Singer-songwriter-humorist Lauren Mayer reflects on Hanukkah, Christmas, family, growing up a Jew in Orange County and how all this informs her own, artistic process. May you enjoy this in depth interview conducted by… herself.
What inspired you to write “Latkes, Shmatkes”?
Two years ago NPR did a program on Christmas music, and their expert was talking about how secular songs, like “Frosty The Snowman,” became classics, and then he said, “Some songs should never become classics, like this one”— and used an old recording of mine as an example. It was a novelty song I’d written and recorded years ago, “The Fruitcake That Ate New Jersey,” and when I wrote in to ask how they found it, they ended up interviewing me. I joked that now I was part of the great tradition of Jewish songwriters who create Christmas music, and I really should do a Chanukah album. Once I said it, I realized it could be a fun idea.
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On the Thursday night before Hanukkah began, I attended an event called A Sip of Eser, an introductory session to the ten-part young adult learning program Eser (meaning 10) run by Hebrew College in nearby Newton, MA. Amidst the tumult of a Boston bar, and alongside several dozen people I had never met, I heard rabbinical student, Seth Wax, tell a Hanukkah story none of us had ever heard.
Thanksgiving is over, meaning the few remaining stores with some discretion have put up their decorations (joining the vast majority who started in early November), and the holiday muzak is blaring everywhere – so it’s hard for Jews not to feel overwhelmed and outnumbered. Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday, so we aren’t really going to compete with giant electric menorahs on our front yards, and it’s highly unlikely that Lifetime will air a new series of “Heartfelt Hanukkah” made-for-TV movies. And it’s particularly hard for parents – our kids are singing carols in school, making ornaments out of popsicle sticks, and hearing about their friends who anticipate scoring major gift hauls. How do we help our kids, and ourselves, feel better about this imbalance?
I cannot walk out of my house (or open my laptop) without being bombarded with suggestions for Hanukkah (this year, often Thanksgivukkah) merchandise. (Ironically, I am simultaneously presented with ads for “Catching Fire” themed goods, in contrast to the movie’s message.) The Hanukkah narrative has the power to be subversive; it is a story of a minority making themselves heard, of an oppressed group claiming their rights. When those of us who are privileged to be able to buy gifts (and menurkeys) focus on the commercial elements of the holiday at the expense of the holiday’s story, we create a bubble like the Capitol. Hanukkah should be a call to remind us that we should be the districts, not the Capitol; our power should be channeled into fighting injustice, not simply consuming what is provided to us.
Editors note: If you haven’t read The Hunger Games (or seen the movies), you’ll be safe from any major spoilers in this post from one of our Rising Voices Fellows. Be sure to check the JWA blog each Tuesday for a new post from our fellows—and check out the great educational resources provided by our partner organization, Prozdor.
In 2013 a miraculous thing happened. Thanksgiving and Haunkuah overlapped, and the whole world went crazy. The day was deemed Thanksgivukkah and quickly became a thing of legend. Songs popped up- some genuine, some parodies. Websites devoted to the day were designed. T-shirts in every shape and size celebrated the day. Even the Mayor of Boston proclaimed the day to be an official holiday.
And I bought a menorah shaped like a turkey—aka a menurkey .
Last week, JWA led the first online learning program of the year, “Hanukkah: Ignite and Inspire.” We spoke to almost 20 educators from across the country, covering topics from incorporating lessons of Jewish heroines to the challenges of creating a refreshing and relevant Hanukkah curriculum. I was most excited to talk about Judith, a Jewish, Biblical era woman whose story is not included in the Jewish scriptural canon.
Although Hanukkah is known as the festival of lights, I think a more fitting name would be the festival of fried foods. It’s the time of year during which people expect and want to find deep fried food on their plates and I’m more than happy to oblige. Although, as much as I love eating latkes and sufganiyot, there are moments where I need a break from all the fried foods. Yet in the spirit of the holiday I still want to eat a dish in which oil is a central component.
Chanukkah (or however the heck you spell it) is a time of lighting the menorah, recounting yet another story of the resilience of the Jewish people, and celebrating miracles both great and small. It’s also a time of eating things you wouldn’t dare touch the rest of the year, letting your standards slide, and finding yourself hung over on January 1st, loathing yourself as you struggle to button your jeans.