FILM

Overdue Thank-You’s, Part Two: To The Laughgivers, Joybringers, and Lightbearers

“This is my charge to you. You are to be a light-bearer. You are to choose the light.”
— Madeleine L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light

It was after noon by the time I dragged myself out of bed on Nov. 9, repacked, loaded the car, and pulled away from parking lot of the hotel on the outskirts of Phoenix, Ariz., bound for my home in Southern California 400 miles away.

Twelve hours earlier, I’d been killing time at the “Democratic Victory Party” in the ballroom of a swankier downtown hotel people-watching and watching election returns come in while I waited for my friend Jen, a longtime Democratic operative who was in town from D.C., helping with GOTV efforts, to turn up for a celebratory drink.

The day before the election, Jen had asked whether any of her friends in California might be willing to drive to Phoenix to help canvass for voters on election day. For most of my adult life, I’ve been a newspaper journalist and such political endeavors were verboten. These days I’m not an officially ink-stained wretch, having lost my newspaper staff position, as so many of my colleagues have, to corporate downsizing, budget cuts, and pathological short-sightedness.

Jen is the kind of friend who could call me out of the blue and say she needed me to shave my head for the greater good of the planet and without hesitating I’d reach for the clippers. I’d voted early in Orange County and had a little free time between freelance and consulting deadlines, so I said yes and quickly prepared for a last-minute, solo road trip — my favorite variety, truth be told — to The Grand Canyon state.

Heading southeast from my home in Laguna Beach (a little blue-hippie island in the midst of otherwise bright red Orange County), I watched the sun rise over the high desert listening to U2’s The Joshua Tree album as I skirted a corner of the national park from whence it took its name. I was going on hour three of attempting to perfectly harmonize with the The Jayhawks’ latest — Paging Mr. Proust — when I pulled into the parking lot of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association union hall in Phoenix (a staging area for GOTV canvassers) a few minutes after noon.

I spent the next five hours or so canvassing a largely Hispanic, working-class neighborhood in southeast Phoenix with a lovely woman named Miranda who had flown down from Los Angeles to volunteer. It was a heartening experience—the people were kind and engaged. More than once we met entire multigenerational families who had voted or were leaving to vote together. Grandmothers and sons and their 18-year-old daughters voting for the first time. It made me proud to be an American and hopeful for the future.

By 9:45 p.m. PST, Miranda had flown back to California, Jen was stuck in fevered meetings with other Democrats somewhere in the bowels of the hotel, and I found myself sitting on the floor of the ballroom staring at the giant TV screens that lined the room and blinking at my smartphone in disbelief. Friends from all over the country and abroad were texting and posting Facebook updates and Tweets about their horror, anger, and fear. The first wave of panic descended, I felt my throat tighten, and my eyes filled with tears. I literally didn’t know what to do. In that moment, I turned to my Twitter feed and saw a post from comedian Patton Oswalt.

It made me laugh. Out loud. In one sentence, Patton shone a light into the darkness. I quickly tweeted a response.

And much to my surprise, Patton, whom I do not know personally but admire greatly, as an artist and a person and a parent, responded:

And I teared up again. Not snot-crying angry or sad tears. Grateful tears.

In that moment, Patton’s extemporaneous words—funny and empathetic, human and inspirational—were the tiny psychic life preserver I needed precisely when I needed it most, as discombobulation that accompanied the reality of the election’s result began to hit us like tsunami of radioactive, face-melting sewage.

I got up, found Jen, had the world’s saddest glass of wine to her tragic beer, took a taxi back to my hotel, snapped at the driver for saying the president elect was “not so bad,” crawled in bed, and eventually fell asleep without turning on the television or opening my laptop. I wanted to pretend what was happening wasn’t happening. Plausible deniability. Blame it on the apnea.

In the morning, I stayed in bed with the black-out curtains drawn as long as I could, pushing the late check-out I’d asked for to its outer limits. Begrudgingly I arose at noon, checked my email, confirmed that my memories of the night before hadn’t been a bad dream, grabbed a coffee in the lobby, and began the long schlep north.

As I mentioned earlier, I love road trips. Always have. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of driving in the early 1970s from Stamford, Conn., to Columbia University in New York City where my father was working on his doctorate, in his Karmann Ghia while we listened to the AM radio—traditional jazz on WGBO or Imus in the Morning on WNBC—and shared a box of Cracker Jacks retrieved from a secret compartment between the cushions of the backseat. Among many wonderful things, my father was hilarious. A dry wit with a face made of elastic. He always made me laugh.

Before Nov. 9, 2016, I can remember only one other road trip where I could not bear to listen to music—it was too evocative and my emotional state too tender—and that was the drive from Washington, D.C., to Connecticut the morning after my father died almost exactly four years before, on November 14, 2012. On that mournful trip I drove in silence for an hour or so before stopping at a Cracker Barrel in Maryland to rent an audiobook for the rest of the journey. Anne Lamott’s novel Imperfect Birds kept me company driving into the night after the unfathomable had happened and I faced a world I literally could not imagine—one without my father in it.

I sat in my car the morning after the election and tried to think about what I could listen to that wouldn’t rattle my nerves further or break my heart even more. If I could have willed or I-Dream-of-Jeannie-blinked my best friend from St. Louis to the passenger seat, I would have. Alas…

Instead, I turned to Audible.com and began perusing. I wanted something funny and a familiar voice. Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes, Please scrolled into view.

Bingo!

For the next 7 hours and 31 minutes, Amy road shotgun with me and it is not an exaggeration to say I don’t know quite how I would have made it home that day without her.

She made me howl with laughter, never more so than when she related the story of losing her shit when faced with an entitled, misogynistic, middle-aged male passenger in first class who whinged that Amy and her traveling companions were too loud.

“All of my lower-middle-class Boston issues rose to the surface. I don’t like it when bratty, privileged old white guys speak to me like I am their mouthy niece. I got that amazing feeling you get when you know you are going to lose it in the best, most self-righteous way. I just leaned back and yelled, “FUUUUUUUUUUUUCK YOU.” Then I chased him as he tried to get away from me.”
— Amy Poehler, Yes, Please

She made me cry when she dropped some truth bombs about pretense, perfectionism, and the creative process:

Authors pretend their stories were always shiny and perfect and just waiting to be written. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver. I wrote this book after my kids went to sleep. I wrote this book on subways and on airplanes and in between setups while I shot a television show. I wrote this book from scribbled thoughts I kept in the Notes app on my iPhone and conversations I had with myself in my own head before I went to sleep. I wrote it ugly and in pieces.”
— Amy Poehler, Yes, Please

She gave me hope:

“A person’s tragedy does not make up their entire life. A story carves deep grooves into our brains each time we tell it. But we aren’t one story. We can change our stories.”
— Amy Poehler, Yes, Please

And Amy showered me with joy by reminding me, on several occasions, of what matters most and brings the brightest light in this life of ours:

“When your children arrive, the best you can hope for is that they break open everything about you. Your mind floods with oxygen. Your heart becomes a room with wide-open windows. You laugh hard every day. You think about the future and read about global warming. You realize how nice it feels to care about someone else more than yourself. And gradually, through this heart-heavy openness and these fresh eyes, you start to see the world a little more. Maybe you start to care a teeny tiny bit more about what happens to everyone in it.”
— Amy Poehler, Yes, Please

It’s been a long 127 days since the election (and an even longer 54 days since the inauguration). Thankfully the initial shock and dismay largely has given way to action and resistance, here in my own little universe and around the globe. Still, there is much work to be done, a lot to bemoan and fight against, and plenty of news (daily, hourly, by the minute) that can wear us down and summon the black dog of despair.

In times such as these, those noble few who bring us laughter—especially when it is the product of incisive commentary or satire (I love you so much, Kate McKinnon, I could hurl from sheer delight)—are even more precious to our republic. Those women and men are lightbearers and joybringers. They are the threads that hold this whole schmatte together.

There is no better example of how humor is essential to keeping this mortal coil thing spinning than HBO’s new semi-autobiographical series Crashing created by Pete Holmes and produced by Judd Apatow—both exceptional joybringers, lightbearers, and deeply menschy guys.

Pete is quite possibly the funniest human I’ve ever met, and he’s also one of the smartest and most empathetic. Crashing is undeniably funny and heartbreakingly poignant in its truth-telling about messy relationships, when inspiration and aspiration collide, and how we manage to keep walking when the world tilts off its axis.

Crashing’s third episode was especially rich as it followed Pete and fellow comedian TJ Miller (on whose couch, or rather giant bean bag, he was crashing in New York City a few weeks after catching his wife in flagrante with another man—“Leif” played by George Basil), on a trip to upstate New York to rescue some of Pete’s belongings from his ex’s elicit tag sale.

In one memorable scene, TJ jovially lays into Jessica for her treatment of Pete and in defense of comedians and comedy, a vocation he deems “noble.”

TJ Miller: What you need to understand is that comedians are the new philosophers.

Pete’s soon-to-be-ex-wife Jessica (Lauren Lapkus): You think you’re a philosopher? Did Socrates ever talk about his nut sweat? Did Plato ever talk about jerking off into a trash can?

TJ Miller: I’ve had fans write me letters about how my podcast saved their life after they split up with their wife. So hopefully something I do will make someone like Pete, who got totally fucked over by you, be able to make it through their day for the next six months instead of giving up on life entirely.
— Season One, Episode 3 of HBO’s Crashing

Like so many of us, I heeded the call to shore up the Fourth Estate by investing in good journalism. I subscribed to magazines and newspapers and magazine and newspaper websites. I donated to the Committee to Protect Journalists and the ACLU and other organizations that defend our free speech, civil rights, and common humanity.

Such endeavors got me thinking about comedy and comedians, and how we need to invest in and shore up our joybringers and lightbearers.

TJ Miller: Comedy is kind of a new religion. You’re traveling, preaching to people this ideology of seeing everything with a smile, ya know? People need it.

Pete Holmes: You think touring comedians are like preachers?

TJ Miller: Yeah. Exactly. Except we’re better than priests because we’re not lying.
— Season One, Episode 3 of HBO’s Crashing

So along with my new subscription to Mother Jones, The Nation and The Guardian, recently I’ve made a conscious effort to invest in comedy and comedians as well, on TV, in actual books and audio books and podcasts and downloads and streaming and in the movie theater.

I’ve also invested in tickets to live performances, where the magic really happens.

I’m lucky enough to live close to Los Angeles where an outing to the theater at the Ace Hotel to see Alec Baldwin interview the marvelous Megan Mullally and her husband (my spirit animal) Nick Offerman for his “Here’s the Thing” podcast or to The Largo to watch Judd or Pete or Patton (I was too slow on the uptake this month and Patton’s gig is sold out, but there’s always next month…) or Tig Notaro or Sarah Silverman or Louie Anderson (if you haven’t seen Baskets yet, do—Louie playing Zach Galifianakis’ mother is a REVELATION) is within the realm of fairly regular possibility.

But you don’t have to live near LA or New York or Chicago to see live comedy. Support your local lightbearers. Check the websites of your favorite joybringers to see when they’ll be nearby. Comedians get around.

So this is my long-winded way of saying thank you to the people who have helped me survive the Drumpocalypse, other tragedies and traumas the preceded it, and more than occasionally set a fire under my ass to be an agent for change, to resist and persist, and to keep laughing.

I think it was Ms. Lamott who said, “Laughter is carbonated holiness.”

She wasn’t wrong.

Thanks for that, Annie.

And thank you, Amy.

And Patton.

And Kate. And Melissa “Spicey” McCarthy, while we’re at it.

And Petie Pants. And TJ. And Artie Lang. And Lauren. And George.

And Judd.

And Alec. And Megan. And Nick.

And Zach. And Louie. And Martha Kelly.

And all y’all lightbearers and joybringers.

May you always have plenty of both.

Becoming King: How David Oyelowo Prepared Spiritually for “Selma”

Editor’s Note: A few days before the magnificent new film Selma opened in wide release Friday, Jan. 9, 2015, I had the chance to speak with the British actor David Oyelowo who portrays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the film.  Born in Oxford, England to Nigerian parents, Oyelowo, 38, was raised in the Baptist church. His Christian faith continues to be a driving force of his life and work. Below is a transcript of our conversation about faith, film, Dr. King, and the extraordinary Selma. ~ CF


Cathleen Falsani: I heard that when you first read the script for Selma, you felt that God meant it for you. Please tell me a bit more about that story.

David Oyelowo: I felt God tell me … no, I know God told me. God told me I was going to play this role in this film.

The reason I have been quite vocal about that is because, in all honesty, I wouldn’t cast me as King — certainly not seven-and-a-half years ago. It was on July 24, 2007 that I felt God tell me that — I know the date because I wrote it down. It was so strange. Of course I knew who Dr. King was, but I had never watched him, heard him, and certainly never felt that, ‘Oh yeah, that’s someone I should play at some point as an actor.’ But I just knew it.

I know God’s voice. It’s the same voice that told me to marry my wife, it’s the same voice that gave me the names of all of my children. I know that voice and it has never failed me in my literal life and in my spiritual life.

So I proceeded to put myself on tape for the director who was attached [to the film] at that point. And then much to my chagrin and surprise, he didn’t agree with God on that one. And so I didn’t get cast in 2007. It wasn’t until 2010 that I did get cast.

In the meantime I went on this amazing journey that just continually confirmed for me that God had called me to do this. I played a Union soldier in Lincoln, and American fighter pilot in Red Tails, I played a preacher in The Help and then I played the son of a butler in The Butler. And even though I was British and that was one of the reasons why I thought I can’t play Dr. King,  but God gave me these opportunities that taught me what it was like to be an African American in this country over the last 150 years — from Lincoln [set] in 1865 to The Butler that went all the way up until Barack Obama’s election.

So yeah, then you look at the divine timing of the film dropping at this time in American history. I can absolutely trace the divine nature of this.

David Oyelowo (center) as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in "Selma."
David Oyelowo (center) as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in “Selma.”

CF: Isn’t it a gift when we’re able to see that thread running through? It’s not often that we get such a clear glimpse of God’s plan, I suppose.

DO: I have to be honest — it’s only retrospectively that I can look back on it and see it. There were many frustrating moments when I thought, Did I hear right? I know how Moses must have felt in the wilderness.

CF: Tell me a bit about how and if you spiritually prepared yourself for this role and for the performance. Is there anything different you did this time than you’d done for other roles?

DO: Absolutely. I’ve never approached any other role the way I approached this. Because I always knew that I couldn’t do this on my own.

One of the things I spotted early on was that when you see Dr. King giving a speech, that is a human being absolutely flowing in their anointing. That is someone who is taken up by something other than themselves. I know it because I have had glimpses of it myself when I’m flowing in a spiritual space that transcends my soul. And I felt the only way to play Dr. King was to do all the preparation I could, and then just trust that if God truly has called me to do this, He is going to come alongside my talent, alongside all that I am doing in the way of work, and make it more than I could make it on my own.

I truly felt every day on that set that something other than me flowed through me. There were times I felt God lifting me through scenes. There were times when bizarrely — and it almost flies in the face of my own theology, really —but I felt Dr. King very close to me in the playing of the role. And the only way I knew that it could ever possibly happen was for me to be open to it, for me to sort of let go of the reins and hope that that openness allowed something other than me to flow through me.

So it was absolutely different. I don’t normally do that. I’m normally a control freak. So letting go was what I needed to do and what I think, certainly, is something I will try to apply going forward.

I know God’s voice. It’s the same voice that told me to marry my wife, it’s the same voice that gave me the names of all of my children. I know that voice and it has never failed me in my literal life and in my spiritual life.

~ David Oyelowo

CF: It’s a wonderful lesson to learn, although it’s terrifying to let go of those reins. But I know that when I do, something really magnificent can happen, something far bigger and greater than I ever could have hoped for on my own.

DO: Right. Exactly.

CF: I visited the Selma set in Montgomery last summer and had a chance to speak to [the actor] Wendell Pierce [who portrayed civil rights leader Hosea Williams] and a few others and watch some of the filming. Oddly enough, one of my roommates from college [Elizabeth Diane Wells who portrays Marie Reeb, the wife of slain Boston minister the Rev. James Reeb] has a small role in the film. She is a person of faith. I know Wendell is a person of faith, as are a number of other people in the film including Oprah Winfrey and yourself. I wonder whether there was a different kind of a vibe on the set? What was the spiritual vibe like while you were filming in Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and other places?

DO: A hundred percent there was — we all went to church together. There was a lot of praying together, especially before some of the tougher scenes. And [the director] Ava  [DuVernay] was very picky in terms of the people she had around the film. I think she knew, I think we all knew, that this couldn’t feel like just another gig to people.

This was a spiritual endeavor because these were spiritual people and the engine for what they did was their spirituality. King and his band of brothers were largely made up of preachers. And the philosophy of nonviolence, the philosophy of love in the face of hate, was born out of their Christian faith.

It’s one thing to talk about that, it’s another thing to be able to project it truthfully. I don’t think it was an accident that most of the people on the set, certainly when it comes to the actors, were Christians or people who had been raised that way so they had a frame of reference for it.

It absolutely does affect the film you’re watching because what sometimes happens in Hollywood, when Hollywood tries to make a film about or that has faith as a part of it, that is written by or is being portrayed by people who don’t believe in what they’re doing, it shows.

And it feels inauthentic, and it feels, actually, patronizing. It feels like you’re almost making fun of faith because if you don’t believe it, you cannot truly —I don’t believe you can enter into it in a way that feels truthful and powerful.


CF: What I find really interesting in having watched the film now several times is that it’s mighty spiritually, but when I first saw it, I wasn’t thinking about the spiritual heft. I was thinking about Dr. King as a young man — as a human — in a way that I don’t think I had before. He’s almost this mythic character, certainly in the American consciousness, but here I saw a man who was just a young man, a man who was faulted and fragile, but who was brave and courageous, and allowed himself to be used by God.

I felt the only way to play Dr. King was to do all the preparation I could, and then just trust that if God truly has called me to do this, He is going to come alongside my talent, alongside all that I am doing in the way of work, and make it more than I could make it on my own.

~ David Oyelowo

DO: That’s exactly what we set out to do. I think that when you read the Bible, when you read about David, when you read about Joseph, when you read about Moses — when you read about all of these incredible human beings that God chose to shine a light on in his world, they were all fallible and yet they did great things.

And the great things they did were when they surrendered and let their calling dictate their steps. But the reason they are in the Bible is because they are us. We are all, we all know what it is like to have hope deferred. We all know what it is like to battle against our own sin. But what is truly transcendent about us as human beings is the fact that we are human and yet there are these moments, these times when God flows through us, and we are transcendent. And that’s what the combination of God and us leads to. And that is what you see so, I think, powerfully in the film.

I love the moment after Bloody Sunday when Dr. King calls for “people of faith” to come and join him. Because he knows that in order for this to be successful you cannot have people who are coming with anger, bitterness, and those who just want to riot and perpetuate strife.

What is truly powerful is love in the face of hate. That is the best of us as people, when we operate in sacrificial love. And that is the kind of thing that we were very keen on showing in the film. And I am very glad to say I think we really were successful in that.

CF: You did and you were. It’s quite eloquent in that manner and the story that you sayDr. King is telling in the film is the same story you yourself are telling as an actor and as artist. I thank you for that and I thank you for this film. I think it’s going to have long-lasting and far-reaching spiritual and cultural heft.

DO: Oh, bless you.

CF: Bless you too, David.

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How Harrison Ford helped me explain Hanukkah to My 10 year old

Last week, the postal carrier dropped off two boxes from Amazon.com filled with DVDs of Christmas movies. Among them were “Polar Express,” “The Nativity Story,” and two boxed sets of the Rankin/Bass stop-motion animation TV specials I grew up with in the 1970s.

The new DVDs added to our already enormous Christmas movie collection. It’s our 10-year-old son’s first American Christmas and when it comes to that holiday and all of its stories, secular and sacred, we’ve got the bases covered.

But some of our closest family friends are Jewish and we’re want Vasco to know about Hanukkah, too. Unfortunately, when it comes to Hanukkah movies, the pickings are maddeningly slim.

We’ll probably show him Adam Sandler’s goofy animated flick, “Eight Crazy Nights” and, in a few years, maybe we’ll let him watch the racier “The Hebrew Hammer.”
There are a few child-oriented Hanukkah films out there but our son is used to the production quality of “Finding Nemo” and the Harry Potter epics, so hand puppets and low-budget animation just won’t fly.

The folks at the Sesame Street Workshop’s “Shalom Sesame” series, which explores Jewish and Israeli culture and history, have a Hanukkah special, which I’ve ordered, but that skews a bit young for a fourth grader.

Vasco already knows what a menorah is and is fascinated by the enormous dreidel erected at a public park nearby, but it has been a challenge explaining what Hanukkah is all about without the help of his favorite medium: movies.

We want him to know that Hanukkah, like Christmas, is not just about getting gifts and lighting lights. There is a powerful spiritual story behind the superficial cultural retellings the winter holidays receive.

For those of you who could use a little help, here is a short version of the Hanukkah story:

About 2,200 years ago, the Jewish people were living in Israel under the rule of Greco- Syrian kings. One of those kings, Antiochus Epiphanes, a particularly nasty fellow, forbade the Jews to practice their religion and tried to force them to worship Greek gods. When they refused because it was idolatry and forbidden by God, he killed them.

The nasty king even installed a statue of the Greek god Zeus in the Jew’s Holy Temple in Jerusalem and, as was the custom in Greek worship, sacrificed a pig on its altar. Having had enough of the terror, Judah Maccabee, the son of a Jewish priest, and his four brothers led a revolt against their oppressors and, after three years and against all odds, they managed to drive the Greco-Syrians out of Judea. It was their faith and obedience to God, the story goes, that led them to victory.

The Jews set about cleaning and recon-secrating their holy temple and needed to keep an oil lamp lit day and night as part of the ritual. But they only had enough oil for one day, and it would take another week to press olives for more. Miraculously, the lamp in the temple with barely enough oil for one day stayed lit for eight.

On Hanukkah, which comes from the Hebrew word that means “dedicated,” Jews around the world light a menorah for eight nights to remember that miracle and the victory of the Maccabees over their oppressors.

That’s a little difficult to explain to a 10-year-old who’s still learning English.

But there’s something essential in there that he can grasp. Hanukkah is about having the courage and the faith to live and be who you are supposed to be amidst a culture that says you shouldn’t or can’t.

Oppression is something that he can understand. Each of us has experienced the heavy mantle of oppression whether in huge, systematic ways or small, personal dramas.

Having the faith and the chutzpah to be who God made you to be when you’re being pressured to do otherwise or are living among people who don’t understand you or put you down because you’re not the same as them is a universal experience.

When that Hanukkah story became clear to me, I realized we already owned the perfect movie and had recently watched it.

It’s not new, high-tech or edgy. Pixar isn’t involved, and there is no accompanying line of children’s tchotchkes that Vasco wanted to run out to Target to buy.

The best film I can recommend to parents and children this Hanukkah is the 1979 flick “The Frisco Kid,” starring Gene Wilder and and a very young Harrison Ford.

Set around the turn of the 20th century, Wilder plays Avram, a Jewish rabbi from Poland who is dispatched to the United States to serve a new synagogue in San Francisco.

Avram is a righteous, if terribly naive, man, and his cross-country journey is jeopardized by three con men who beat him, steal all his money and toss his Torah scroll from a covered wagon after pocketing the silver tass, or breastplate, that decorated the front of its velvet cover.

Ford’s character Tommy, a bank robber with a decent heart, befriends Avram and accompanies him to San Francisco, fending off all manner of obstacles and enemies. Throughout the sometimes life-threatening journey, Avram consistently makes difficult decisions to do the right thing, according to his faith, and not the easier thing.

The rabbi refuses to ride his horse on the Sabbath until the sun sets, even though he and Tommy are being pursued by a lynch mob. God seemingly rewards his faithfulness and they get away.

Along the way the rabbi and the robber become friends, and we learn a lot about Judaism, ethics and the faith that it takes to do what you’re supposed to do just because it’s right. “Come here chicken, I’m not gonna hurt you, I just want to eat you,” a near-starving Avram says in one scene, chasing his would-be dinner. “I don’t wanna hurt you, I just want to make you kosher.”

Trust me on this one. Try “The Frisco Kid.”

You might learn a little something — about Judaism or perhaps about being your highest and best self in the midst of turmoil.

Surely you’ll have a few laughs and that will make for a very Happy Hanukkah.