Hanukkah? Chanukah? Spellcheck, please

December 1, 2010

By Odette Yousef

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Photo by Joseph Palmer

Tonight marks the beginning of the Jewish Festival of Lights. That's Hanukkah. Or… Chanukah? What is the right way to spell it, anyway? “I spell Chanukah C-H-A-N-U-K-A-H,” said Esther Sabo, manager of Tel Aviv Kosher Bakery on Devon Avenue. “I spell it that way because the calendar spells it that way, and I don't know the right way to spell it.” That may be the case for more people than are willing to admit. Rifle through local Jewish newspapers and you’ll find plenty of variation – one way in news copy, and other ways in sponsored advertisements.

Peggy Pearlstein, head of the Hebraic department in the African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress, takes her guidance from more academic sources. “I spell Hanukkah H-A-N-U-K-K-A-H,” Pearlstein said over the phone from Washington, DC, “which is the way the Library of Congress spells it when it romanizes it from the Hebrew.” Pearlstein added that the Library’s database does cross-reference between the different variations, however. Search with the spelling one way, and results come up from all the possible spellings.

“Technically speaking, it's K-H,” said Rabbi Michoel Feinstein of Green Bay, Wisconsin, “though I don't think that that's practically used.” Feinstein and his mother were stocking up on Kosher groceries at a far North Side grocery store. Feinstein himself spells it ‘C-H-A-N-U-K-A-H,’ emphasizing the guttural ‘H’ at the beginning of the word. But he shrugs off the discrepancies good naturedly: “You can spell it however you want as long as you make merry, and as long as you light the lights, and as long as you spin the dreidel, and celebrate with your family. That's the most important thing.”