The Power of Latkes: A Shiksa's First Hanukkah
I celebrated my first Hanukkah eight years ago, back before I converted to Judaism when I was really and truly a shiksa (aka a non-Jewish woman). I had studied Judaism a bit in college, but I didn’t have any practical experience when it came to Jewish food or holiday traditions. Meanwhile, my fiancé is as Jewish as they come. He was born and raised in Israel, the birthplace of Judaism, by two Jewish parents and a rabbi grandfather. He grew up spinning dreidels and eating sufganiyot (Hanukkah jelly doughnuts). I grew up singing Christmas carols and hanging stockings by the chimney with care.
Needless to say, I was slightly out of my element.
As we grocery shopped for our holiday meal, I asked my fiancé why the word Hanukkah is sometimes spelled with an H and sometimes a CH (as in Chanukah). He explained to me that there's a letter in the Hebrew alphabet called chet for which there is no direct translation. He patiently taught me how to make the glottal chet sound, which is kind of like the noise you make when you're clearing phlegm from your throat. I had great fun with that, and for the rest of the day I worked the chet sound into as many conversations as possible…
"Can you chelp me grate this chorseradish?"
"Chanukkah cooking is chard work!”
That Hanukkah was one of the first times I tried my hand at cooking a kosher holiday meal. My fiancé doesn’t keep strictly kosher, but I’ve never been one to do things halfway. If we were going to cook a Jewish meal, it would be traditional, delicious, and as kosher as I could make it. I combed through cookbooks and borrowed recipes from friends, hoping to fashion a kosher menu that any bubbe (Jewish grandmother) would be proud to serve. After careful consideration I decided to cook a braised beef brisket, green bean salad, homemade applesauce, and a time-honored Hanukkah favorite: latkes (fried potato pancakes).
I had never cooked latkes before, so I decided to cook a “test run” earlier in the day -- sort of like a latke dress rehearsal. It was a disaster. The potatoes fell apart and disintegrated in the hot oil, leaving behind a blackened mess. Frustrated, I turned to Google for latke support. After reading a few kosher cooking forums, I learned that you have to squeeze the potato shreds to drain them of as much moisture as possible. After reassembling my ingredients and wringing them out manically to get rid of the moisture, I tried my latke luck again. Success! The latkes were saved, and just in time, too. The sun was starting to set, and our guests were arriving for the lighting of our first menorah candle.
We light the menorah (a multi-branched candelabra) to celebrate a miracle. Hanukkah, also known as the “Festival of Lights,” commemorates the rededication of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. In the 2nd century BCE, the King of Syria desecrated the Holy Temple. A Jewish army revolted and eventually reclaimed the Temple. The Jews wanted to purify the Temple for rededication, but they only had one night’s supply of oil for light. Miraculously, that one night’s oil burned for eight consecutive nights. This is why we light a candle every night during Hanukkah, and why we eat foods fried in oil, like latkes.
The Hanukkah holiday is eight nights long. Our family celebrates the first night with a festive holiday meal. We invite family and friends, some Jewish and some not, to join us for a simple candle lighting ceremony. On that first Hanukkah evening, our diverse group included my non-religious American relatives, my fiancé’s Jewish relatives from Israel, a Sephardic Jew from India, and his Christian wife from Mexico. We had this amazing blend of cultures there celebrating an ancient Jewish tradition by lighting the menorah together. The whole experience was truly special.
It wasn’t until dinnertime that I realized the power of latkes. Those crispy, salty, deep-fried treats brought a smile to everybody’s face. All of our guests, every single one of them, raved about the latkes. It was the first time I truly understood the power of food... how these amazing flavors can bring people together, no matter how different those people might be. The positive power of food ignited my passion for cooking and inspired me to start my Jewish food blog, The Shiksa in the Kitchen. Now, after many years and countless hours in the kitchen, the memory of that first candle lighting celebration still brings a smile to my face.
Wishing you all a very chappy chanukkah and cheartfelt choliday season!
Tori Avey, The Shiksa in the Kitchen