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Jeff Simon

Books are always in season for Hanukkah

Jeff Simon

It may sit just a sprig of mistletoe away on the calendar but Hanukkah has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas.

Let me allow someone else to tell it:

"Chanukah – also spelled Chanuka, Chanukkah, Chihuahua, Chardonnay, Hanukah, Hannukah, Hannah, Hannukah, Hanuka, Honeydew, Hanaka, Hanika and Khanukkah – is perhaps the most celebrated and best-known of Jewish holidays, probably because it involves giving gifts and eating fried food rather than contemplating sin or waving citrus at strangers."

As you no doubt surmise, that was not a conventional description of the Jewish holiday that will, this year, begin Dec. 22 and, as always, last for eight days among the devout.

It just happens to involve gifts and fall in proximity to Christmas, which accounts for people who think the two holidays are, in the Judeo-Christian view of things, brothers from other mothers.

The above entry is from one of the two dandy books out for Hanukkah gift-giving season. The dust flap offers the following title: "A Field Guide to the Jewish People: Who They Are; Where They Came From; How Come They Carry Each Other Around on Chairs; Why They Fled Egypt Straight to a Large Body of Water and Much More, Maybe Too Much More" (Flatiron Books, 240 pages, $25.99). It goes without saying, by this time, the book is intended to be funny, but I'll get to that.

The authors are two Jewish writers and one Presbyterian. Dave Barry is the Presbyterian. "In fact," we learn from Barry inside the book, "both my father and his father were Presbyterian ministers. But being honest there's not a lot of Presbyterian humor. I actually don't know if there are any jokes featuring Presbyterians. What would they say? 'So this Presbyterian walked into a bar but he realized his mistake and left?' "

Barry's wife, though, is Jewish. So are his daughter and grandson. "I have attended many High Holiday services, some of which ran longer than the Korean Conflict." (Note the chronological period of that reference, which carbon dates rather nicely the senses of humor involved in this book.)

It ought to go without saying that in modern Western civilization, professional practitioners of humor are often known to be Jewish. Anyone who wants a real and full idea of why that is might want to consult a Hanukkah book from two years ago, Jeremy Dauber's splendidly smart "Jewish Comedy: A Serious History."

Barry's two Jewish co-writers include Adam Mansbach, who says his four grandparents were Jewish but that he was kicked out of Sunday school for "singing Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" into the microphone at an all-school assembly instead of the phonetically spelled-out Hebrew prayer I was supposed to read."

He describes the school as the "So You Think You Might Be Jewish Sunday School and Grill and it was run out of an off-brand community college."

The third author is movie and TV comedy writer/producer Alan Zweibel, the extremely tall (6 feet, 9 inches) 1972 graduate of the University at Buffalo.

You get the idea about the book. Its actual category isn't "humor," but "intended to be humor," which means that some of it actually is funny, but that a good deal of it strenuously fails to be. On the other hand, it is surprisingly informative sometimes about the thing its humor is intended to be superior to – a field guide to Jewish religion and culture. You'll certainly be sympathetic to three smart guys who want to flourish during enervating holiday shopping season by being funny but, if you're frank, you'll admit a fair amount of it coasts on the historic Jewish propensity for fighting persecution and oppression with humorous intent without actually being funny. (I laughed out loud once. That's it. I leave the book's final score to others who might be more charitable and receptive for the season.) Still in all, it tells you things and it's trying to be pleasant. There are worse things.

A much more serious book about Judaism for the season also happens to be, in my opinion, far more readable and entertaining. It's "Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947" (Scribner, 458 pages, $30).

It's by Norman Lebrecht, whose day job in the scribbler's trade is to write novels and ultra-smart and provocative blogs and books about classical music. (One of his books is called "The Maestro Myth." Another is called "Who Killed Classical Music." Mr. Lebrecht, as you can see, has things to say.)

He is the sort of irresistibly entertaining writer who, when the subject is George Gershwin, can't resist telling you about accusations of narcissism by Gershwin's friend and acolyte Oscar Levant, who once asked his buddy, "Tell me George, if you had it to do all over, would you fall in love with yourself again?"

The genius of Albert Einstein in Lebrecht's centurylong saga of Jewish culture brings up Einstein's attempts at explanation of his Theory of Relativity to laymen.

"This is very simple," Einstein said once to a journalist for whom it wasn't simple at all. "Matter tells space how to curve – and this is what it's about." Lest that prove to be too theoretical for journalists, Einstein replied, "When you sit with a nice girl for two hours and you think it's only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute, you think it's two hours, that's relativity."

Lebrecht's book, in fact, is an altogether brilliant and serious but approachable and readable popular history and survey of an extraordinary century of Jewish achievement (which also cohabited with global horror and calamity). It was the century of Mendelssohn, Freud, Proust, Einstein, Kafka, Marx, Modigliani (Lebrecht calls him "Modi"), Sarah Bernhardt, Disraeli, Schoenberg, Charles Valentin Alkan and "Casablanca" director Michael Curtiz as a representative of the mythologists of Hollywood.

His book is unfailingly urbane and anecdotal at the same time it is punctilious about the facts. Lebrecht is hearteningly scrupulous about separating legends that cling like barnacles to the drier and more prosaic and inarguable facts of history. It has become part, for instance, of classical music's mythology that the hermetic pianist and complex composer of piano music Alkan died because he was crushed in his apartment by a huge bookcase when he reached for a book of Talmudic commentary on a top shelf. Lebrecht blandly informs us that as far as Paris police were concerned he died of a heart attack in the kitchen while preparing that night's dinner.

It's a book for all seasons that happens to have been cannily published in this one.

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