s what it’s known for. Nothing more. One cannot imagine Da Vinci raised by a Florentine “Chinese” mother or Beethoven by a German one. Genius cannot develop and flourish when its would-be building materials have been deformed and forcibly molded to the shape of a narrow box designed by stereotypical Chinese parents. John Ruskin developed a singular mind in spite of an upbringing with some Chinese flavor to it, not because of it. And in Praeterita, his autobiography, he looks back with his usual keen discernment on the chief calamities of his childhood:

My judgment of right and wrong, and powers of independent action, were left entirely undeveloped; because the bridle and blinkers were never taken off me. Children should have their times of being off duty, like soldiers; and when once the obedience, if required, is certain, the little creature should be very early put for periods of practice in complete command of itself; set on the barebacked horse of its own will, and left to break it by its own strength. But the ceaseless authority exercised over my youth left me, when cast out at last into the world, unable for some time to do more than drift with its vortices. My present verdict, therefore, on the general tenor of my education at that time, must be, that it was at once too formal and too luxurious; leaving my character, at the most important moment for its construction, cramped indeed, but not disciplined; and only by protection innocent, instead of by practice virtuous.

What Ruskin laments the want of, in his own childhood, can be roughly summarized as the rudiments of Stoicism, which, if genius does not need them, the well-ordered mind of the upright citizen certainly does. Instilling Stoic values in a child by the Chinese method is a contradiction in terms. And any nobility of soul, grandeur of mind, or genuine self-discipline in man partakes of Stoic values. It is of this tradition of Stoicism — which, however modified, has shone bright in the high noon of every great Western culture — that we are the almost bankrupt heirs today. Only faint shadows of its former glory survive in popular culture. One of them, as it pertains to the upbringing of children, is the notion (sneered at by Chua), commonly accepted though perhaps misunderstood even by its adherents, that the child, as far as it is capable of rational thought, is a free agent, entitled to make its own decisions and deserving what minimal freedom it requires in order to follow the basic dictates of its conscience. The application of this principle in practice today almost always ends up in a grotesque caricature of its intended meaning, but that meaning itself is noble, and not only that, I will go further and say that an understanding of that meaning, whether conscious or intuitive, is necessary to the mental constitution of any citizen of a free society — just as necessary today as it was to the breeding of the English gentleman in the golden days of the Empire or to the education of the likes of Cato the Younger, Cicero, and Seneca.

To be the master of oneself and one’s passions, to understand the rightness of one’s moral law and to obey it out of a sense of inward affinity to what’s good and natural; to practice virtue as its own reward, freely; to view one’s sense of duty serenely and make it one with one’s will and desires; and to stand firm in the face of hardship or even annihilation, without bending to coercion from tyrants or losing oneself in any frenzied mob — this is the ideal of discipline that cuts against the grain of the Chinese method, which, despite the good intentions of many of its practitioners, must be recognized for what it is: i.e., the relic of an authoritarian and collectivistic, however stable, culture and a tool for the perpetuation of the same. The mettle to confront mortal danger, eagerly if principle requires it and always with composure, does not come from yielding in childhood to threats of starvation, corporeal punishment, sequestration of property, and the like. On the contrary, someone who values freedom and deserves it tries to teach himself and his child to be indifferent to such debasing stimuli; whereas a child raised to respond to them — and their lowest common denominator is always brute force — grows up to be a cowardly, obedient serf of his parents, elders, and dictators. The only form of discipline he learns is that of endurance, which is also the main virtue he is expected to practice throughout his life as the subject of an absolute external authority that can’t be argued or reasoned with. But said serf might learn to play “The Little White Donkey” at the age of seven, and that’s worth something, right?

In all earnestness, please consider the premises of Chinese parenting as laid out in Chua’s own words:

a) Children are not allowed to 1) play any instrument other than the piano and violin, 2) not play the piano and violin, 3) choose their own extracurricular activities. (Even Socialist Realism permits greater freedom of expression.)

b) Children owe their parents everything (as do citizens to the State).

c) Parents know what is best for their children and therefore override all their children’s own desires and preferences. (The state knows what’s best for the little people and gets it done against their will, but with their best interests very much at heart. Isn’t this how the Communist Party of China justifies its autocratic rule to itself and to the rest of the world?)

In light of all this, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Amy Chua’s bestseller is subtitled “How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability.”

Read Less

Holiday Cheer at the Times: British Author Doesn’t Get Hanukkah

After winning the prestigious Man Booker prize, British author Howard Jacobson is the toast of the literary world. What’s more, as Jonathan Foreman points out in the December issue of COMMENTARY (which is behind our pay wall), the book that won him the award properly skewers those Britons whose hatred for Israel has more to do with their own insecurities and prejudices than any genuine sins committed by the Jewish state. And while such sentiments make him a valued outlier in a Britain where anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism is all the rage among the intellectuals, it is disappointing to discover via the New York Times op-ed page that he doesn’t really understand the festival of Hanukkah that begins this evening at sundown. Admittedly, much of this piece is clearly intended as humor, but it is the sort of ironic British humor that is, as our cousins across the pond like to say, too clever by half.

Jacobson is correct to note that the Jews’ December holiday can never truly compete with Christmas. Though, contrary to his account, most American Jews replicate the gift-giving frenzy of their neighbors, Hanukkah hasn’t the songs or the marketing to match the Christian holiday. Christmas trees will beat a dreidel in terms of mass appeal any day.

His idea that Jews give their kids new cars as presents in remembrance of the oil that lasted for eight days is a lame joke that unwittingly calls to mind the appeals of leftist Jews to make Hanukkah an environmentalist festival. But Jacobson’s bizarre suggestion that the remembrance of the struggles of the Hasmoneans be replaced with yet another Jewish commemoration of past suffering, such as at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition or Russian pogroms, illustrates that even a British Jew immune to the self-hating anti-Zionism so prevalent in the UK is still incapable of taking pride in remembrance of a successful struggle for political and religious freedom. It’s as if even Jacobson can’t fathom the idea that Jews aren’t supposed to be the victims in every story.

Jacobson may think that the idea of celebrating a Jewish victory over Syrian-Greek oppressors is not “authentic,” but you have to wonder what is it about a small people’s decision to fight rather than to bow to the dictates of a foreign power intent on wiping out their national identity and faith that he finds so off-putting. Winning Jewish independence isn’t, as he says, “wish fulfillment”; it is a model of pride that is a universal source of inspiration.

Jacobson’s failed attempt at wit at the expense of this festival is more or less what we have come to expect from Jewish authors when they write on Jewish subjects on the Times op-ed page. But the point about Hanukkah is that it exemplifies the spirit of a people who refuse to genuflect before the idols of the popular culture of their day. As such, Hanukkah is an important lesson for contemporary Jews who struggle to maintain their identity as minorities in the Diaspora, as well as for the people of Israel who remain under siege. For all the understandable universal appeal of Christmas and the specific resonance of the festival for Jews, this message of Hanukkah that inspires resistance to the forces that seek to denigrate religion and the values of faith is one that should appeal to all people of goodwill. It’s a pity that this point was of no interest to Jacobson and the Times.

After winning the prestigious Man Booker prize, British author Howard Jacobson is the toast of the literary world. What’s more, as Jonathan Foreman points out in the December issue of COMMENTARY (which is behind our pay wall), the book that won him the award properly skewers those Britons whose hatred for Israel has more to do with their own insecurities and prejudices than any genuine sins committed by the Jewish state. And while such sentiments make him a valued outlier in a Britain where anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism is all the rage among the intellectuals, it is disappointing to discover via the New York Times op-ed page that he doesn’t really understand the festival of Hanukkah that begins this evening at sundown. Admittedly, much of this piece is clearly intended as humor, but it is the sort of ironic British humor that is, as our cousins across the pond like to say, too clever by half.

Jacobson is correct to note that the Jews’ December holiday can never truly compete with Christmas. Though, contrary to his account, most American Jews replicate the gift-giving frenzy of their neighbors, Hanukkah hasn’t the songs or the marketing to match the Christian holiday. Christmas trees will beat a dreidel in terms of mass appeal any day.

His idea that Jews give their kids new cars as presents in remembrance of the oil that lasted for eight days is a lame joke that unwittingly calls to mind the appeals of leftist Jews to make Hanukkah an environmentalist festival. But Jacobson’s bizarre suggestion that the remembrance of the struggles of the Hasmoneans be replaced with yet another Jewish commemoration of past suffering, such as at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition or Russian pogroms, illustrates that even a British Jew immune to the self-hating anti-Zionism so prevalent in the UK is still incapable of taking pride in remembrance of a successful struggle for political and religious freedom. It’s as if even Jacobson can’t fathom the idea that Jews aren’t supposed to be the victims in every story.

Jacobson may think that the idea of celebrating a Jewish victory over Syrian-Greek oppressors is not “authentic,” but you have to wonder what is it about a small people’s decision to fight rather than to bow to the dictates of a foreign power intent on wiping out their national identity and faith that he finds so off-putting. Winning Jewish independence isn’t, as he says, “wish fulfillment”; it is a model of pride that is a universal source of inspiration.

Jacobson’s failed attempt at wit at the expense of this festival is more or less what we have come to expect from Jewish authors when they write on Jewish subjects on the Times op-ed page. But the point about Hanukkah is that it exemplifies the spirit of a people who refuse to genuflect before the idols of the popular culture of their day. As such, Hanukkah is an important lesson for contemporary Jews who struggle to maintain their identity as minorities in the Diaspora, as well as for the people of Israel who remain under siege. For all the understandable universal appeal of Christmas and the specific resonance of the festival for Jews, this message of Hanukkah that inspires resistance to the forces that seek to denigrate religion and the values of faith is one that should appeal to all people of goodwill. It’s a pity that this point was of no interest to Jacobson and the Times.

Read Less

It’s Been Quite a Week for American Jewry

Jews, next to African Americans, have been Obama’s most loyal supporters. Overwhelmingly Democratic, and liberal Democratic at that, they have swooned over health care, been delighted by the president’s efforts to pass climate-control legislation, taken delight in his defense of abortion rights, and cheered his unabashed embrace of big government. But there has been the matter of Israel. Oh, that.

It stunned some to be told by Obama to go engage in “self-reflection” about Israel. It rankled to hear the Obami declare that we needed more “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel. And the failed settlement-freeze gambit set teeth gnashing. But most American Jews bided their time. They hoped that with all that access and all the campaign money that had sloshed into the Obama coffers from Jewish wallets, there would be some way to influence the administration. Maybe the Obama team was getting up to speed. They’d learn! Hey, there were some good lines in the Nobel Prize speech, you know. Maybe soon we’d get those sanctions! It was, sadly, an exercise in self-delusion.

Then came the Obami’s verbal assault over apartment units in Israel’s capital. That was finally a step too far. As the Obama administration’s browbeatings of Israel  mounted — Biden to Clinton to Axelrod — the fury in the Jewish community overflowed. And one by one, the major Jewish organizations, reflecting the outrage of their members (mostly Democratic, mind you), stepped forward not only to demand an end to the barrage but also to critique the entire premise of the Obami Middle East policy, namely that settlements were the root of the matter and that forced concessions were the way to unlock peace. And oh, by the way, could we get back to the existential threat to Israel’s existence?

Beginning Sunday, AIPAC will hold its annual national conference, and thousands of pro-Israel activists will descend on Washington D.C. What will they say and how will they greet the administration’s featured speaker, Hillary Clinton? This is a time to assess where the Jewish community has been and whether “access” — the prized off-the-record briefing and the ticket to the White House Chanukah party — has been valued too highly and candor too little. And then decisions will need to be made about the support for this president. A keen observer probes those who invested (financially and otherwise) so much in a president who has made mincemeat of foreign policy generally and the Middle East specifically:

A year has passed during which your chosen one has made worse than a hash of that: It’s in deep disarray. It and he and all his dogsbodies have devalued us everywhere, pinballing reactively from crisis to disaster, and when they should be fighting withdrawing like snails into shells, leaving behind just the slime souvenir. And, worse, much worse, they’ve targeted our one true democratic friend and ally in the Middle East—a country whose existence you cherish—for censure and contempt, to your great shock and unhappiness. What do you do?

That’s the question before American Jewry. As many prominent leaders and activists gather, we’ll begin to find out their answer. But there is no denying it now — this was not the president many of them thought he was. If they wish to support him, despite his Israel policy (because the liberal agenda is so near and dear to them), they can do so. But there’s no kidding themselves any longer that, in the process, they will be supporting the most anti-Israel president since — well, ever.

Jews, next to African Americans, have been Obama’s most loyal supporters. Overwhelmingly Democratic, and liberal Democratic at that, they have swooned over health care, been delighted by the president’s efforts to pass climate-control legislation, taken delight in his defense of abortion rights, and cheered his unabashed embrace of big government. But there has been the matter of Israel. Oh, that.

It stunned some to be told by Obama to go engage in “self-reflection” about Israel. It rankled to hear the Obami declare that we needed more “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel. And the failed settlement-freeze gambit set teeth gnashing. But most American Jews bided their time. They hoped that with all that access and all the campaign money that had sloshed into the Obama coffers from Jewish wallets, there would be some way to influence the administration. Maybe the Obama team was getting up to speed. They’d learn! Hey, there were some good lines in the Nobel Prize speech, you know. Maybe soon we’d get those sanctions! It was, sadly, an exercise in self-delusion.

Then came the Obami’s verbal assault over apartment units in Israel’s capital. That was finally a step too far. As the Obama administration’s browbeatings of Israel  mounted — Biden to Clinton to Axelrod — the fury in the Jewish community overflowed. And one by one, the major Jewish organizations, reflecting the outrage of their members (mostly Democratic, mind you), stepped forward not only to demand an end to the barrage but also to critique the entire premise of the Obami Middle East policy, namely that settlements were the root of the matter and that forced concessions were the way to unlock peace. And oh, by the way, could we get back to the existential threat to Israel’s existence?

Beginning Sunday, AIPAC will hold its annual national conference, and thousands of pro-Israel activists will descend on Washington D.C. What will they say and how will they greet the administration’s featured speaker, Hillary Clinton? This is a time to assess where the Jewish community has been and whether “access” — the prized off-the-record briefing and the ticket to the White House Chanukah party — has been valued too highly and candor too little. And then decisions will need to be made about the support for this president. A keen observer probes those who invested (financially and otherwise) so much in a president who has made mincemeat of foreign policy generally and the Middle East specifically:

A year has passed during which your chosen one has made worse than a hash of that: It’s in deep disarray. It and he and all his dogsbodies have devalued us everywhere, pinballing reactively from crisis to disaster, and when they should be fighting withdrawing like snails into shells, leaving behind just the slime souvenir. And, worse, much worse, they’ve targeted our one true democratic friend and ally in the Middle East—a country whose existence you cherish—for censure and contempt, to your great shock and unhappiness. What do you do?

That’s the question before American Jewry. As many prominent leaders and activists gather, we’ll begin to find out their answer. But there is no denying it now — this was not the president many of them thought he was. If they wish to support him, despite his Israel policy (because the liberal agenda is so near and dear to them), they can do so. But there’s no kidding themselves any longer that, in the process, they will be supporting the most anti-Israel president since — well, ever.

Read Less

Flotsam and Jetsam

Harry Reid seems to say, “Never mind”: “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is prepared to give in to demands from centrists in order to pass the health-care legislation before Christmas, senators say.Reid indicated at the Democratic Conference meeting on Monday that he would drop a controversial Medicare buy-in provision, which was offered as a replacement to the government-run health insurance option, to win the votes of Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).” All that’s missing is what’s in the deal.

Seems like the public doesn’t want any kind of plan. The RealClearPolitics average shows that 38 percent approve of ObamaCare and 53.3 percent disapprove.

Tevi Troy pulls off a Chanukah miracle — getting the White House to cough up 150 more invites to the White House Chanukah party.

The New York Post (h/t Ben Smith) reports that “Marc Mukasey, the son of Bush administration Attorney General Michael Mukasey, is mulling mounting a challenge to Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.” Bet we’d have some fun debates on the KSM trial.

Another inconvenient poll: “With world leaders debating how to address climate change in Copenhagen and the U.S. Senate poised to take up a climate bill in the coming months, a new CBS News/New York Times poll finds that just 37 percent of Americans believe the issue should be a priority for government leaders. That’s a significant drop from April of 2007, when 52 percent of those surveyed said the issue should be a high priority.” Apparently, these people want jobs and economic prosperity: “A clear majority – 61 percent – say stimulating the economy should come first. Only 29 percent say protecting the environment is more important.”

The Marx Brothers hold a climate-control conference.

And the scientific clown show continues: Al Gore’s prediction of an ice-free north polar cap in five years isn’t supported by any facts. “The climatologist whose work Mr Gore was relying upon dropped the former Vice-President in the water with an icy blast. ‘It’s unclear to me how this figure was arrived at,’ Dr. [Wieslav] Maslowski said. ‘I would never try to estimate likelihood at anything as exact as this.’ ” Gore says it’s close enough for made-up science — er — for scaring the public  — er — for what he’s doing.

“Cramdown” mortgage legislation is also going down for the count. Almost like there isn’t a majority for extreme antibusiness regulation.

Bill McGurn thinks actions count more than words: “In wartime, people soon tire of lofty words that do not seem borne out by events. In September 2001, with the twin towers still smoldering and the Pentagon wounded, President Bush delivered a war address to a joint session of Congress (which I had no part in, so am free to praise) that ranks with the best of FDR. Whether that speech ever receives its full due depends in part on how this war ends. The same goes for President Obama. At West Point and Oslo, he spoke to the challenge of defending our freedom against hard men with no moral limit on what they are willing to do to crush it. The irony is that whether these fine speeches are remembered by history depends on a word he didn’t use in either one: victory.”

Harry Reid seems to say, “Never mind”: “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is prepared to give in to demands from centrists in order to pass the health-care legislation before Christmas, senators say.Reid indicated at the Democratic Conference meeting on Monday that he would drop a controversial Medicare buy-in provision, which was offered as a replacement to the government-run health insurance option, to win the votes of Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).” All that’s missing is what’s in the deal.

Seems like the public doesn’t want any kind of plan. The RealClearPolitics average shows that 38 percent approve of ObamaCare and 53.3 percent disapprove.

Tevi Troy pulls off a Chanukah miracle — getting the White House to cough up 150 more invites to the White House Chanukah party.

The New York Post (h/t Ben Smith) reports that “Marc Mukasey, the son of Bush administration Attorney General Michael Mukasey, is mulling mounting a challenge to Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.” Bet we’d have some fun debates on the KSM trial.

Another inconvenient poll: “With world leaders debating how to address climate change in Copenhagen and the U.S. Senate poised to take up a climate bill in the coming months, a new CBS News/New York Times poll finds that just 37 percent of Americans believe the issue should be a priority for government leaders. That’s a significant drop from April of 2007, when 52 percent of those surveyed said the issue should be a high priority.” Apparently, these people want jobs and economic prosperity: “A clear majority – 61 percent – say stimulating the economy should come first. Only 29 percent say protecting the environment is more important.”

The Marx Brothers hold a climate-control conference.

And the scientific clown show continues: Al Gore’s prediction of an ice-free north polar cap in five years isn’t supported by any facts. “The climatologist whose work Mr Gore was relying upon dropped the former Vice-President in the water with an icy blast. ‘It’s unclear to me how this figure was arrived at,’ Dr. [Wieslav] Maslowski said. ‘I would never try to estimate likelihood at anything as exact as this.’ ” Gore says it’s close enough for made-up science — er — for scaring the public  — er — for what he’s doing.

“Cramdown” mortgage legislation is also going down for the count. Almost like there isn’t a majority for extreme antibusiness regulation.

Bill McGurn thinks actions count more than words: “In wartime, people soon tire of lofty words that do not seem borne out by events. In September 2001, with the twin towers still smoldering and the Pentagon wounded, President Bush delivered a war address to a joint session of Congress (which I had no part in, so am free to praise) that ranks with the best of FDR. Whether that speech ever receives its full due depends in part on how this war ends. The same goes for President Obama. At West Point and Oslo, he spoke to the challenge of defending our freedom against hard men with no moral limit on what they are willing to do to crush it. The irony is that whether these fine speeches are remembered by history depends on a word he didn’t use in either one: victory.”

Read Less

Flotsam and Jetsam

Robert Reich doesn’t like ReidCare: “If you think the federal employee benefit plan is an answer to this, think again. Its premiums increased nearly 9 percent this year. And if you think an expanded Medicare is the answer, you’re smoking medical marijuana. The Senate bill allows an independent commission to hold back Medicare costs only if Medicare spending is rising faster than total health spending. So if health spending is soaring because private insurers have no incentive to control it, we’re all out of luck. Medicare explodes as well.”

Others don’t like it either. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services actuary say it will increase health-care spending by $234B. And Sen. Bill Nelson says its a “non-starter.”

Ten senators write a letter complaining to Harry Reid about the deal, which doesn’t seem like it’s a deal at all.

Rasmussen tells us that Harry Reid trails all GOP challengers: “For now at least, his championing of the president’s health care plan appears to raise further red flags for the Democratic incumbent. Fifty-four percent (54%) of Nevada voters oppose the plan, while 44% favor it.”

Maybe that is Obama’s problem too: “Excluding the Rasmussen and Gallup overnight tracking polls, there have been seven major national surveys released this week. President Obama has recorded an all-time low job approval rating in six of the seven.”

Not good: “The last person to know that Sen. Max Baucus wanted a divorce may have been his wife of 25 years. It appears that Wanda Baucus was in the dark even as a member of Baucus’s staff — Melodee Hanes, the woman who is now his live-in girlfriend — was plotting out the senator’s life without a wife.” And it turns out Hanes got a political appointment at the Justice Department. Maybe it is time for him to go. “Say what you want about Republicans, but they have a much better sense than their opponents of when it’s time to grab one of their own and throw him off the sled to the wolves running behind.”

Makes you wonder what Chris Dodd was thinking when he asked for his help: “Vice President Joe Biden said Friday that Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) is ‘getting the living hell beat out of him, the living bejesus beat out of him.’”

An inconvenient poll: In the latest Ipos Public Affairs poll, 52 percent of adults think global warming isn’t happening or is happening mostly because of natural patterns while only 43 percent think it is due to human activity.

A very smart move Republicans should support: “U.S. President Barack Obama told lawmakers in private talks this week that he supported moving forward on stalled free trade deals with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.”

If you loved Orin Hatch’s Chanukah tune, just wait until we get to Purim. No, really, he’s thinking about it.

Robert Reich doesn’t like ReidCare: “If you think the federal employee benefit plan is an answer to this, think again. Its premiums increased nearly 9 percent this year. And if you think an expanded Medicare is the answer, you’re smoking medical marijuana. The Senate bill allows an independent commission to hold back Medicare costs only if Medicare spending is rising faster than total health spending. So if health spending is soaring because private insurers have no incentive to control it, we’re all out of luck. Medicare explodes as well.”

Others don’t like it either. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services actuary say it will increase health-care spending by $234B. And Sen. Bill Nelson says its a “non-starter.”

Ten senators write a letter complaining to Harry Reid about the deal, which doesn’t seem like it’s a deal at all.

Rasmussen tells us that Harry Reid trails all GOP challengers: “For now at least, his championing of the president’s health care plan appears to raise further red flags for the Democratic incumbent. Fifty-four percent (54%) of Nevada voters oppose the plan, while 44% favor it.”

Maybe that is Obama’s problem too: “Excluding the Rasmussen and Gallup overnight tracking polls, there have been seven major national surveys released this week. President Obama has recorded an all-time low job approval rating in six of the seven.”

Not good: “The last person to know that Sen. Max Baucus wanted a divorce may have been his wife of 25 years. It appears that Wanda Baucus was in the dark even as a member of Baucus’s staff — Melodee Hanes, the woman who is now his live-in girlfriend — was plotting out the senator’s life without a wife.” And it turns out Hanes got a political appointment at the Justice Department. Maybe it is time for him to go. “Say what you want about Republicans, but they have a much better sense than their opponents of when it’s time to grab one of their own and throw him off the sled to the wolves running behind.”

Makes you wonder what Chris Dodd was thinking when he asked for his help: “Vice President Joe Biden said Friday that Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) is ‘getting the living hell beat out of him, the living bejesus beat out of him.’”

An inconvenient poll: In the latest Ipos Public Affairs poll, 52 percent of adults think global warming isn’t happening or is happening mostly because of natural patterns while only 43 percent think it is due to human activity.

A very smart move Republicans should support: “U.S. President Barack Obama told lawmakers in private talks this week that he supported moving forward on stalled free trade deals with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.”

If you loved Orin Hatch’s Chanukah tune, just wait until we get to Purim. No, really, he’s thinking about it.

Read Less

A Festival of Light and Freedom

For many Americans, the festival of Chanukah, which begins at sundown tonight, is a blue-tinseled version of Christmas as they participate in the consumer frenzy of the holiday season in a somewhat futile attempt to compete with the appeal of the latter. Some have even merged the two into a hybrid celebration they call “Chrismakah,” in which both Judaism and Christianity are given short shrift.

Equally unappealing is the way that some on the Left have drafted the Festival of Light into the ranks of the environmental movement by attempting to make it a “green” holiday, in which energy conservation and the usual hysteria about global warming are the keynotes. One group pushing such a concept is the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. It takes the traditional story of the miracle of the one-day supply of oil in the holy Temple in Jerusalem that lasted for eight days as a metaphor for the Copenhagen climate agenda.

Though the tension between the parochial aspects of the faith and its more universalist tendencies is as old as Judaism itself, Chanukah is not an empty metaphor into which other narratives or unrelated themes — whether praiseworthy or not — can be poured at will. Far from being a Jewish version of “goodwill toward men” or some trendy contemporary cause, the original story of Chanukah is about something very different: the refusal of a people to bow down to the idols of the popular culture of their day — their resolve to remain separate and faithful to their own traditions. Even more to the point, Chanukah is the story of a particularly bloody Jewish civil war whose outcome has stood ever since as a warning against the perils of discarding faith and freedom to fit it with more popular ideological movements. This is a lesson that applied to the Maccabees, who sought to resist the pull of Hellenism more than 2,000 years ago, as well as to those fighting back against the siren song of totalitarian ideas in the last century.

As such, and as much as the specific religious message of the holiday ought to resonate with Jews, this element of faithfulness and resistance against the pull of both fashion and conventional wisdom is one that can inspire everyone, no matter what their faith or origin. Happy Chanukah!

For many Americans, the festival of Chanukah, which begins at sundown tonight, is a blue-tinseled version of Christmas as they participate in the consumer frenzy of the holiday season in a somewhat futile attempt to compete with the appeal of the latter. Some have even merged the two into a hybrid celebration they call “Chrismakah,” in which both Judaism and Christianity are given short shrift.

Equally unappealing is the way that some on the Left have drafted the Festival of Light into the ranks of the environmental movement by attempting to make it a “green” holiday, in which energy conservation and the usual hysteria about global warming are the keynotes. One group pushing such a concept is the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. It takes the traditional story of the miracle of the one-day supply of oil in the holy Temple in Jerusalem that lasted for eight days as a metaphor for the Copenhagen climate agenda.

Though the tension between the parochial aspects of the faith and its more universalist tendencies is as old as Judaism itself, Chanukah is not an empty metaphor into which other narratives or unrelated themes — whether praiseworthy or not — can be poured at will. Far from being a Jewish version of “goodwill toward men” or some trendy contemporary cause, the original story of Chanukah is about something very different: the refusal of a people to bow down to the idols of the popular culture of their day — their resolve to remain separate and faithful to their own traditions. Even more to the point, Chanukah is the story of a particularly bloody Jewish civil war whose outcome has stood ever since as a warning against the perils of discarding faith and freedom to fit it with more popular ideological movements. This is a lesson that applied to the Maccabees, who sought to resist the pull of Hellenism more than 2,000 years ago, as well as to those fighting back against the siren song of totalitarian ideas in the last century.

As such, and as much as the specific religious message of the holiday ought to resonate with Jews, this element of faithfulness and resistance against the pull of both fashion and conventional wisdom is one that can inspire everyone, no matter what their faith or origin. Happy Chanukah!

Read Less

Flotsam and Jetsam

COMMENTARY contributor Noah Pollak makes the convincing case that Iran and Syria have largely prevailed in using asymmetric warfare with surrogates against Israel: “It allows Iran and Syria to take credit in the region for antagonizing Israel without risking retaliation on their soil; it detaches conflict from regime security, reducing the disincentive for war; and it forces battles into densely-populated civilian areas, undermining the IDF’s military superiority and ensuring civilian destruction which today’s media and NGOs — an increasingly meaningless distinction — blame on Israel, not on the terrorist groups who start the wars.” The solution: take the fight to the source of the problem, using all available tools (“there is no reason why asymmetry cannot be countered with asymmetry, or new diplomatic and economic initiatives pursued”).

Fox News has an ACORN scoop: it seems that in California, one step ahead of the state attorney general’s investigation, the group tried to dump 20,000 documents that “point to illicit relationships between ACORN and a bank and a labor union — as well as confidential information that could put thousands at risk for identity theft.”

Tevi Troy notes the downgrading of the White House Chanukah party.

It’s not really 10.2 percent: “As experts debate the potential speed of the US recovery, one figure looms large but is often overlooked: nearly 1 in 5 Americans is either out of work or under-employed. According to the government’s broadest measure of unemployment, some 17.5 percent are either without a job entirely or underemployed. The so-called U-6 number is at the highest rate since becoming an official labor statistic in 1994.”

If you read nothing else on the KSM trial, read this interview with Bill Burck, former deputy counsel to President George W. Bush, who explains why Holder can’t guarantee a result and why the trial is such a bad idea. A sample: “Attorney General Holder has gone on record that he believes waterboarding is torture; and it is now known that KSM was subject to enhanced interrogation techniques, including repeated use of waterboarding. KSM’s lawyer will almost certainly ask the judge to throw out all the charges against him because he was allegedly tortured. How can the Department of Justice contest that KSM was tortured if the attorney general has gone on record that waterboarding is torture? They can’t.”

The Maryland Federation of College Republicans stand up to their Democratic counterparts, whose campaign director declared that “Israel is oppressing the Palestinian people.”

Kirsten who? “Ten months after Kirsten Gillibrand was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Governor David Paterson, the junior senator from New York has failed to become a household name among registered voters in New York State. 25% of the electorate thinks Gillibrand is doing either an excellent or good job in office, and 12% believes she is performing poorly. Perhaps, though, Gillibrand’s bigger concern is that 24% of the electorate is unsure how to rate her.”

One more time: “Sen. Joseph Lieberman, speaking in that trademark sonorous baritone, utters a simple statement that translates into real trouble for Democratic leaders: ‘I’m going to be stubborn on this.’ Stubborn, he means, in opposing any health-care overhaul that includes a ‘public option,’ or government-run health-insurance plan, as the current bill does. His opposition is strong enough that Mr. Lieberman says he won’t vote to let a bill come to a final vote if a public option is included.”

After spending like drunken sailors on a failed stimulus and a raft of domestic spending, Democrats now want to “pay as we go” — for the Afghanistan war.

Others have noticed that the mammography controversy raises an uncomfortable truth for ObamaCare backers: “The flap over breast cancer screening has provided a fascinating insight into the political future of ObamaCare. Specifically, the political left supports such medical rationing even as it disavows that any such thing is happening. … What’s really going on here is that the left knows its designs will require political rationing of care, but it doesn’t want the public to figure this out until ObamaCare passes. … Americans will simply have to accept that the price of government-run health care in the name of redistributive justice is that patients and their doctors must bow to the superior wisdom of HHS task forces.”

COMMENTARY contributor Noah Pollak makes the convincing case that Iran and Syria have largely prevailed in using asymmetric warfare with surrogates against Israel: “It allows Iran and Syria to take credit in the region for antagonizing Israel without risking retaliation on their soil; it detaches conflict from regime security, reducing the disincentive for war; and it forces battles into densely-populated civilian areas, undermining the IDF’s military superiority and ensuring civilian destruction which today’s media and NGOs — an increasingly meaningless distinction — blame on Israel, not on the terrorist groups who start the wars.” The solution: take the fight to the source of the problem, using all available tools (“there is no reason why asymmetry cannot be countered with asymmetry, or new diplomatic and economic initiatives pursued”).

Fox News has an ACORN scoop: it seems that in California, one step ahead of the state attorney general’s investigation, the group tried to dump 20,000 documents that “point to illicit relationships between ACORN and a bank and a labor union — as well as confidential information that could put thousands at risk for identity theft.”

Tevi Troy notes the downgrading of the White House Chanukah party.

It’s not really 10.2 percent: “As experts debate the potential speed of the US recovery, one figure looms large but is often overlooked: nearly 1 in 5 Americans is either out of work or under-employed. According to the government’s broadest measure of unemployment, some 17.5 percent are either without a job entirely or underemployed. The so-called U-6 number is at the highest rate since becoming an official labor statistic in 1994.”

If you read nothing else on the KSM trial, read this interview with Bill Burck, former deputy counsel to President George W. Bush, who explains why Holder can’t guarantee a result and why the trial is such a bad idea. A sample: “Attorney General Holder has gone on record that he believes waterboarding is torture; and it is now known that KSM was subject to enhanced interrogation techniques, including repeated use of waterboarding. KSM’s lawyer will almost certainly ask the judge to throw out all the charges against him because he was allegedly tortured. How can the Department of Justice contest that KSM was tortured if the attorney general has gone on record that waterboarding is torture? They can’t.”

The Maryland Federation of College Republicans stand up to their Democratic counterparts, whose campaign director declared that “Israel is oppressing the Palestinian people.”

Kirsten who? “Ten months after Kirsten Gillibrand was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Governor David Paterson, the junior senator from New York has failed to become a household name among registered voters in New York State. 25% of the electorate thinks Gillibrand is doing either an excellent or good job in office, and 12% believes she is performing poorly. Perhaps, though, Gillibrand’s bigger concern is that 24% of the electorate is unsure how to rate her.”

One more time: “Sen. Joseph Lieberman, speaking in that trademark sonorous baritone, utters a simple statement that translates into real trouble for Democratic leaders: ‘I’m going to be stubborn on this.’ Stubborn, he means, in opposing any health-care overhaul that includes a ‘public option,’ or government-run health-insurance plan, as the current bill does. His opposition is strong enough that Mr. Lieberman says he won’t vote to let a bill come to a final vote if a public option is included.”

After spending like drunken sailors on a failed stimulus and a raft of domestic spending, Democrats now want to “pay as we go” — for the Afghanistan war.

Others have noticed that the mammography controversy raises an uncomfortable truth for ObamaCare backers: “The flap over breast cancer screening has provided a fascinating insight into the political future of ObamaCare. Specifically, the political left supports such medical rationing even as it disavows that any such thing is happening. … What’s really going on here is that the left knows its designs will require political rationing of care, but it doesn’t want the public to figure this out until ObamaCare passes. … Americans will simply have to accept that the price of government-run health care in the name of redistributive justice is that patients and their doctors must bow to the superior wisdom of HHS task forces.”

Read Less

Top Five Christmas Books

If one is trying to “prove,” as Christopher Hitchens has been doing, that “religion poisons everything,” he probably ought to give it a rest around this time of year—if only as a matter of strategy. Many believers are willing and able to debate points of doctrine in a calm and dispassionate way; fewer will countenance assaults on their favorite holidays. How the Hitch Stole Hannukah was surely a self-defeating effort. Religion hasn’t poisoned anything by giving us these annual opportunities to spend time with family and friends. (Forgive the sappiness, but it’s running freely from my Douglas Fir.) For my part, I don’t think I could do without my favorite Christmas literature. Here’s a top five that the goyim and the Chosen alike can enjoy:

1. How to Be Topp by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. A treasury of advice from the spelling-disabled British schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, this one isn’t strictly a Christmas book, but its last chapter, “Ding-Dong Farely Merily For Xmas,” is indispensable. “You canot so much as mention that there is no father xmas when some grown-sa Hush not in front of wee tim. So far as I am concerned if father xmas use langwage like that when he tripped over the bolster last time we had beter get a replacement.” The Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter can be used all year round.

2. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Before the noble fruitcake was just another sight gag on some post-Thanksgiving Best Buy commercial, there was Capote’s charming memoir of “fruitcake weather” and a child’s Christmas in Alabama.

3. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. The only thing better than reading the Welsh poet’s famous Christmas memoir is reading it with a whiskey in hand, and the only thing better than that would be having a drunken Thomas on hand to recite a wish list like: “Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Families. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions.”

4. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris. “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!,” Sedaris’s exclamation-point-laden parody of a Christmas “update” letter, is worth the price of admission.

5. A Christmas Garland by Max Beerbohm. Is it a holiday bagatelle or a stunning work of literary criticism? I report, you decide. George Bernard Shaw called him “the incomparable Max,” and you will too once you’ve read this collection of seventeen literary parodies, each on the subject of Christmas. “The Feast” (Joseph Conrad), “Some Damnable Errors About Christmas” (G. K. Chesterton), and “Shakespeare and Christmas” (Frank Harris) are enthusiastically recommended, but it’s all gravy. Henry James and Rudyard Kipling also take their places on Beerbohm’s skewer.

If one is trying to “prove,” as Christopher Hitchens has been doing, that “religion poisons everything,” he probably ought to give it a rest around this time of year—if only as a matter of strategy. Many believers are willing and able to debate points of doctrine in a calm and dispassionate way; fewer will countenance assaults on their favorite holidays. How the Hitch Stole Hannukah was surely a self-defeating effort. Religion hasn’t poisoned anything by giving us these annual opportunities to spend time with family and friends. (Forgive the sappiness, but it’s running freely from my Douglas Fir.) For my part, I don’t think I could do without my favorite Christmas literature. Here’s a top five that the goyim and the Chosen alike can enjoy:

1. How to Be Topp by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. A treasury of advice from the spelling-disabled British schoolboy Nigel Molesworth, this one isn’t strictly a Christmas book, but its last chapter, “Ding-Dong Farely Merily For Xmas,” is indispensable. “You canot so much as mention that there is no father xmas when some grown-sa Hush not in front of wee tim. So far as I am concerned if father xmas use langwage like that when he tripped over the bolster last time we had beter get a replacement.” The Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter can be used all year round.

2. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Before the noble fruitcake was just another sight gag on some post-Thanksgiving Best Buy commercial, there was Capote’s charming memoir of “fruitcake weather” and a child’s Christmas in Alabama.

3. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. The only thing better than reading the Welsh poet’s famous Christmas memoir is reading it with a whiskey in hand, and the only thing better than that would be having a drunken Thomas on hand to recite a wish list like: “Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh. And troops of bright tin soldiers who, if they could not fight, could always run. And Snakes-and-Families and Happy Families. And Easy Hobbi-Games for Little Engineers, complete with instructions.”

4. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris. “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!,” Sedaris’s exclamation-point-laden parody of a Christmas “update” letter, is worth the price of admission.

5. A Christmas Garland by Max Beerbohm. Is it a holiday bagatelle or a stunning work of literary criticism? I report, you decide. George Bernard Shaw called him “the incomparable Max,” and you will too once you’ve read this collection of seventeen literary parodies, each on the subject of Christmas. “The Feast” (Joseph Conrad), “Some Damnable Errors About Christmas” (G. K. Chesterton), and “Shakespeare and Christmas” (Frank Harris) are enthusiastically recommended, but it’s all gravy. Henry James and Rudyard Kipling also take their places on Beerbohm’s skewer.

Read Less

Hitchens and Hanukkah, Cont.

Sam, you are right in pointing to Hitchens’s distortions about Hanukkah. He has a tendency to present a deeply twisted view of Judaism in order to fit his overall thesis about how bad religion is for the world. Now Hanukah is to blame for the creation of Islam (and by implication the Taliban and 9/11)? Well, whatever.

But he is right about one thing in Slate. That is to point out how little Jewish Americans really know about their own holiday’s meaning. Though in Judaism it is a relatively minor holiday celebrating the reassertion of Jewish sovereignty and the freedom to practice their faith against the Greeks, in America it has become a central Jewish moment in the year, a time for gift-giving and candle-lighting, while bearing very little of its original meaning.

Hitchens is taking sides in a fight as old as Hanukkah itself. The Greeks had banned all Jewish practice, including such “irrational” habits as keeping a day of rest. Like the Greeks, Hitchens believes in reason but not in political tolerance–in the right of people to live their own truth, not his. Hitchens likes to paint both his own war and that of the Greeks as the rational children of light against “tribal Jewish backwardness” (theocracy, irrationalism, etc.), but to me the story of Hanukkah looks more like a successful struggle for religious and national independence against secularizing and universalizing tyranny. Remember, unlike the Greeks, the Jews had no ambition to convert the world by force, to impose their truth on everyone else. All they wanted was their Temple, their God, and their way of life, as irrational as it may seem to others. Can a liberal like Hitchens handle this?

Sam, you are right in pointing to Hitchens’s distortions about Hanukkah. He has a tendency to present a deeply twisted view of Judaism in order to fit his overall thesis about how bad religion is for the world. Now Hanukah is to blame for the creation of Islam (and by implication the Taliban and 9/11)? Well, whatever.

But he is right about one thing in Slate. That is to point out how little Jewish Americans really know about their own holiday’s meaning. Though in Judaism it is a relatively minor holiday celebrating the reassertion of Jewish sovereignty and the freedom to practice their faith against the Greeks, in America it has become a central Jewish moment in the year, a time for gift-giving and candle-lighting, while bearing very little of its original meaning.

Hitchens is taking sides in a fight as old as Hanukkah itself. The Greeks had banned all Jewish practice, including such “irrational” habits as keeping a day of rest. Like the Greeks, Hitchens believes in reason but not in political tolerance–in the right of people to live their own truth, not his. Hitchens likes to paint both his own war and that of the Greeks as the rational children of light against “tribal Jewish backwardness” (theocracy, irrationalism, etc.), but to me the story of Hanukkah looks more like a successful struggle for religious and national independence against secularizing and universalizing tyranny. Remember, unlike the Greeks, the Jews had no ambition to convert the world by force, to impose their truth on everyone else. All they wanted was their Temple, their God, and their way of life, as irrational as it may seem to others. Can a liberal like Hitchens handle this?

Read Less

Hang on a Minute, Scrooge

I admire Christopher Hitchens as a fierce critic of Islamist violence, and his thunderbolts against organized religion are unfailingly entertaining. But he makes a couple of easy elisions in his Slate essay about Hanukkah that need addressing.

Hitchens claims that:

About a century and a half before the alleged birth of the supposed Jesus of Nazareth (another event that receives semiofficial recognition at this time of the year), the Greek or Epicurean style had begun to gain immense ground among the Jews of Syria and Palestine. The Seleucid Empire, an inheritance of Alexander the Great—Alexander still being a popular name among Jews—had weaned many people away from the sacrifices, the circumcisions, the belief in a special relationship with God, and the other reactionary manifestations of an ancient and cruel faith.

Hitchens goes on to cite Michael Lerner of Tikkun fame:

Along with Greek science and military prowess came a whole culture that celebrated beauty both in art and in the human body, presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theater of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

Sounds pretty great, right? But as it happens, the specific events commemorated by Hanukkah have a rather different cast. The Maccabees were not so much fighting to destroy Hellenism as to drive out the occupying forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king of Syria, who had banned (in an unprecedented step for a Seleucid) the practice of Judaism as a whole.

Read More

I admire Christopher Hitchens as a fierce critic of Islamist violence, and his thunderbolts against organized religion are unfailingly entertaining. But he makes a couple of easy elisions in his Slate essay about Hanukkah that need addressing.

Hitchens claims that:

About a century and a half before the alleged birth of the supposed Jesus of Nazareth (another event that receives semiofficial recognition at this time of the year), the Greek or Epicurean style had begun to gain immense ground among the Jews of Syria and Palestine. The Seleucid Empire, an inheritance of Alexander the Great—Alexander still being a popular name among Jews—had weaned many people away from the sacrifices, the circumcisions, the belief in a special relationship with God, and the other reactionary manifestations of an ancient and cruel faith.

Hitchens goes on to cite Michael Lerner of Tikkun fame:

Along with Greek science and military prowess came a whole culture that celebrated beauty both in art and in the human body, presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theater of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes.

Sounds pretty great, right? But as it happens, the specific events commemorated by Hanukkah have a rather different cast. The Maccabees were not so much fighting to destroy Hellenism as to drive out the occupying forces of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king of Syria, who had banned (in an unprecedented step for a Seleucid) the practice of Judaism as a whole.

As Sam Schulman, reviewing Hitchens’s God Is Not Great in the June 2007 issue of COMMENTARY, notes:

[Hitchens’s] stroke of counterhistory has been heavily prettified in the details. On the one hand, as Hitchens tells it, there were the Hellenized Jews of Palestine—suave, cosmopolitan, athletic, well educated, yearning to enjoy the finer things in life as represented by their Greek overlords. On the other hand, there were the religious fundamentalists of the day, the Jewish reactionaries seeking only to proscribe and to prescribe. In Hitchens’s reconstruction, the Maccabean revolt sounds like nothing so much as the struggle between “aesthetes” and “hearties” in the Oxford of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

But the Maccabean wars were not like that. The Greeks were not fighting for the mellow and the metrosexual. They aimed to pour hogs’ blood over the altar, erect statues of Jove in the sanctuary, eradicate Jewish identity itself. Had the Maccabees failed, there would have been a victory not of secular humanism over religious fundamentalism but of the pitiless Olympian gods—and their Egyptian co-deities—over monotheism and the complexities of ethical life.

It’s all very well for Hitchens to call Hanukkah a celebration of tribal Jewish backwardness. But were the practices of the Greeks any less backward? No to circumcision but yes to exposing imperfect infants? No to the special relationship with God but yes to the Oracles of Delphi and Dodona?

A little thought experiment: can you think of a more theologically “complex” story than the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham, after Abraham was commanded to sacrifice him? Ah, the binding of Isaac, you say! The signal example of Judaism’s “cruelty”! But hang on. Those Aeschylean and Euripidean “complexities of life” so beloved of Rabbi Lerner and cited with such approval by Hitchens—does anyone really need to be reminded of how blood-drenched they were? How Orestes suffers in their toils? How Medea’s children die? Isaac, you’ll remember, lives.

But there’s something even more troubling about Hitchens’s reading of Hanukkah:

To celebrate Hanukkah is to celebrate not just the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness but also the accidental birth of Judaism’s bastard child in the shape of Christianity. You might think that masochism could do no more. Except that it always can. Without the precedents of rabbinic Judaism and Roman Christianity, on which it is based and from which it is borrowed, there would be no Islam, either. . . . And this is not just a disaster for the Jews. When the fanatics of Palestine won that victory, and when Judaism repudiated Athens for Jerusalem, the development of the whole of humanity was terribly retarded.

Umberto Eco once observed that counterfactual conditionals are always true, because their premises are always false. Hitchens’s thumbnail sketch is too deterministic a reading to bear much scrutiny. Let me see if I have this right: because an obscure sect of Jewish guerrillas defeated an occupying Syrian army in Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E., we got . . . the Christian Church astride the globe like a colossus, the Crusades, the Muslim conquest of Spain, the Inquisition, all the depredations of the monotheistic religions against each other and against secularists ever since, up to and including 9/11? So, if the Maccabees had lost in Jerusalem, absolutely none of this would have happened? That contention, at least, seems ridiculous on its face.

Hitchens complains that Hanukkah has become a Jewish analogue for Christmas. Sociologically that is trivially true; theologically and historically it’s nonsense. Yet Hitchens can now say that:

Every Jew who honors the Hanukkah holiday because it gives his child an excuse to mingle the dreidel with the Christmas tree and the sleigh (neither of these absurd symbols having the least thing to do with Palestine two millenniums past) is celebrating the making of a series of rods for his own back.

Coming from him, this is a remarkable statement. Strange, isn’t it, how much Hitchens the secularist can sound like a militant Jewish purist? Even (dare I say it) a Maccabee?

Read Less