The First Hanukkah
By Andy Borowitz
Illustrations by Noah Phillips
When Billy Zylberberg thought about his childhood, he realized that Hanukkah would have meant more to him if he had been Jewish. Growing up in Winnetka in the seventies, Billy had only scant evidence of his Hebraic roots. Sure: he had a Jewish last name and Jewish parents, and on Sundays they ate Chinese. But that was about it. His alienation from his tribe only deepened when he turned thirteen and every other Jewish boy in his grade became a man. When his best friend Josh Greenbaum had his Bar Mitzvah party, the all-purpose room of the Sussman Jewish Center throbbing with the opening guitar hook of “Aqualung,” Billy felt like a freak.
He blamed his parents. Assimilation was fine up to a point, but sometimes it seemed like Arnold and Marge Zylberberg were trying to be the WASPiest Jews in the Midwest. Every night before dinner, they had a languorous cocktail hour in their living room, sipping tumblers of Dewar’s on their Scandinavian sectional and speaking in the hushed tones favored by golf commentators. Billy’s dad would puff thoughtfully on his pipe, an affectation acquired in a recent and alarming burst of Anglophilia. At dinner, whenever Billy’s mom reacted in amazement to something he or his older brother and sister said, her preferred exclamation was “Lord.” Billy had never heard of a Jew saying “Lord,” with the possible exception of Moses.
As Billy saw it, Arnold and Marge were just no good at things Jews were supposed to be good at. And at the top of the list of things Jews were supposed to be good at was celebrating Jewish holidays – possibly because they had an opportunity to do so about two hundred times a year. If you can’t get good at being Jewish with a calendar like that, you’re just not trying. And that was the problem: Arnold and Marge didn’t try. By Billy’s calculation, the Zylberbergs practiced Judaism less than he practiced the cello, and he practiced the cello five minutes a week. When a major Jewish holiday rolled around, the Zylberbergs’ inadequacy in the Judaism department became truly glaring. Plenty of Jewish families didn’t keep the fast on Yom Kippur, but how many packed into the Buick Skylark and had lunch at a Swedish smorgasbord?
At Hanukkah time, the Zylberbergs’ lack of Jewishness translated into something more sinister, in Billy’s view: a lack of presents. In his friends’ homes, the parents lit the menorah over the course of eight nights and gave their children a present for each glowing night. The Zylberbergs did not own a menorah and therefore, by some kind of perverse candle-driven logic, Billy and his siblings got exactly one present. To Arnold and Marge Zylberberg, Hanukkah was not a time for excess. That’s what Yom Kippur was for.
Billy’s brother and sister didn’t have a problem with this arrangement. They seemed to feel that forfeiting seven presents was a small price to pay for never having to go to temple. But Billy could not be so cavalier. Unfortunately for him, his birthday fell on January 2nd, and Arnold and Marge had decided, with secular briskness, to combine his Hanukkah present and birthday present into one somewhat larger gift. That meant that, by Billy’s calculation, the average Jewish boy was raking in nine presents a year (counting his birthday), while he was getting only one. There was no other way to address this deficit, Billy decided: this year, the Zylberbergs would have to celebrate Hanukkah the way the real Jews did.
“Dad, can I talk to you a sec?”
Arnold Zylberberg sat in the tweed wing chair in his oak-paneled study, intently stuffing Amphora tobacco into his pipe. “Sure.”
Billy knew that what he was about to do was fraught with risk. Trying to strike some vestigial Jewish chord buried deep inside his father might be a fool’s errand. But legend had it that when Arnold was Billy’s age he had gone to Hebrew school and was even Bar Mitzvahed. So it was worth a shot.
“I’m concerned,” Billy said, “about my Jewish identity.”
Astonishingly, Billy’s tactic – the Jewish equivalent of a Hail Mary – worked.
The next day Arnold bought a menorah and candles, along with a Cliffs Notes-like guide to the holiday. And so it came to pass that for the first time ever, the Zylberbergs sat down to celebrate Hanukkah, a holiday whose rituals and traditions were as foreign to them as Kwanzaa.
The evening began inauspiciously. As Arnold struggled to recite the candle blessing, it became painfully obvious that his Hebrew was rusty, having been in disuse since his Bar Mitzvah in 1943. Moments into the prayer, Billy’s brother started laughing, and Arnold, in one of the fits of thin-skinned rage that were his specialty, ejected him from the table.
Arnold began again, this time sending Billy’s sister into a fit of giggles. She, too, was summarily ejected.
Only Billy and his mom remained to witness what happened next. Arnold started in on the prayer yet again, this time making the fatal error of trying to pronounce Hebrew and light the candles at the same time. The first candle he attempted to light tipped from the menorah and fell to the table with a clunk. More laughter: this time, from Billy’s mom.
Arnold had had enough. “Get out, Marge! Get out!”
“Lord,” Marge said, still laughing as she left.
For the next hour, Billy and Arnold soldiered on, huddled around the menorah, trying to gin up a credible facsimile of Judaism. But as Billy watched his father wrestle with the prayers, the candles, and a plastic dreidel that seemed engineered not to spin, he felt terrible. He had put his father through all of this, and for what? To satisfy his own rapacious lust for presents. The joy he thought he would experience on this first Hanukkah was nowhere to be found, crowded out by an inescapable feeling of guilt. And as he wrestled with that guilt, Billy Zylberberg finally knew what it meant to be Jewish.