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Answering the question 'Dad, what's Hanukkah?'
Hanukkah music and traditions are a wonderful way to allow children to connect with a culture different from their own. - photo by Jim Bennett
While driving my 10-year-old son home from an indoor soccer game, we had the radio on the all-Christmas-music-all-the-time station when Adam Sandlers Hanukkah Song came on the radio. I cranked it up and started to sing along.

Get out your yarmulke / Its time for Hanukkah / So much fun-ukah / To celebrate Hanukkah

And then my boy looked up at me and asked a question that rocked my world.

Dad, he asked, whats Hanukkah?

I stared at him in disbelief. How could a child raised in my home reach double digits with no knowledge of the ancient Jewish tradition of the Festival of Lights?

Childhood Hanukkah ignorance was not an option for me, as I grew up in Calabasas, California, which, before achieving its current infamy as home of the Kardashians, was a town with a large enough Jewish population that we got out of school for all the High Holy Days. (And if youre a Gentile in Los Angeles with the day off from school, Yom Kippur is a great time to visit Disneyland.) I got to attend all my friends bar mitzvahs, and I was inexplicably jealous of all of them as they got to eat their peanut butter sandwiches on matzo crackers during Passover. In retrospect, Im not sure why because matzo tastes like sawdust. It just seemed pretty cool at the time.

And so did Hanukkah. It was an exciting time for so many of my friends, during which, instead of just one day of presents, they had, as Sandler sings, eight crazy nights. To a greedy kid like me, 8-to-1 seemed like pretty good present-getting odds.

What I appreciated more than anything about growing up in that environment was the music I got to sing throughout my childhood and adolescence. I remember our fifth-grade chorus singing a hauntingly beautiful melody about Mama lighting the Menorah, Papa reading from the Torah, and their combined prayer: May your days and nights be a feast of lights.

I wonder if any elementary school now would allow such an explicitly religious song to be part of the repertoire Jewish, Christian or otherwise. It never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with me singing a song celebrating a faith that wasnt mine.

I continued to sing in choirs throughout my youth, and I can recall every word to my big solo in Eight Bright Candles of Hanukkah. I sang that at a performance with the Kids of the Century performing arts group on the stage at Universal Studios that was set up to entertain visitors waiting in line for the old tram tours. This is seared into my memory, as it was unquestionably the peak of my career in Hollywood.

It wasnt all fame and glory, though. At one point, we had a rabbi come speak to us about Hanukkah traditions, and truth be told, it was a bit of a letdown. This rabbi insisted that Hanukkah was a very minor Jewish holiday, that it was little more than the commemoration of a military victory, and that he somewhat resented the secular inflation of its importance to compete with Christmas. This was more than a little depressing. I kept waiting for him to say bah, humbug! or its comparable Hebrew equivalent.

But none of that diminishes my affection for a holiday that allowed me to connect with a culture other than my own. I wish everyone could have such opportunities, especially my own children. In fact, Im thinking my youngest son might find a dreidel in his stocking come Christmas morning.

But if I hear Dad, whats a dreidel? its going to give me the shpilkes.
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