Chanukah, the Festival of Lights. The holiday that is celebrated in December darkness, especially in upstate New York once Daylight Savings Time has ended and we “fall back.” The holiday many think of as the Jewish answer to Christmas.
For me, Chanukah is a time to celebrate with friends and family, light so many candles I worry the house will catch fire, create new traditions and discover new foods.
But mostly I love to make latkes, which always get five-star reviews and reviews like “crispy, light, not too oily”!
My favorite early memories of Chanukah are of my mom wrapping eight gifts, one for each night of Chanukah, in white tissue paper, the kind with sparkly, multi-colored metallic glitter embedded in it. Then she would put them in a huge bag. Each night, I was allowed to choose one present, never knowing which one was the “best gift.” Was it the tiny box that might hold a locket or the largest box that might have a doll I longed for? Luckily for me, my mom and dad always knew what I would love and always found the perfect gifts.
As I grew up, Chanukah became less about the gifts and more about just plain celebrating. At college, my friends and I became “Team Latke” as we peeled, grated, mixed and fried fifty-plus pounds of potatoes for the Hillel Chanukah party. The hallways near Hillel House, deep within the dorm basement, smelled of cooked oil for weeks afterwards.
After our wedding, my husband and I started collecting dreidels of all shapes, colors and sizes. Most had “nes,” “gadol,” “haya” and “sham” – “A great miracle happened there” – on the sides, a reference to the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days when it had appeared to be sufficient to last for one. But the dreidels from Israel had “poh,” (Hebrew for “here,” written on the sides).
Then we started with the chanukiot (menorahs), lots of them. One is made of multicolored, fused glass (mine). One looks like a bicycle (my husband’s). Another is a Noah’s Ark (for my older daughter, the animal lover). A fourth is silver metal with colorful beads (for my younger daughter). And then there is the “family heirlooms collection,” valuable primarily because of our memories of parents, grandparents and family gatherings. There is the brass one my grandparents lit and the Israeli one with a green patina from my mom and dad. We light a different chanukiah each night, (always mindful of the fire hazard the eighth night might create when all the candles are lit!)
The newest addition to our holiday fun is something borrowed from the Israeli tradition of lighting outside. A few years back, we added an outside, candle-lit chanukiah. Inside a large glass lantern sits a simple chanukiah, often aglow in the snow on our front steps. A little bit of light in the darkness of a Rochester winter.
When thinking about how to handle gift-giving for my kids, I tried to maintain my mom’s traditions. I even found an o-so-similar tissue paper and trying to get my daughters to guess which box was “the best” (they always tried to peek). But as the years passed, the chaos of too many gifts (eight nights, two kids, two sets of grandparents, along with aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends) became excessive. Traditions evolved into dinner, latkes, light, love and a calmer celebration with family and friends, and only a few gifts.
Thinking about all the fun over the years made me remember that the best “mom and dad gift,” the one I treasure most, aside from my parents’ love and support, was the summer they took me to Israel when I was twelve. That “gift” sparked my love of Israel and an ardent Zionism that led to my becoming the Hadassah leader, volunteer and supporter I have been for over 40 years.
The glowing candles of the chanukiah have been among my guiding lights. May this Chanukah bring joy and happiness and a better year ahead. I hope you find your light while celebrating with those you love. Chag sameach!
Marcia’s Latke Recipe
- 4-5 potatoes (preferably Yukon or Russet)
- One-half of a large onion
- One egg
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup flour
- Grate potatoes and onion (yes, I use a food processor with a fine shred blade).
- Remove to a large bowl and add salt and pepper, egg, and flour as needed so the mix is not too wet.
- In a large fry pan, add oil and heat so the oil is extremely hot.
- Add the latke mixture (size can vary) and fry on both sides until golden and crispy.
- Layer paper toweling and then old newspapers on your counter and place the cooked latkes on it to cool and absorb some of the oil.
- This mixture freezes very well.
- When ready to use, heat the oven to 400-425 and place frozen latkes on cookie sheets.
- Bake for 10-12 minutes, or longer as needed.
- The hot oven will also remove some of the oil, so they are less greasy and much YUMMIER!