12/15/2011 02:45 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2012

Finally, The Right Way To Spell The December Jewish Holiday

There has long been a war brewing in America over a December religious holiday and no, I don't mean the silly non-issue "War on Christmas." I'm talking about the heated debate that has pitted brother against brother, rabbi against gabbai: The Hubbub Over How to Spell the Jewish Festival of Lights."

Every year around this time we at the Jewish Outreach Institute receive several "correct spelling" requests for the holiday's name, usually from well-meaning grade-school teachers who want to present a multicultural front for the inevitable celebrating of Christmas in their public schools. My answer to them is always the same. Yes, there is only ONE way to spell the holiday's name, and that is: חנוכה.

If that last word looks like gibberish, it's because the name of the holiday is in Hebrew, and that's how you spell it in Hebrew (unless you use vowels; long story, let's not go there). The spelling difficulties only happen when you try to transliterate the word into the Latin alphabet that we use to write English. That's when you end up with Chanukah, Chanukkah, Hanukah, Hanoooka, etc....

Because Jews are in no way an argumentative people, let's settle this thing once and for all. I propose the correct spelling of the holiday is:


This isn't a random suggestion. Beginning the word with an "H" rather than a "Ch" is the more inclusive spelling, and inclusiveness is paramount to today's Jewish community now that there are more intermarried than in-married households in America. With more people of other religious backgrounds attending Hanukkah celebrations than ever before, it's important to find ways to help them feel welcome and avoid embarrassment. The phlegmy rolling h at the beginning of Hanukkah is very problematic for newcomers. For example, spiritual seekers who are considering Judaism often cite the rolling h as the third largest barrier to conversion, after circumcision and chopped liver. (OK, I made that up but it sounds believable, right?)

Beginning the word with "Ch" can cause people to sound-out the first syllable as "cha," as in the cha-cha dance. This really happens. As a youngster watching TV, my friends and I caught a well-respected local anchorman wish his viewers a "Very Merry Christmas and Happy Cha-nuka," using the cha-cha sound. Despite his long and distinguished news career, and that he was probably just reading off a teleprompter letter-by-letter, my friends and I mocked him mercilessly and forever after -- not to his face of course, we never met the guy, but the point is: had the teleprompter just read "Hanukkah" instead of "Chanukah," his stellar news career would have remained untarnished in the eyes of several 14-year-old Staten Island boys.

There is simply no rolling h sound in English. Spelling it with the "Ch" is a nod only to those who already know how to roll their hs, and since they already know, they'll do it anyway, even if you spell it just with an "H." Nobody sounds silly saying it with a flat "ha" rather than the rolling h sound; it's worth it to avoid any cha's.

As for the rest of "Hanukkah," I believe in the two ks because it better fosters the glottal stop. And the "h" at the end confirms a soft "a" (uh) rather than hard (ay). Not that anyone ever said "Hanukkay" -- but better safe than sorry!

Finally, my closing argument: it's how Wikipedia spells it. Debate over!