When I was little, and the checkout lady at the grocery store would say "Merry Christmas" as we paid for the bill, I would snap back "Happy Hanukah!". Years later I learned to drop the sarcasm and would merely smile weakly instead. It's hard for the majority of America to remember that there are other cultures in their midst - can I really blame them?
I love Passover, with its careful rituals and symbolic food. I love Rosh Hashana, with apples and honey to ring in the New Year, and Yom Kippur with its solemn promise of new beginnings and holy requirement of the fast. I even love yarmulkes for their representation of equality, for which there is no holiday but that they make their presence at every holiday. My relationship with Hanukah is slightly more complicated.
Hanukah is a catch-22. When America wishes me a Merry Christmas, I am hurt that they have forgotten Hanukah. When America remembers and wishes me a Happy Hanukah, I am hurt that they have forgotten Passover. Hanukah, of all of the Jewish holidays, is the least important. Hanukah is what we Jewish people celebrate to prevent our children from celebrating Christmas. Hanukah, for me, has been an ironic joke: while I can appreciate the motivation behind the larger than life Menorah sitting out on the New Haven central park this December, I can also smile weakly and remember that America will never understand Passover, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, yarmulkes, Sukkot, Mitzvahs, the Kiddush, or Shabbat.
So, this year, I am torn for celebrating both Hanukah and Christmas. I could analyze it all to death, I could try to "make a stand" and not light the Menorah this year, refuse a Christmas tree altogether, or tell the checkout lady really why her "Merry Christmas" bothers me, but honestly... when I put the candles in their right spots and I say the prayer, I am at peace. I am remembering my childhood, the little Menorah that was all mine, wax everywhere and the sound of the match striking its flame. I am remembering how many people I have explained the story of Judah and the Maccabees to, and how many times it all made our parents smile. Hanukah, whether I like it or not, is tradition, and I can smile with strength in knowing that on these 8 days, across the US, Jewish people are united in knowing we are not alone in what is generally speaking a mostly Christian nation.
Potato Latkes, a basic primer
Makes ~6 3" latkes
You can use any amounts you wish, and you can vary the type of potato and spices. Sometimes I skip the draining step and parboil the grated potato instead - those latkes will cook quicker and be more tender, but, having lost of all of their starch, they won't stick together very well.
2 starchy potatoes (Russett)
2 tbsp flour
*This Hanukah, I used 1/2 tsp salt, 2 tbsp stone ground mustard, and ~1 tbsp smoke paprika (perhaps to remind myself of my Hungarian roots). Alternately: salt, pepper, chives, onion, garlic, curry, sage, celery salt, etc. Anything tastes good with potatoes.
- Peal and then grate the starchy potatoes with a large box grater. Let the potato gratings rest for a few minutes. Squeeze out all of the moisture. Let them rest a few more minutes. Squeeze out every bit of water you can.
- Lightly beat the egg and stir together all of the ingredients with the potato gratings.
- Preheat a well seasoned pan on medium-high heat with a light layer of vegetable oil.
- Plop ~1-2 heaping tablespoons of Latke mixture on the hot pan and spread out so the latke is thin without having any holes. Don't touch the latke for at least 2 minutes (it needs to cook a bit to firm up). Fry each latke for at least 3-4 minutes on each side. It may take longer, depending on how large your potato gratings were - make sure to test a latke to be sure they are soft throughout.
- Serve piping hot** with chopped scallions, sour cream, applesauce, and, if you're me at age 13, ketchup.
** Latkes keep well on a cooling rack in a 200 degree oven.