In the winter of 2021, not long after President Biden’s inauguration, I walked into a small house party while another woman was leaving in tears. I was told that the woman, a dedicated campaigner for Bernie Sanders, had encountered a Sanders bobblehead on the home’s mantelpiece — parka and giant mittens — and it was too much for her.
It seemed an outsize reaction to a bit of loving kitsch. But then a few weeks ago, I heard about something called the Maccabee Bar opening in New York City, and I understood. With Hebrew Hammer cocktails, wacky midcentury-looking dreidel wallpaper and a logo replete with that faux-Hebraic font, this bar is a temporary temple of Hanukkah kitsch. My initial response was: No, please, not now. Not amid Kanye West’s praise of Hitler and Donald Trump’s vile chiding of American Jewry for disloyalty and the accident of white supremacist Nick Fuentes at Mar-a-Lago and the scary tightrope walk of Dave Chappelle’s opening monologue on “Saturday Night Live.” Is this really the time for a nostalgic cocktail riff on the potato pancake (the “latka sour,” flavored, God help us, with potato)? Can’t we, as Jews, ever own our culture, our Jewishness, in a robust way that isn’t a joke?
Kitsch runs rampant through so much of today’s Judaica, to the point that it’s become a kind of default, as evidenced by everything from the giant “OY/YO” sculpture doing the rounds of American Jewish museums to the ascendancy of the everything bagel as everything meme. To be sure, Christmas has its kitsch side but also its green-fronded gemütlichkeit,itshallowed midnight Mass. Hanukkah, on the other hand — aside from the odd veinless-marble menorah or hand-tooled Israeli spatula — can today feel as if kitsch ate it whole.
I can’t count the amount of Hanukkah gear I’ve seen embroidered with the words “Let’s get lit,” the varieties of gold-sprayed dinosaur menorah, the efflorescence of “Llamakah” merch — which, for reasons known only to the fad gods, twin the Jewish festival of light with a domesticated South American camelid. You can’t get away from the dreidel socks, the Judaic breakfast accessories, the snowmen wearing tallises, the mensches on benches. PetSmart now sells an ugly Hanukkah sweater — for lizards.
Some of this is an internet story — of Amazon and Etsy and Instagram shops, where any joke can be made into a T-shirt or 3-D printed into a functional menorah and sent to market in the space of days.
But in the case of Hanukkah kitsch specifically, history is significant. Before coming to America, Hanukkah was a minor and oft-overlooked holiday. In the 19th century, European Jews might improvise a menorah on strips of tin or a poked-out potato and call it a night. But in the early 20th century, in part because many Yiddish-speaking Americans were celebrating Christmas as a rite of passage into the New World, there was a push to make Hanukkah a big-time holiday — a domestic festival with songs, foods and rituals, increasingly aimed at children. Hanukkah is, in no small way, a work of American genius. And, of course, American marketing. By the mid-20th century, there was already such novelty: foil-covered chocolate coins, Star of David decorations, singalong records, plastic dreidels, musical candleholders and cookbooks including recipes for menorah salad, a molded concoction that includes nearly a pound of cream cheese.
In a way, Hanukkah could take in this glut of stuff because the meaning of the holiday — whose story does not appear in the Hebrew Bible — has always been something of a fill in the blank. Is it about the miracle of the rededicated temple in Jerusalem, whose lamp burned for eight nights on one night’s worth of oil? Or is it about a small group of Jewish zealots — the Maccabees — revolting against Hellenization?
In the 1960s and ’70s, the muscular Jewry of the new State of Israel was equated with the warrior Maccabees. In more recent decades, their anti-assimilationist nationalism has seemed more outrageous — particularly for interfaith families — on this most assimilationist of Jewish holidays. A celebration of civil war and fundamentalism is not what most want at the White House menorah lighting. So these days, the why of Hanukkah remains an open question.
Lately, I’ve started to come around to the idea that Hanukkah kitsch might be a kind of answer of its own rather than a failure in meaning.
The change of heart came when a few days ago I came across the website belonging to Hebro, a party group for gay Jews. Hebro has all the cheese and all the puns. For Rosh Hashana, it does “High Homodays” events; for Purim, it has thrown a “Homotashen” party (a riff on Purim’s traditional cookies, hamantaschen); and for those who need a place to go during Christmas, it offers an annual “Jewbilee.” One of Hebro’s regular drag performers is named, exquisitely, Hanukkah Lewinsky.
For those in the know, camp has always existed as connective tissue, a folk language of love, an inside joke confirming that there is an inside, an interiority, a community tight enough to withstand its own ribbing. Maybe Jewish kitsch functions the same way?
I still won’t be wearing an apron declaring “I love you a latke” any time soon, but I may stop into the Maccabee Bar for a Hebrew Hammer. It’s a place where American Jews will be standing together. And this season, that in itself is meaningful.
Mireille Silcoff is the author of “Chez l’Arabe” and an organizer of Jewish salons. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine.
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