An Encyclopedic Grasp of Hanukkah

By Joel Keller
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 26, 2005

During my school years in northern New Jersey, I was always known as "the Jew." It wasn't a slur, just a fact: From kindergarten until eighth grade, I was the only Jewish person in my class. I was conspicuously absent during the High Holidays. I was the only one with a pastrami-on-matzoh sandwich every spring. A rousing rendition of "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel" at Christmas? That was because of me.

As "the Jew," I was also the "Judaism expert." Teachers and classmates asked me the same questions every single year. It was as if they had an Etch A Sketch in their heads; a quick shake and they forgot what they learned the year before. Every year, they'd ask me -- "Why can't you eat bacon?" -- and every year, I'd roll my eyes and answer them with the cocksure manner that I had earned during my one decade on Earth.

By the time high school rolled around, the questions about the various holidays were getting more sophisticated. Instead of "Why do you eat matzoh at Passover?" I was getting queries like, "Do Jews believe in a Heaven or Hell?" I continued to answer them with the same air of confidence, but in the back of my mind I wasn't so sure. I may have been the spokesman for the Jewish religion in the greater Butler metropolitan area (30 miles northwest of New York), but let's face it, I wasn't exactly a Talmudic scholar.

One December, I was asked to do an article on the origins of Hanukkah for the school newspaper. "Jeez, do I have to?" I said to my teacher, rolling my eyes. "Can't someone else take care of this? I have to report on the new 7-Up machine in the cafeteria."

"You're the best man for the job, since you know the most about the holiday," she said. "Would you rather have a zero?"

"Well, never let it be said that I'm not a team player," I replied.

I sat in front of the school Macintosh to write what I knew about the holiday, thinking that this assignment would be a slam-dunk. But instead of complete sentences, the only things that came out of my brain were dribs of words. "Maccabees. No oil. Eight days of light. Spinning tops. Chocolate coins." This was the best I could come up with. The paper was about to go to Xerox, and I was panicking.

In the act of a desperate man, I went to the library and did actual research. While reading the World Book Encyclopedia, I realized that my limited writing talent was never going to be able to do the story of the Maccabees justice. So, I swallowed hard and did what I had to do: I copied the entry word for word, and handed it in with my name on it.

I was a high school plagiarist, and I didn't care. It wasn't like anybody was going to read the article, I figured; there was other, juicier stuff in the paper that month, like the shocking expos on the Spanish class's trip to the Don Pepe restaurant. Then the paper came out, with the Hanukkah story on the front page. I panicked again. Was somebody going to find out? Perhaps the level of writing was too good to be the work of a mere high-schooler.

My mind began playing tricks on me. I imagined Rabbi Schecter -- a taskmaster who used to stop in the middle of bar mitzvah ceremonies to single out and separate me and my chatty friends -- calling me into his office, where I'd find the article sitting on top of a copy of the World Book. He'd be silent, with his arms crossed, waiting for me to respond or wet my pants, whichever came first. Before I knew it, my parents would get a phone call. Then the guilt would begin, a guilt unlike anything I had ever received (even worse than when I said my brother's favorite science-fiction movie was "Space in My Head").The thought of all this guilt made me want to get on my bike and run away to a far-off land, like Greenwood Lake.

Time went by, however, and I never heard a thing, not from classmates, faculty members, clerics or angry yeshiva students. As the school year went on, I wrote more newspaper articles, none of which used stolen material. The Hanukkah article was forgotten. My anxiety over being found a fraud eased, as I was too busy trying to get into college and finding a date to the prom -- a much tougher task -- to worry about a silly holiday article.

But now that I'm a professional writer -- even though it has been 17 years -- I felt I had to come clean. Whew. That feels better. And, now that Rabbi Schecter has long since retired (and also because I haven't set foot inside a synagogue or celebrated a Jewish holiday in almost 10 years), I no longer have to worry about being labeled a "bad Jew."

I also know I'll never be asked another question about Judaism again, because my friends all know that I have absolutely no idea what the answer is. But I still eat the chocolate coins. They're darn good.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company