A Shtick To Delve Beyond The Dreidel
Show Illuminates Festival of Lights

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 22, 2008

When many Jews think of Hanukkah, what comes to mind are candle-lightings, gifts and maybe some potato pancakes.

But David Smolar hears a show tune.

"Annie," "A Chorus Line," "The Sound of Music." The affable 36-year-old video editor and would-be Jewish culturist wants to find ways to get Jews to look closely at the 2,200-year-old story of the holiday and celebrate it with more than another night of presents.

Smolar has created an event unlike anything else in Washington for Hanukkah, the eight-day holiday that began last night. Part musical theater, part dinner party, part Bible study, the Hanukkah Seder has grown from 40 people eating potluck four years ago to nearly twice that many people who have purchased tickets to come tonight to Sixth and I Synagogue in Chinatown for catered food and songs. Most of all, Smolar said, he hopes they leave with a deeper understanding of Jewish history.

Since 2004, Smolar has gathered Jews to act out a script he wrote of the Hanukkah story and to sing show tunes like "Tomorrow" from "Annie" and "What I Did for Love" from "A Chorus Line"--with lyrics redone to tell the story of oppressive Greek rulers who Jewish history says cracked down on Jewish practices and defiled the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

He has imagined ancient Jews singing to the tune of "Maria," from "The Sound of Music":

"Oh, how do you beat an army of Seleucids? How do you find a way that we can win?"

The event, named after the storytelling dinner, or seder, Jews share at Passover in spring, goes far beyond the norm for the holiday. Not a major Jewish holiday, Hanukkah has become inflated in the United States because it falls near Christmas. It is usually observed with presents and candles, not seriousness.

"I was so used to standing in the living room and lighting candles and thinking, maybe my wife's sister will come over, and maybe some people will show up for dinner," Smolar said with a feigned yawn.

He wanted Jews to see the holiday's rich history and to think about what it was like for Jews in 200 B.C. to be forced to honor idols and to see Greek gods worshiped in their Holy Temple; to watch their people assimilate and then see rebels fight back and reclaim the Temple, the center of Jewish life.

There doesn't appear to be another event as in-depth as his in the Washington area, although many synagogues and individuals have parties, and a 30-foot menorah was lighted yesterday on the Ellipse near the White House.

Smolar acknowledged that his event might appear to be a bit lighthearted with its schmaltzy music even as it attempts to have Hanukkah taken more seriously. That same dichotomy is evident on the bookshelves behind the keyboard in his Silver Spring apartment, where "The Complete Works of Josephus" sits near "Jingle Bell Rock."

But Smolar said the music and humor make it easier to retain the serious message he is trying to impart. The son and grandson of Jewish teachers, Smolar said he sees himself as embarked on a larger mission of education.

It started when he began teaching religious classes for teenagers shortly after graduating in the mid-1990s from the University of Maryland. He realized that they were bored by his lectures about ancient history.

Having grown up in a musical family and having sung in groups in college, Smolar thought he could create something memorable to help his young students -- a cross between a Bible study and the Muppets, he said.

Meanwhile, Smolar's career took some turns. He worked at radio stations WTOP and WMAL as a producer, traffic reporter, engineer. Now he has decided to focus on video editing. He founded a company named after his life's pattern: In Between Things Productions.

His love of Judaism and Jewish history remained. Fueled by childhood memories of a packed house at Hanukkah, his mother at the piano, his father telling stories, Smolar began wanting to create musical religious programs for synagogues and schools, something that would hold young people's attention.

Most in the audience at his Hanukkah seders, now sponsored by the Jewish Study Center of Washington, are adults.

This year, for the first time, Smolar wrote all the music as well as the words. He's also tried to pick fewer songs, concentrating on Hanukkah's core historic themes.

But it's hardly been an exercise in solemnity. To Smolar, this is still theater, and one recent night at his apartment, he sounded like the slightly goofy guy who got into this because he wanted to work with kids.

"Honey, are we dressing up in costumes?" he asked his wife, Rebecca, a Web site manager who also teaches Hebrew school, of the Hanukkah Seder. "Because the only ones I have are two nun outfits."

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