Lights and latkes

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By Pamela Hasterok
Special to the Herald

Latkes and brisket. That’s it for Hanukkah food traditions. Oh, and applesauce and sour cream to put on top.

The religious history of the holiday is equally brief. In 165 B.C., Matthatias Maccabee objected to pagan worship inside Jerusalem’s great Temple and killed a fellow Jew for the practice as well as Alexander the Great’s regent, who ordered it.

He fled to the hills, organized his family for battle and, two years later, his son Judah triumphed over the Greeks and retook Jerusalem. While cleaning up the Temple to be rededicated, they discovered they had only one night’s oil to light the sacred lamp, but it lasted eight, until more oil could be found, thus the Festival of the Lights.

Sim sala bim, that’s all folks. Bring on the presents.

At least, that’s all most of us know about Hanukkah. And what’s to complain about? You light candles, fry potato pancakes – the most delicious dish in all of Jewish cooking – and give and receive gifts. All the better that the holiday isn’t freighted with say, the sadness of Yom Kippur (the day of atonement) or the cultural redemption of Passover.

After all, who doesn’t like a fried potato?

“You can pretty much do whatever you want, but they’re so much better when they’re fried,” said Enid Brodsky, a founding member of Durango’s synagogue, Har Shalom. However, she concedes, “the house smells for days.”

To combat the lingering aroma of potatoes, onions and hot oil, Brodsky has developed a secret method for making latkes (the Yiddish word for the delicacy). She fires up her electric skillet outside on her porch. She covers everything with paper towels and newspapers first, of course, then fries away. Another secret: the more oil you use, the crisper the pancake will turn out.

Latkes are the traditional food of Hanukkah because the potatoes are fried in oil – a reference to the miracle of a one-day supply of oil lasting eight days. But here’s the mystery: The story of the miracle doesn’t arise until 700 years after the rebel band of Maccabeans overthrows the mighty Greek army.

The story of the Maccabees invokes the image of warrior Jews fighting for independence from the Greeks and the Syrians, who were their caretakers in the region. Other cultures were quickly Hellenized, taking Greek names and adopting Greek customs, which the Jews rebuffed. Rabbis in the Middle Ages wanted to downplay the military victory and emphasize the role of God, according to Jewish scholars. Voila – the story of the miracle of the oil appears for the first time in the Babylonian Talmud about 500 A.D.

But let’s not let that get in the way of a good latke. What’s the perfect accompaniment to a golden brown, crisp-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside latke, with homemade applesauce? Any Jewish person of Eastern European descent will not take a breath before answering brisket, that tough, Kosher cut of beef that must be braised for hours before achieving anything nearing deliciousness.

Still, it’s a tradition, and a tasty one at that.

“Brisket, you’ve got to have brisket,” said Phyllis Max, also a member of Har Shalom. “Latkes and brisket, that’s what you have on Hanukkah.”

Brodsky will sometimes prepare tuna salad when she’s entertaining Kosher friends who don’t mix meat and dairy and want sour cream on their latkes, but that’s rare.

If you were looking for a deeper meaning to Hanukkah than the simple joys of eating fried food and getting presents, Har Shalom Rabbi Eliot Baskin can explain it all to you.

“You have the Greeks telling Jews we can’t observe our religion,” he said. It’s the first ever fight for religious liberty and freedom.”

Hanukkah’s story of religious persecution and enforced conformity – the Greeks wanted citizens to adhere to a state religion, the better to hold the far-flung empire together – is especially relevant in the world today, he said, pointing to efforts in some Arab nations to impose a state religion – orthodox Islam – on all its citizens. Large, prosperous countries have been torn asunder for less. Yugoslavia splintered into seven nations after the fall of Communism, dividing into countries dominated by a single religious group, from Orthodox Christianity to Catholicism to Islam.

One thing the original celebration of Hanukkah never included was gifts – that’s a modern invention, one rabbis and parents inveigh against with each passing year. Older Jews say as children they rarely received presents during Hanukkah, only a little gelt, which translates into coins, either real or chocolate.

For himself and his family, Baskin says he emphasizes the happy ritual of lighting the Hanukkah lights each night – a symbol of bringing light into the world. He collects menorahs, and this year will have a hard time choosing between the one shaped like a Volkswagen bus or the one fashioned after a duck.

More seriously, he shares an age-old concern with many Christian families, the commercialization of the holiday. It’s easy for the meaning of Hanukkah and Christmas to get lost in the materialistic blare that starts even before Thanksgiving.

“What is more important, the beauty of religion or the religion of beauty? What’s more important, giving or getting?” the rabbi asked, more than a little frustrated.

Just as for Christians, the holiday is a time to rededicate ourselves to practicing religion, i.e., the better good for all, and dispensing with the temptations of a consumer society focused on filling the desires of the individual.

OK, I can do without gifts, even the chocolate. But I need a latke, heavy on the sour cream, to help me contemplate the true meaning of Hanukkah. Happy holidays!

phasterok@durangoherald.com

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