A Hanukkah Dilemma

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This is the first time since 1959 that the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Day. For some American Jews, this may pose a dilemma — whether to stay home, light a menorah and eat fried potato pancakes — or to honor another tradition — going out for Chinese food and a movie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

We didn't think to ask Mario Batali if he fries potato latkes in olive oil. Those are the traditional Hannukah pancakes just greasy enough to evoke the miracle of the oil. Some of you may be frying them right now. But for many Jews this year poses a bit of a dilemma. It's the first time since 1959 that Hanukkah has begun on Christmas night. Now that's the night many American Jews follow another time-honored tradition, Chinese food and a movie. Randy Cohen is who we typically turn to help us deal with life's tough questions.

So, Randy, are you on the line with us now?

RANDY COHEN (Ethicist, The New York Times): I am.

ELLIOTT: Tell me, what is an American Jew to do tonight?

COHEN: Well, what I've traditionally done is is just what you've described. For many years, Christmas Eve is when I would go to a movie and Woody Allen would always have a movie come out right around then. And for three seconds you could feel like, `Oh, I'm not in a minority here.' It was very exciting. And now we don't know what to do. That--it's what I guess economists call the triple witching hour. I believe Kwanzaa is also going on at the same time. So I think we're supposed to sell all our stocks and bonds as I read this--you know, as a biblical scholar, which I, you know, of course, I am. I--this is a dire warning when all three line up.

ELLIOTT: Why is it that Jews have traditionally left their homes on Christmas Day to go out and eat Chinese food and see a movie.

COHEN: I don't know about the eating Chinese food. I mean, I've traditionally left my home. I think many people traditionally leave their homes on holidays to avoid their families. This is--I think, this is the tradition. That this has been supplanted somewhat by the watching of football, which is a way to avoid your family without actually leaving the room.

ELLIOTT: But Jews have liked Chinese food since biblical times.

COHEN: It's true. It's true. It's from wandering the 40 years in the desert. We were unable to cook and had to make do with takeout and we've come to quite like it.

ELLIOTT: So if you're a good Jew tonight, do you make the potato latkes or do you go order kung pow chicken?

COHEN: If only--you know, I see no reason why it must be one or the other, that--it seems to me that potato latkes go great with kung pow chicken. And if all the countries of the world, if all the nations of the world, if all the peoples of the world could get along as well as kung pow chicken and latkes, the world would be a lovely place.

ELLIOTT: Our own ethicist, Randy Cohen, thank you so much and have a Happy Hanukkah.

COHEN: And to you, Merry Christmas, Debbie.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: This is NPR.

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