I first moved up to Tallahassee to be with my now-wife Ann in October of 1992. At the time, Ann’s daughter was seven years old and as accepting of the situation as she could be, most tension assuage by the fact she still saw her father on a regular basis. But I was still anxious to show her that life as she knew it wasn’t going to change too drastically, and that it might even be fun. Hannukah was coming up, so I suggested we go shopping for Ann at the local mall. Erin agreed and we set off for the mall in high spirits. Erin, in those days, was a mischievous little sprite of a girl with dark eyebrows and a glint in her eye that was either piratical or good natured depending on her mood. She would say things like, “I want to be a taxi driver, but if that doesn’t work out I’ll be a doctor or lawyer. And if that doesn’t work out I’ll just be a plain old beauty queen and live at home with my mom.” Once, she said she’d like to be a “scientist of crayons.” For awhile, she used to say twenty minutes was “churney midgets.” She was the cutest little kid I’d ever met, but also tough as all get out. I enjoyed telling her impossible things as fact and getting that little indignant half-smile out of her and the folded arms, which told me she was entertained but she wasn’t buying any of it.
I should perhaps mention now that at the time I didn’t know anything about Hannukah. I had not come across any traces of Hannukah learnin’ in any books I’d read or through any people I’d met. But, being an agnostic, I had no organized faith for Judaism to come into conflict with, and I was eager to learn everything I could. So I was in perhaps an overly receptive state of mind as we entered the mall.
As we shopped for Ann, we eventually encountered the inevitable Santa Claus display, complete with the man in the fake beard ho-ho-ho-ing for the kids. Erin looked at the Santa without comment, but a little later, when we passed a display showing a huge white animatronic bear holding a red wrapped present, she said, “Oh–look. It’s the Hannukah Bear!”
A certain madness seized me. Here was an opportunity to learn something about Jewish culture.
“The Hannukah Bear?” I said. “What’s the Hannukah Bear?”
“You know,” she said, “the Hannukah Bear. It’s the bear that helps light the menorah. It helps with the cooking, too, sometimes.”
“Really?” I said. “I didn’t know that.”
Erin frowned. “You don’t know about the Hannukah Bear. Everybody knows the Hannukah Bear.”
“Okay,” I said, “What else can you tell me about the Hannukah Bear?”
The glint in Erin’s eye intensified and as we walked toward a Walden’s Bookstore, she told me all about the Hannukah Bear. A lot of what she said is lost in the farthest reaches of my sieve-like memory, but I remember that she went into a complex explanation of the Hannukah Bear’s relationship to Hannukah, what it symbolized, where the reference had come from, and a lot of other stuff. Wonderful was the Hannukah Bear! Excellent in all of its intentions and abilities! Why, it even appeared in the night sky sometimes as points of light! It was a beautiful and brilliant concentrated flow of bullshit, of smart assery, that fooled me utterly. I don’t think before or since I’ve heard anyone feed me such a wonderful line of sustained, extemporaneous crap. And I bought it. I bought into it completely.
By the time we got home, I was stuffed full of facts about the Hannukah Bear, and feeling very pleased with myself. I had learned something about Hannukah. It was knowledge I could use when meeting Ann’s synagogue members for the first time. I could even show Ann that I was trying hard to learn about her religion and culture!
Alas, of course, there were instead looks of puzzlement, even concern. Silly, silly goyem…When I realized how completely I’d been fooled, I laughed my ass off. Since I’d arrived in Tallahassee, I’d been fabricating little stories for Erin off and on. She’d just returned the favor, in spades…with a shovel, so I could dig my own grave. It was, as I say, one of the most amazing extemporaneous displays of applied imagination that I’ve ever been privileged to witness.
From then on, it was no-holds barred. Whether it was the pet iguana Erin and I pretended lurked around the house when her timid friends came over to play or the extended “incident” at Chucky Cheese involving the giant rat mascot and an ill-timed kick, we had a series of adventures based almost entirely on riffing off of each other’s imaginations.
Eventually, she became too old to have fun with parental units and those times faded into memory. But the Hannukah Bear story is still a staple of family lore and legend–the event that started it all.