Columns - 1996

    Latkes and Identity Crises

    I recently participated in a Synagogue Identity Day. It was a long-anticipated event where we gathered several hundred congregants in the parking lot, pointed to the building and reminded them "this is a synagogue."

    I was a group facilitator for this event. How did I earn this distinction? I was asked if I would prefer to "volunteer" or carry guilt for the 10 months left until Yom Kippur. After much thought, I chose Bachelor No. 1. He's a little more demanding, but I would still respect myself in the morning. (There's a little-known Yiddish term reserved for people who exhibit such kindness: "sucker") As facilitator, not only did I get to interrupt people as they rambled to let others ramble in their place, I got to arrive early to help set up for dinner and the discussion.

    It was an enjoyable event. Congregants in attendance demonstrated not only that they remembered where the synagogue was, but also that they remembered whether they joined because of an upcoming birth or bar mitzvah.

    After reminding them what a social hall was, we fulfilled the Talmudic directive which states "if you feed them, they will come". Then we had a discussion in which -- I am not making this up -- in listing why people joined the synagogue, nobody listed services or ritual. Worship and holidays were an underlying theme to the discussion, but apparently it was as popular as Muscle Shoals is for a honeymoon getaway.

    So on we worked, attempting in three hours to agree on the synagogue's direction for the future. We decided it should face east, but we couldn't get enough people to lift the building and rotate it. So we discussed more.

    Remembering the excerpt from the Mishnah tractate "Algebra", (II, 9-21) which states that "for every two children of Israel shalt thou maintain three opinions; no more, no less... five is right out", I quickly deduced we would end up with 175 mission statements. I was wrong. Apparently, "Algebra" was written too early to account for the corollary to the aforementioned rule, which is that "thou shalt double the number of opinions for board members". This is accepted because board members are better informed from sitting in on closed sessions of board meetings. Hence the stipulation in most constitutions which states that board members "shall give up a few hours every month to be entitled to privileged gossip".

    In planning the event, it was decided that we would stress only positive opinions. Apparently, enough people express negative opinions the rest of the year. Nobody asked me, but I think it has something to do with the office answering machine message which says, "What? You're calling because you've got problems? Let me tell you what my son did, the meshugena..." So, it was decided for Identity Day to focus on the positive, to instill the practice of forgetting or ignoring the negative in the past. If we get good enough at ignoring the negative in the past, then we can advance to ignoring the negative in the present.

    Eventually, people will become so ambivalent or aloof to the negative, that the board can screw up anything it wants, and no one will ever know.

    The meeting was brief because everyone had to shop for Chanukah ("Hanukkah" to you Jews out there). Of course, this year's celebration is extra-special, with Tim Allen starring in the sequel to "The Santa Clause" titled "Judah the Macabre".

    This year, Channukah marks the games of the 1036th Maccabiad (Greek for the Maccabee Games). Popular Hanuka items this year include the sparkling candles that don't melt, and Hallmark's popular series of Star Trek Menorah Medallions (TM).

    A little holiday history lesson: The difference between a Menorah and a Chanukiah. A Menorah has seven candles, a Chanukiah has nine. We light the Chanukiah in our homes every year (unless we're careful, in which case we just light the candles). Both have their roots in the Maccabee story of Harmonica.

    In the Temple, where the first spelling contest -- the infamous "Mecca Bee" -- was held (Judah won, which is why he gets top billing... he knew how to really spell "Hanukah" in English, but this information has been lost), there was both a Menorah and a Chanukiah. One on each side of the Mechitza (the wall keeping the Simpson jurors from having conjugal visits during services).

    One day, a man had accidentally (yeah, an accident...) wandered over to the women's side of the Temple. He noticed their Menorah had seven candles just like the men's. He ran back into minyan and told da boyz who, in the first documented case of candle envy, added two extra candles to their ornament. (The women heard about this and shrugged. The men may have more candles, but the women's lasted longer.)

    I'll conclude by letting you know that, for the 50th year, at the University of Chicago (in Chicago), four professors are conducting their annual debate to determine whether latkes or hamentaschen are better. I'm not making this up. For 50 years. You'd think they'd both be nasty after sitting out this long. (And the food would be, too.)

    They used to debate whether the Cubs or White Sox were better, until both teams lost the debate for the 10th consecutive year. So, be glad 'tis the season of annoying commercials (and commercialism), and that you can enjoy a latke instead of suffering through a Cubs game. (The Bears are easy enough to ignore).

    Doug Brook is a technical writer who believes that a 50-year-old latke could spot two runs to the White Sox and still beat them.

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.