While much of the world – at least the western world – is caught up in preparations for Christmas, for Jewish people today is the first day of Hanukkah (though technically, last night was the first night, as Jewish holidays begin at sundown the night before the calendar date), the centuries-old (it pre-dates Christianity by a couple hundred years) Festival of Lights commemorating the Maccabees’ defeat of the Seleucid Greek army sent by Antiochus, and commemorating the subsequent miracle of the oil.
In modern times, the celebration has also become a time for the not-quite-as-old debate: which is better as a latke topping, apple sauce or sour cream?
I’m not actually Jewish, but for the first several years of my mother and stepfather’s marriage we celebrated – or at least attempted to celebrate – Hanukkah along-side Christmas. I am therefore claiming just enough street cred to allow me to share some of my own experiences with this holiday.
The first year, they kept it simple. After dinner each evening, we’d read a page from a children’s book about the history of Hanukkah, and light a candle (or two, or eight, depending on the day) on the menorah. The book was probably too basic for our twelve- and thirteen-year-old selves, but it was well-written, and with the electric light dimmed and the dinner candles blazing, there was something magical in those paragraphs about a small band of faithful people triumphing over a whole army.
Equally magical to me, with my vivid imagination, was the second part of the story: When Judah Maccabee and his followers went to rededicate their desecrated temple (the Second Temple in Jerusalem) by lighting the menorah, they found that there was only enough oil to keep the flames lit for a single night, but inexplicably, it lasted for eight. (The word Hanukkah, in fact, means “dedication.”)
Of course, being kids, as soon as we’d read the requisite paragraph, we wanted the presents.
In the United States, and to a lesser degree, in Canada and the UK, Hanukkah is often treated like “Jewish Christmas,” and kids get serious gifts, often starting with small ones on the first days, with escalating sizes and prices as the eight-night Festival of Lights goes on. In the rest of the world, however, while Hanukkah is an important celebration, it’s not a high holiday, and the gifts given are all about remembering the miracle – you get “Hanukkah gelt,” which generally consists of small tokens, chocolate, and coins, all of which serve to remind you that the lights of the menorah are meant as memorial lights, not work lights.
In that spirit, my parents gifted us with little things: pencils, markers, bookmarks, and plastic or wooden dreidels (four-sided spinning tops) with the letters nun, gimmel, hey, and shin etched upon them. Those letters represent the core letters of the phrase, nes gadol haya sham – a great miracle happened there – which, I guess, makes them the smallest, least expensive educational toys EVER. (It’s worth noting, by the way, that dreidels used in Israel have a different fourth letter – poh – for “a great miracle happened here.”)
My favorite Hanukkah, though, took place a few years later when we were both in high school. Bubbie (that’s the Yiddish word for “grandmother”) had some to stay for a while, and brought her family’s antique menorah with her, to leave with us. Unlike the traditionally shaped candelabras most of us are familiar with, this one had the spot for the shamash candle at the top, and then the eight others arranged in a single row of holders, all of equal height, below it. It’s old, and heavier than it looks, and really beautiful.
That was also the year she made latkes.
Now, I grew up eating my grandfather’s potato pancakes, but those were just normal pancakes with chunks of cooked potato mixed in. As well, for previous Hanukkahs we’d bought kosher “latke mix” at the grocery store (it’s in the same aisle with tabouleh and falafel mixes) and made those, but Bubbie wouldn’t have that. Instead, this tiny (shorter than me, and I’m five feet tall) grey-haired woman spent an entire afternoon peeling and grating potatoes. By hand.
That may not sound like an arduous task, but having made latkes myself a few years ago, let me assure you that it’s pretty exhausting, even with a food processor, because after you grate the potatoes, you have to press all the moisture out of them, so they’ll stick together. Then you mix them with green onions and a little bit of egg (you can add flour if you have to, but you’re not really supposed to), press them into patties and fry them.
I don’t remember if we had anything else on the table that night – I’m sure we must have – I just remember the flavor of grilled potato, the sweetness of applesauce, the cool smoothness of sour cream, and the faces of my mother, stepfather, stepbrother, and Bubbie looking serene in the soft glow of candles.
We didn’t say a blessing over the menorah that night – I’m pretty sure we never actually said blessings over the candles – but I’m certain some kind of prayer went into the universe from each of our hearts.
Bubbie left this world several years ago, and I no longer have local Jewish friends (or at least, none who actually practice their faith), so I don’t have a reason to celebrate Hanukkah these days. Nevertheless, I’m sure at some point during this week, I’ll light several candles, raise a glass to a small, spunky woman named Miriam who once walked a mile to the podiatrist because her feet hurt, and feed my craving for potato pancakes…with apple sauce AND sour cream.