Chanukah, or Hanukkah?

Robert Siegel talks with Rabbi Daniel Zemel of the Temple Micah in Washington D.C. about the holiday Chanukah — or Hanukkah, depending on your taste. They discuss the history of the festival of lights and its multiple transliterations in English. The holiday spelling variety is fodder for a new pop song by a group called the LeeVees.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Last night, Jews lit a candle to mark the first of eight nights of Hanukkah. Hanukkah is a festival, the Festival of Lights. It's not one of the Jewish high holy days. And the music surrounding it is typically cheery.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: This is from a new CD that's the latest contribution to Hanukkah music. It's called "Hanukkah Rocks," by a group called The Leevees. And this song addresses a question about Hanukkah that puzzles Jew and Gentile alike.

(Soundbite from "Hanukkah Rocks")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Is it with a C or H? I am confused. What about those N's and K's? Do you use one or two? I remember when I was back in elementary school, a Spanish kid told me that it starts with a silent J. But Julio was wrong...

SIEGEL: There's so many different ways Hanukkah is spelled in English. I ran some different spellings through Google and I found that the most common spelling there by far is C-H-A-N-U-K-A-H. That spelling produced 2.8 million hits. In second place, the same spelling minus the initial C: H-A-N-U-K-A-H. That turns up 691,000 Google hits.

(Soundbite from "Hanukkah Rocks")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) How do you spell Hannukah?

SIEGEL: The electronic greeting card site, BlueMountain.com and others, go with H-A-N-U-K-K-A-H. That spelling takes the Google bronze with 650,000 hits. And there's some others. A Web site called Judaism 101 goes with C-H-A-N-U-K-K-A-H. Woody Guthrie wrote a couple of songs for the holiday and, at woodyguthrie.org, they use the spelling: H-A-N-U-K-A. That spelling produces 143,000 hits on Google. But that number includes an evidently very talented illustrator named Tomer Hanuka, as well as some mentions of the Jewish holidays in Hungarian. And finally, there is the spelling used by the Jewish Learning Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania and jewishmag.com, among some 110,000 others on Google. That spelling: C-H-A-N-N-U-K-A.

(Soundbite from "Hanukkah Rocks")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...please tell me how do you spell. Ask teachers, ask family, nobody ever knows the answer...

SIEGEL: Well, to answer the questions, `What does Hannukah mean and how do you spell it?' we have called upon Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington, DC. Welcome, Rabbi Zemel.

Rabbi DANIEL ZEMEL (Temple Micah): Nice to be here.

SIEGEL: First, what does Hanukkah mean? And how do you spell it?

Rabbi ZEMEL: The word Hanukkah means dedication and I try and spell it in Hebrew (Hebrew spoken).

SIEGEL: Which settles all arguments...

Rabbi ZEMEL: Right.

SIEGEL: ...right there. It's the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem...

Rabbi ZEMEL: That is correct.

SIEGEL: ...at the end of the revolt of the Maccabees. Why is it we have--you can call it `Yum Kippor' or Yom Kippur, but everyone spells it the same way. Rosh Hashana, may be an H on the end or maybe not. But Hannukah, there's such a variety of ways that people transliterate it.

Rabbi ZEMEL: And I have no explanation for that at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rabbi ZEMEL: I've been thinking about this for 24 hours now. 'Cause there's several different difficult letters in terms of the transliteration. There's the (Hebrew spoken), there's the (Hebrew spoken) and there's the (Hebrew spoken), then there's the (Hebrew spoken) at the end. And all of them have legitimately different variations on how to properly transliterate them.

SIEGEL: So that the (Hebrew spoken) at the beginning, some might say CH, some might say H--some fancy people say H with a dot under it.

Rabbi ZEMEL: With a dot. Correct. The H with a dot is...

SIEGEL: But...

Rabbi ZEMEL: ...kind of fancy--academic kind of way of doing it. CH people want to get the...

(Soundbite of hocking sound)

Rabbi ZEMEL: ...(Hebrew spoken) sounds, right.

SIEGEL: Double N. Now why this? There's only one Hebrew letter (Hebrew spoken), the N sound there. Why make a double N?

Rabbi ZEMEL: That I have no idea.

SIEGEL: No idea for that.

Rabbi ZEMEL: No idea of why there would be a double N at all. Because maybe people want it to be HanNUkah. But the double K can have an explanation. Hebrew has two different ways of making the K sound. OK, so there's a (Hebrew spoken) letter and a (Hebrew spoken) with a dot in it called the (Hebrew spoken). So perhaps for people that know Hebrew, they go with the double K to show that this is the (Hebrew spoken) with the dot in it as opposed to the other Hebrew letter (Hebrew spoken). That's the only possible explanation I could have, which seems like it is some explanation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Better than none in any case. Now at the end of Hannukah, in Hebrew there's the (Hebrew spoken). And this raises the question of whether or not you should have an H at the end.

Rabbi ZEMEL: Yeah, I think there should be an H at the end, because the (Hebrew spoken) in Hebrew closes the word. So I think the H tries to capture that. HanNUkah, with the kind of an extra breath or so at the end of the word. It makes no sense.

SIEGEL: It doesn't really make a lot of sense, does it?

Rabbi ZEMEL: No, it doesn't make any...

SIEGEL: No, no.

Rabbi ZEMEL: But that shows that there's...

SIEGEL: My whole lifetime, too, I've been mystified by this.

Rabbi ZEMEL: Because there's no uniformity in transliteration. I mentioned to your producer that we had a little steering committee in our synagogue this week decide how we would spell it in all of our publications, fliers, religious school materials, newsletter. So I think for the first time in many years, we have--it's a congregation--one uniform spelling this year in everything we're putting out.

SIEGEL: So--but that was an effort.

Rabbi ZEMEL: Right, it was an effort to achieve that.

SIEGEL: It was an effort to achieve that.

Rabbi ZEMEL: Right, yeah, yeah, yeah.

SIEGEL: And what is the spelling the Temple Micah at Washington, DC, is going with?

Rabbi ZEMEL: C-H-A-N-U-K-K-A-H, I believe.

SIEGEL: C-H-A-N...

Rabbi ZEMEL: ...U-K-K-A-H.

SIEGEL: And that, in fact, was--by my finding, that was the fourth most common spelling on Google that we found. The one, indeed, used by Judaism 101.

Rabbi ZEMEL: Perfect. Well, we're at least a Judaism 101 congregation.

SIEGEL: OK. Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington, DC. Thanks a lot for talking with us today.

Rabbi ZEMEL: Oh, thank you so much.

SIEGEL: And (Hebrew spoken)

Rabbi ZEMEL: I was going to say and Happy Hannukah to you.

(Soundbite from "Hannukah Rocks")

SIEGEL: And once again, the song is from the album "Hannukah Rocks" by the Leevees. The band, by the way, is spelled L-E-E-V-E-E-S.

(Soundbite from "Hanukkah Rocks")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) We don't mean to dwell. But how do you spell. Tried spell check and Webster's. Is there an answer to my question? Will someone please tell me how do you spell. Ask teachers, ask family. But nobody ever knows the answer. Someone, anyone, somebody, how do you spell Hannukah?

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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