Lost in Transliteration

Posted on December 12th, 2012 by

A blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert.

I think I’ve finally adjusted to Hanukkah. I don’t mean “Hanukkah”, the holiday I’ve celebrated for 60 years, I mean “Hanukkah” the spelling that has become popular in my lifetime.

Taking the holiday decorations out of the closet is my annual reminder that transliteration can transform tradition.  I grew up with a beautiful blue banner that proudly proclaimed “Happy Chanukah” right above our menorah (a metal candle holder of very simple design that made up in weight what it lacked in elegance).  I never for a moment questioned the perfection of this spelling.

But in the 1980s, – when our kids were young and our old banner disheveled from years of Scotch tape being applied and removed – I had to purchase a new banner and discovered that a lot of options had been added to the transliteration list.  I settled on a multi-colored model with fringe and the phrase “Happy Hanuka”.  It appeared that this peculiar spelling was an aesthetic choice, as the nearly even number of letters allowed the Star of David that separated the words to be placed exactly in the middle.

For many years I continued to look for “Chanukah” cards (just one of my atavistic preferences – like my nostalgia for the German beer hall melody for “Adon Olam”).

Of course, Hanukkah and its problematic initial letter are not unique.  I understand that before we renovated the Lloyd Street Synagogue there was a lively discussion about “mikveh” vs. “mikvah”.  As a former volunteer for Congressman Abner Mikva, I confess that I would probably have come out on the losing side of this debate.

Hebrew transliteration is actually relatively straightforward compared to my experience in East Asian Studies.  I still cringe when I hear commercials for Toyota Camry (to rhyme with “lamb tree”).  The Japanese word is “kanmuri”, meaning “crown”, and there is no “‘a’-as-in-‘can'” sound in Japanese – the sound is “a” as in “Genghis Khan”.

Speaking of Genghis Khan, when I started studying history his birth name was Temujin.  But in many articles written today you will find that he was born Tiemuzhen.  This reflects one of the most dramatic changes in transliteration in the 20th century.  Until the thawing of relations with mainland China, most Western scholars used the Wade Giles system to romanize Chinese words (named for the British diplomats who developed and refined the system). The dominant system today is the “pinyin” system, the official transliteration practice of the People’s Republic of China.

In “pinyin”, Mao Tse Tung became Mao Zedong and Mah Jongg became Ma Jiang.  No matter how you spell it, it’s still fun to play (I mean “Mah Jongg” not “Mao Tse Tung”).  So I hope you’ll join us on December 25 when we all have “phun” at the Dragons and Dreidels program – no transliteration required.

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It’s that magical time of the year…

Posted on December 10th, 2012 by

A blog post by Visitor Services Coordinator Abby Krolik.

It’s that magical time of the year…when everything smells like oil and onions. That’s right, it’s Chanukah time! This is my first year after graduating from college, which means that it’s the first time that Chanukah has not been overshadowed by exams and term papers—a fact for which I am very grateful. No more squeezing in a Hillel candlelighting and Rugrats Maccabee episode study break between marathon paper-writing sessions. Instead, I’ve got a whole week of holiday parties to look forward to (and probably a few Christmas-centric parties to follow afterward).

Of course, the grand holiday season kickoff event was Esther Fest, last Thursday—never mind the mayor’s monument lighting ceremony, which was missing the key ingredient to holiday fun: Esther and fried foods.  In fact, the museum (and my clothes) still smelled faintly of oil, onions, and good times when I came in on Sunday morning!

The holiday cheer continued for me last night (even though I wasn’t at Diner and Donuts) at my parents’ Chanukah party, where my mother managed, yet again, to invite a seder-level number of people to the house and still make too much food! As my dad likes to say, “she’s got a bit of the Catskills in her.” My brother and I are always pleased when this happens because it means we can each take home left-overs to our respective houses (in other words, the young adult version of our sibling rivalry takes the form of “tupperware wars”).  Our roommates have come to love the Krolik Family Supermarket.

But back to Chanukah.  And parties. Later this week, my roommate and I will continue the festivities with a small gathering of our own in which we will teach our goyish friends to play dreidel. However, we will probably not teach them the meaning of Chanukah. They will probably go home still thinking that Chanukah is the Jewish Christmas.

Which brings me to an interesting op-ed I read in the New York Times this week, entitled “The True Meaning of Hanukkah.” The author, Hilary Krieger, delivers a kind of short d’var torah on what Chanukah (in its many spellings) really celebrates. Is the holiday all about the miracle of the oil? Or is it simply a celebration of a military victory? Krieger’s conclusion is very interesting.  She says that by having observing a holiday that celebrates both a bloody war and a spiritual miracle, we are invited to reflect on the presence of light and dark in the world. Krieger also reminds us that these conflicting messages are a common motif in Judaism. At Passover, we celebrate our independence from slavery while also spilling out some of our wine to acknowledge the suffering endured by the Egyptians, and on Yom Kippur, we reflect on the confusing story of the Sacrifice of Isaac. So, while Chanukah does not have the theological significance for Judaism that Christmas has for Christianity, it is an opportunity to remember and practice the ancient Jewish tradition of self-reflection and questioning.

Apparently, you can take the student from compulsory essays, but you can’t take the compulsion to write essays from the (former) student.

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Esther Fest!!

Posted on December 7th, 2012 by

A blog post by Program Manager Rachel Cylus. Photos by Will Kirk.

“If you’ve got latkes, sour cream and applesauce, of course it’s gonna be great!”  – Esther Weiner

These are the words I overheard Esther use to describe the success of last night’s Esther Fest program.  But, of course all of us present know what made Esther Fest the place to be last night… our very own Esther Weiner, gift shop manager, latke chef extraordinaire and all around amazing person.  Billed as “the most hilarious human on earth,” Esther, whose repertoire of jokes included classics about the Catskills and Borscht Belt as well as anecdotes from her own life, never disappoints.  Even her husband, Morty, told a joke!  It was certainly a family affair – Esther had the whole room smiling and laughing as she and her granddaughters fried up delicious latkes in honor of Chanukah.

This year as part of a fun twist, Esther invited audience participation, giving prizes to the Brews & Schmooze young adult audience members who shared Chanukah memories or could recount the facts of the epic battle commemorated during the holiday.  Prizes included dreidels, chocolate gelt, and a car mezuzah.  Car mezuzahs (available for purchase in the JMM gift shop) are just like the traditional mezuzahs affixed to doorposts, except they contain the traveler’s prayer and can be anchored to the inside of a car.  And, as Esther informed us, they have saved her from many a close call.  The grand prize winner was Jennie Gates Beckman for her rendition of the song, “I am a Latke.”

If you missed the program, you can catch a recording of Esther making latkes with WYPR’s Aaron Hankin tonight at 7:40pm and tomorrow, December 8th at 1:40pm.  As promised last night, below you will find the recipe for Esther’s famous latkes:

Potato Latkes

4 medium potatoes, peeled, slice 1 potato in quarters lengthwise, cut 3 in cubes for your processor, keep in cold water


1 medium sweet onion – cut up

1 tsp salt

1/8 tsp pepper

½ tsp garlic powder

½ tsp baking powder

½ tsp sugar (if potatoes taste slightly bitter)

3 tblsp flour

Vegetable oil for frying


Grate one potato with the grater blade in food processor, put in bowl, put the cubed potatoes in processor and whirl with cutting blade until just chopped, not too fine.  Repeat until all the potatoes are grated.  If watery, place potatoes in strainer and then in your mixing bowl.

Put eggs and onion in blender; whirl to combine, do not leave pieces of onion intact.  Add to that potatoes in the bowl.

Add salt, pepper, garlic powder, baking soda and flour to thicken the batter slightly.

Heat oil in large skillet (or two smaller ones) until a drop of water tells you that oil is hot enough, it will bounce around the oil.  Drop and drag one tblsp potato mixture for each pancake.  The “dragging” with your spoon will leave little “strings” of potato to crisp and make the latkes a little thinner.

Fry crisp and golden brown on all sides.

Wishing you a happy Chanukah from everyone here at the Jewish Museum of Maryland!

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