Braw bricht lichts of Chanucah

By David Aaronovitch, December 13, 2012

So, readers, "Happy Hannukah!" That's what it says on the strange, giant, zinc candlestick near Jack Straw's Castle in Hampstead (for our more observant customers, I ought to explain that Hampstead is a shtetl about 2,500 miles west of Jerusalem and 10 miles south-east of Radlett).

But what do they know? I picked up last week's JC to discover that the real word is actually "Chanucah". And not with a soft "ch" either, but with a great hawking, phlegmy "ch". The implication in the JC's usage being that proper Jewishness requires a full commitment to the guttural, an investment in throatiness, which can help distinguish the true (I suppose we should say, "striving") Jew from the etiolated, weedy version that desires always to make life easier for the goyim.

"Hannukah" is obviously the equivalent of pronouncing "Don Quixote" as if he were a fast-drying wood preservative and not an eccentric, 16th-century, Castilian nobleman. It is a rounding down. A compromise. A bishop's wife could easily-peasily say "Hannukah" at an inter-faith Winterval in Potter's Bar. It's just Hannah with a "nuk". But she'd certainly find it difficult to clear her throat to take her effortlessly into the proper pronunciation. Not without pain.

Words and their pronunciation tell us so much. I may not have been barmitzvah-ed by the chief rabbi, brissed by a Moroccan mohel or divorced by a dayan in a Beth Din, but boy, can I say "challah" in a bread shop. I've had the nice young French assistants in Paul patisserie ducking down in alarm behind the doughnuts with my ferocious challahing. All of a sudden they know they've got someone in there who understands this particular loaf. It's like knowing that bay-gels are for Catholics but that bye-gels are the real Whitechapel deal. It's a badge.

Same with "sch" and "sh". "Sh" is a soft, cowardly shut up, a finger demurely on the lips. "Sch" is in your face. It's like the difference between Ascher and Asher. One is a mensch and the other is a fey, blonde actress. Or you want to really indicate that someone is a bit stupid. A "shmo" is somehow loveable - it doesn't matter that he lost all the deli's takings for a week. A "schmo" is someone you won't be trusting with the receipts again for a long, long time. "Sh" is a sound you can make without teeth. "Sch" is meant. Larry David understood this when writing Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Boy, do I know how to say ‘challah’ in a bread shop

You remember the one where he has to wheedle a kidney transplant out of the Orthodox Jewish hospital chairman? He just adds a "ch" and a "sch" to every second word, especially to anything that sounds like an impending Jewish holiday and he gets his promise of a kidney, which would have been fine if he hadn't ended up alone on a ski-lift with the man's unmarried daughter after dusk, and with only a pair of edible panties to eat.

As someone who is unreligious but who likes to imagine that I am still somehow special, I value these marks of linguistic distinction. So much so, that I think Jews should take more care to extend them to names. "Sacks" is good, for example, but a little short and "Jonathan" is ambiguous. But "Immanuel Jakobovits"? That is a magnificent, bushy beard and short-sighted peer of a name for a Jew. Immanuel Jakobovits is not going to be Irish, is he? Not like Richard Desmond. Or even Stephen Pollard.

I do think that if you're going to be a big cheese in the Jewish community you should have a name to match. As editor of the Chanucah-printing JC, my friend Mr Pollard could easily become Polonsky by deed-poll. And to deserve the title of Britain's Baddest Jew, Desmond should take on Goldfinger.

Anyway, next week I'll be reviewing Anthony Chopkins in Chitchcoch. Till then a very Chappy Chanucah.

Last updated: 5:34pm, December 13 2012