There isn't much we can say to explain the imagery in "Who Stole Hanukkah?," a 1997 CD-ROM game. (Screenshot/YouTube)
There isn't much we can say to explain the imagery in "Who Stole Hanukkah?," a 1997 CD-ROM game. (Screenshot/YouTube)

During the web’s infancy, exploring Hanukkah virtually was clunky and a bit miraculous

Hanukkah has been celebrated for millennia, but once you read some articles from our archives, you start to wonder: How did we ever manage to enjoy the holiday before we owned home computers?

The new and innovative wonders of Hanukkah on the web delighted J. as they unfolded in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“With the creation of an online Jewish community, the Chanukah season now is acquiring new traditions,” web columnist Ari Davidow wrote in 1990.

In the early online community The Well, when dial-up modems ruled, the Jewish message boards were full of Hanukkah chatter, he said. The conversations started with sharing dreidel rules, spun off into party planning and ended with versions of the Maccabee story.

In this 2001 Hanukkah ad, Federation asks, "Not online yet?" (Screenshot/J. Archives)
In this 2001 Hanukkah ad, Federation asks, “Not online yet?” (Screenshot/J. Archives)

“Each participant has some individual ‘spin,’ of course, and the result usually differs in many ways from the story as taught in school,” he wrote. “Some versions reflect current events in Israel, or changes in people’s lives. This year, with the rise in hate crimes on our minds, the telling is somewhat focused on anti-Semitism and intolerance.” (Some things never change.)

In 1995, we recommended new “multimedia software” for Hanukkah with “lively music, games and colorful graphics.”

“Some parents might feel odd about their children celebrating Chanukah on the computer when they could be performing the same rituals with real objects. Yet it is important to remember that computer programs can effectively simulate live action and in the process help children learn about these activities,” Brad Lakritz wrote in our pages. (The “Chanuka Festival of Lights” program was apparently created with input from the Berkeley Richmond JCC. If anyone remembers using it, let us know!)

Two years later, parents could purchase a “whodunit” software game for the holiday.

“What do Mademoiselle Menorah, Crystal the Fortune Teller, the Latke Troll, Schlemiel the synagogue repairman and Groucho Cat have in common? These sophisticated, full-color, claymation figures are all suspects in a daring make-believe Jewish caper,” Lakritz — still on the Hanukkah software beat — wrote about the “Who Stole Hanukkah” CD-ROM in 1997.

“The mystery begins as the world-famous historian Professor Croak gazes at his prized archeological possession, the Temple oil jar, while sipping a cup of tea. Suddenly, the lights go out, loud noises blast the night air and when the lights come back on, the jar is missing.”

This game is long gone, but you can watch an entire play-through on YouTube, along with hilarious comments from people who loved it as kids.

In a 2001 column, Mark Mietkiewicz toured what was still called the “World Wide Web” to discover latke recipes, get a glimpse of latke-centric humor and join a classic latkes vs. hamantaschen debate. He listed recipes far beyond the standard.

Those included health-conscious versions of the fare. “What to do if you love latkes but not the fat? The American Institute for Cancer Research suggests trying a no-oil Lean Latke.”

If that didn’t sound tempting, there were plenty of other options, though some seemed pretty strange: “The Jewish Food LATKE archives have more than 100 varieties to tempt you: everything from brandied apple, beet, cheese, chickpea and sweet potato, cod fish, savory meat, Viennese layer to zucchini with garlic and yogurt mint topping.”

In 2001, James Besser took readers on a tour of the holiday online: “Check out what the Webniks have designed for Chanukah!” The tour started with Chabad, an organization that’s always been quick to adopt new tech. (Just over 20 years later, J. wrote about Chabad in the metaverse.)

“A lot of Jewish organizations seem to dismiss Chanukah as a kind of pseudo-Christmas, and give it short shrift on their Web sites; the Lubavitch Web folks give it all-out cyber-treatment,” Besser wrote. “Here you’ll find all the basics, including the Chanukah story, games, multimedia features and recipes for the calorie-rich jelly doughnuts that are so much a part of the Chassidic tradition. Make sure your health insurance premiums are paid up before eating these things.”

Another option Besser mentioned was the History Channel’s Hanukkah page, where you could “click on ‘Amazing Chanukah Feats’ for some truly offbeat information. Here you’ll be able to learn the truth about feats of daring such as the 16-foot dreidel built by students at Rutgers University, kids who obviously have too much time on their hands.”

In 2002, Mietkiewicz was back with the top eight reasons to “check out Chanukah online.”

Reason No. 6 was greeting cards: “Leave it to the Internet to let you send greeting cards to friends around the world, instantly. There are several sites where you can e-mail colorful postcards with a personalized message accompanied by music.”

As amusing as it is to look back on the internet’s infancy, the web has always been at its best when it has served as a vehicle for true connection. As online columnist Davidow wrote in 1989, “For some, the computer-modem connection is their only, tenuous link with the Jewish community at large. But for everyone, it is a way to share the festivity and celebration and to receive support and reassurance that being Jewish is something very special.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.