Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Burning Hannukah Bush, Doused by Manischewitz Sno-Cones

When I was seven, I declared myself a Jew for Jesus. I wasn’t a particularly evangelical second grader and it’s not as if God appeared to me at recess in the form of a burning tether ball, instructing me to lead my people out of the enslavement of Mrs. Finkle’s class; I simply wanted to celebrate Christmas.

My parents promptly rejected my announcement of conversion.

Growing up in New York City, I never faced oppression or prejudice because of my religion; if anything I was frowned upon for not being proudly Jewish enough. But how could I not covet Christianity, knowing it came wrapped in a holiday bow heralded from the moment the last piece of Halloween candy was handed out, replete with Rudolph and Frosty, Charlie Brown specials, Coca-Cola-drinking polar bears, a magical fat man who loves cookies, and the ubiquitous symbol of the season; a glorious, towering, sparkly tree?

Weighed against the feverish build toward one euphoric morning spent clawing at wrapping paper and ribbon until you collapse, elated and spent, on a pile of present booty, Hanukkah’s eight nights seem a slow simmer that simply pale in comparison.
Jewish kids don’t get to sit on stranger men’s laps in malls without the police getting a phone call. There are no movie marathons on TV, no standing date to mark on a calendar, not even universal agreement as to how we’re going to spell the holiday’s name. Until Adam Sandler came along, Hanukkah’s only big crowd pleaser was The Dreidel Song. “Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel/I made it out of clay”--it’s the holiday equivalent of “The Wheels on the Bus.”

But my parents tried to help me embrace it. “Christmas isn’t so great,” my mother, Miki, a woman whose favorite pastime is playing tambourine to “Sounds from the Holy Land” or discussing “the feminine divine” in the Old Testament, told me not long after my failed attempt at a Christianity coup. “Santa Claus isn’t even real, you know.”

A few days later, the smell of pine needles and gingerbread still lingering in the air, mocking me, a little girl asked what Santa had given me for Christmas.

“Nothing,” I shrugged, “because he doesn’t exist.”

She gasped, her Whoville eyes instantly filling with sugarplum tears.

“She’s kidding!” my mother yelped, glaring at me and grabbing my wrist little too tightly.

“Nuh-uh. You told me—”

She yanked me away before I could finish the sentence.

Still, with or without Santa, I lusted after Christmas like a 13-year-old boy with the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, and as I got older, my desire only grew, fueled by images of glossy Yuletide perfection everywhere I turned. Dreaming that one day I too would deck the halls, the top of my Hanukkah list always held the same request--“A Christmas Tree”--until the year Hanukkah and Christmas overlapped.

I was fifteen at the time, and at my most desperate to be like everyone else. As December 22nd and 23rd ticked by, I basked in the excitement of collective anticipation. “So this is what it feels like,” I thought, merrily.

Then, on Christmas Eve, my parent knocked on our front door. “We forgot our keys,” I heard them call, followed by stifled giggles, as I opened the door to a stunning sight. In their arms was my very own Douglas Fir, standing six feet tall with branches outstretching as if offering me a hug. “Happy Hanukkah,” they cheered, giddy and beaming.

Watching them haul what they insisted on calling our “Hanukkah Bush” into the house, I was ecstatic. Hallelujah assimilation! Miki’s one stipulation was “the Bush” had to be decorated exclusively in blue and silver, both her personal favorite and the colors of Israel. We draped tinsel, blue lights and silver Star of David garlands around my pine prize, topping it with a yarmulke instead of an angel. I stood back, admiring our work, reveling in the glory of my very own tree, but within minutes my mother was seething.

“I can’t believe we have this thing in our house,” Miki fumed, as if we’d propped up a life-sized replica of Hitler to hide presents under.
For two days, she avoided the living room, gasping, “Oy!” every time she caught a glimpse of my beloved tree, turning on her heels to stomp away. But on the third day, she snapped.

“I can’t take this anymore!” she bellowed.

Grabbing the tree, still spun in garlands and ornaments, she hauled it into the middle of our street, set it on fire and called it “The Burning Bush.”
Watching it go up in flames, the tinsel shriveling as fire flicked at the branches, the only thing we could do was laugh. It was a fitting end to any semblance of Christmas in our house.

Now that I’m an adult with a home of my own, I suppose I could celebrate the holidays with a tree or “bush,” but it feels too illicit. I guess no matter how hard I try, a cornerstone of my heritage will always remain intact: Jewish guilt.

Happy Hannukah!

Manischewitz Sno-Cones
Makes 10-12 cones
2 cups Manischewitz wine
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen tart cherries, pitted (if using frozen cherries, defrost before making syrup)
1/2 cup dried tart cherries
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped

Combine 1 cup of wine with sugar and the fresh and dried cherries in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes.

Remove from stove and add vanilla bean, seeds and remaining 1 cup wine. Cover and steep for 1 hour. Pour into a jar or other nonreactive container. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 day or up to 5 days. Strain, reserving whole cherries for garnish.

Shave 6 cups of ice using a professional ice shaver, my personal favorite: a Snoopy Sno-Cone Maker, a food processor, or by freezing a large baking pan of water, stirring every 30 minutes with a fork until you have a granita texture.

To serve, scoop ice into a 4-ounce paper cone or glass with an ice cream scoop and top with about a 1/4 cup of syrup. Garnish with reserved cherries on toothpicks, speared to look like the olives in a martini glass.


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