Nick at Dawn

If it sounds like Chanukah and looks like Purim, there must be chocolate involved.

by David Holzel

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I’m thinking about the old Woody Allen routine
where he’s hired by a company as its token Jew. He wants to succeed so he tries to be as conspicuously Jewish as possible, even reading his memos from right to left. In the end, though, he’s fired for taking off too many Jewish holidays.

Is there really such a thing as too many Jewish holidays? How long should one go without the chance to partake some wonderfully delicious and exceedingly caloric holiday delicacy? Or without repeating some ritual or tradition that takes you back to your sepia-tinted childhood? How long should a body be made to endure without these spiritual nourishments?

This is a leap year, according to the ancient Jewish calendar. Unlike the civil calendar’s leap year, Jewish calendars add a leap month, so we end up with two months of Adar—the first month of Adar followed by the real month of Adar. You know it’s the real Adar because Purim falls on its 14th day (March 25, 2005), preceded by the fast of Esther on the 13th. On the 13th and 14th of the first month of Adar there is bupkes.

I have found a way out of this holiday-deprived situation. I discovered it in the ancient annals of our people. The holiday is called Nicanor Day. And it’s going to be big.

Think of Nicanor Day as a cross between Chanukah and Purim—combining the farcical mood of Purim with the history of the Maccabees. Nicanor was a Syrian general of the Hellenistic persuasion who battled Judah and the Maccabees at Beit Horon in 161 BCE. That was three years after the Jewish victory over King Antiochus that brought us Chanukah. The battle against Nicanor took place of the 13th day of Adar — the day before Purim.

The origin of Nicanor Day is described briefly in the first and second books of the Maccabees, in the history of Josephus Flavius, and by the rabbis of the Talmud in Tractate Ta'anit 18b.

Here’s what the Talmud says: Every day [Nicanor] waved his hand against Judah and Jerusalem and exclaimed, "When shall it fall into my hands that I may trample upon it?"

Trample indeed. If Nick had learned what I learned in Hebrew school about those brave and mighty Maccabees, he would likely have spent the spring of 161 BCE cooling his heels in Damascus, instead of parking his tent outside Jerusalem and waving his arms like he was hailing a cab. If he knew anything at all about the people he was up against, he would have realized that the middle of Adar is an awfully inauspicious time for enemies of the Jews.

But he didn’t. And when the battle was joined on the morning of the 13th—and who says irony is a post-modern invention?—Nick was the first to go down. This did not sit well with his army, which chose that moment to flee. Then—and this is the fun part that shouldn’t be left out of our Nicanor Day observances—then, according to the second book of Maccabees, Judah hung the head of Nicanor from the citadel as clear and evident proof of the help of the Lord.

Finally, says the first book of Maccabees, The people rejoiced greatly and ordained that this day should be observed annually on 13 Adar.

So why isn’t it? And more to the point, what’s that solemn Fast of Esther doing on the 13th where rowdy Nicanor Day is supposed to be?

Nicanor Day is a genuine holiday, with the authenticity that festivals like "National Hug Your Insurance Carrier Day" lack.

Some years ago, greatly vexed, I went looking for an answer. I spoke to David Williams, an expert on ancient Israel at the University of Georgia. "At some point there was a major change,'' he said. "First you had a great celebration'' (Nicanor Day) in which fasting was actually forbidden — "then you had a fast.''

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, in his book "Seasons of Our Joy," suggests Nicanor Day fell out of vogue once the rabbis — who were by and large at odds with the descendants of the Maccabees — became the leading party of the Jewish community in Israel. Tagging the Fast of Esther to the day before Purim was merely the last nail in Nicanor's already well-hammered coffin.

Or, Dr. Williams suggested, it might have been King John Hyrcanus, a descendant of the Maccabees, who shoved old Nick aside in favor of Purim. Why? "Perhaps to deflect attention from Judah's victory to his own time. Or he wanted a wider celebration.'' Purim, on the surface a Diaspora holiday, would attract the attention of Jews from outside Israel as well as in.

Or it may never have been celebrated at all.

In any case, it’s time to start celebrating Nicanor Day, a genuine holiday with the ring of authenticity that festivals like "National Hug Your Insurance Carrier Day" lack. Now we can't very well give the Fast of Esther the boot. The sista saved our people, after all. So why not celebrate Nicanor's gruesome beheading on the 13th of the first Adar? That will be February 22, 2005—you can combine it with your celebration of George Washington's birthday.

Of course, if this is to be a real Jewish holiday, we’ll need a treat that is as unique to Nicanor Day as hamantashen is to Purim or Chinese food is to Christmas. Chocolate Nicanor heads come immediately to mind. Or maybe to emphasize the late-winter aspect of the holiday—white chocolate.

For a time-honored ritual to be performed with appropriate solemnity there is that famous hand waving. Perhaps that will be followed by a procession of children around the sanctuary. To give the festivities a taste of Purim the little ones could be wearing costumes—the boys as Judah or Nicanor, the girls as Mrs. Nicanor. Or the Powerpuff Girls.

Greeting cards could be sent. Gifts exchanged. A traditional Nicanor Day meal of sushi could be partaken of. Nicanor Day could turn a heretofore-empty leap month into a marketer’s dream.

These are only rough outlines. The full glory of Nicanor Day will only be revealed as every man, woman and child takes into his or her heart the message this day teaches and the miracle that unfolded therein:

You shouldn’t talk with your hands so much.

Ó Copyright 2003 by David Holzel

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