A Time of Light and Latkes
A Hanukkah story
By Amy Lyon
At my fifth-grade
winter assembly we lined up single file,
each with a candle in an aluminum holder, and walked through the darkened auditorium singing, “When you walk through a storm hold your head up high and don’t be afraid of the dark.” At 10 years old I was awed to be entrusted with a live, yellow flame, especially since it was a dark time for me. It was my first year at a new school, and a few classmates, who I thought were new friends, were bullying me.
We sang, “Though your dreams be tossed and blown, walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone.”
This reflects the essence of Hanukkah — hope, light and renewal.
The Jewish holiday Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days, lighting up the darkest time of the year. During each night at sundown, we light one candle of the eight-pronged candelabra called a menorah, until the eighth night, when all the candles blaze bright. We do this to remember the miracle that happened in Jerusalem 2,200 years ago when the ancient Hebrews, led by Judah the Maccabee, reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem from their enemy. When it was time to light the menorah, the eternal flame, there was only enough oil to last for one night, but instead it lasted for eight.
When I was growing up, my family numbered into the dozens, and we’d all gather at my grandparents’ home to light the menorah, exchange gifts, play the holiday game called dreidel and eat special foods. Dreidel is a four-sided spinning top, and on each side is a Hebrew letter that is an acronym for “a great miracle happened here.” The side where the top lands dictates how much of the pot of candy or pennies the spinner gets to take out or put in: all, half, none or the dreaded put one back in.
No one goes hungry on Hanukkah, because this is the holiday of the latke, the famed potato pancake. It’s the latke, that is, if you are descendant of the Ashkenazi and trace your roots to Eastern Europe, as does my family. Or, if you’re from the Sephardim branch, who long ago migrated south from the Middle East through the warmer Mediterranean countries, then your family fries up doughnuts, called sufganiyot. One way or another the holiday is a deep-fried affair.
That winter I was surely in my grandmother’s kitchen helping make the latkes, since her kitchen was the center of my universe and — in essence — still is. Nana was always putting on, wearing or taking off an apron, and there was always a kind, accepting smile on her face. On Hanukkah everyone wanted to be in the kitchen, if not as a self-anointed latke maker, then hanging out at the threshold to snatch one of the sizzling pancakes fresh from the pan.
Latkes are a simple affair I learned to make by watching Nana’s hands as she laboriously grated potato and onion, delicately broke open the eggs and — with practiced elegance — flicked just enough leavening agent, sprinkled snowflakes of flour, added a pinch of salt and flaked in black pepper. She’d cup just enough batter in the palm of her hands, squeeze out excess liquid, and drop it into the pan of hot oil. Then she’d watch and wait. At just the right moment, when edges began to brown, she’d pat the pancake once or twice with her spatula. Then, when she knew it was right, she’d flip it over, pat it again and let the other side get crispy. And from there to the platter with the topping of choice. There are two camps when it comes to latke toppings, the savories who enjoy sour cream, or the sweeties who prefer applesauce. I fall into the applesauce group, preferably homemade.
In my 20s I opened Amy Cooks for You, a specialty food store and catering company, and for Hanukkah we turned out scores of latkes, of course my Nana’s recipe. In the years when my son, Max, was growing up, we started the tradition of having our own Hanukkah party for friends and family. Along the way, the simple brass menorah that I received as a bat-mitzvah gift the year I turned 13 was joined by a paper doll of Judah the Maccabee, the warrior-hero with honeycombed pants, shield and a long sword. One year the guests numbered close to 50, which made it a 250-latke occasion. It isn’t Hanukkah unless the aroma of fried onions and potatoes soak into the furniture and draperies, emanating for days.
This year I’m in particular need of the warmth and inspiration of the gleaming brass menorah, of traditions and remembrance of miracles. In February my mother died and my internal light is dimmed by a rendering sadness. I look forward to placing the tattered-but-persistent paper Judah the Maccabee on my table, spinning the dreidel and grating, flicking, sprinkling just the right amount to make the latkes. And when we light the candles of the menorah, once again, the darkness will be dispelled. OH
Amy Lyon is the author of The Couple’s Business Guide, How to Start and Grow a Small Business Together and In A Vermont Kitchen, Foods Fresh From Farms, Forests, and Orchards. She’s lived in Wilmington for ten years and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.