The Return of the Light

A celebration of food and faith at Greensboro’s Temple Emanuel

By Jim Dodson     Photographs by Mark Wagoner

The third verse of the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, sometimes known as the Hebrew Bible, describes the birth of divine light in a darkened world: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, and it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.”

This year, the Jewish observance of Hanukkah — a Yiddish word that means “dedication” — begins on Sunday evening, December 2, and ends on Monday, December 10. The beloved winter celebration of Jewish heritage called the “Festival of Lights,” observed by the sharing of traditional foods, the ritual lighting a special menorah and reciting of prayers, along with playing games and offering gifts over eight nights and days, commemorates the restoration of the Second Jerusalem Temple in 167 BCE.

At that time, the Holy Land was ruled by the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire of Syria, which was forcing the people of Israel to accept Syrian Greek culture and spiritual beliefs in place of their own Hebrew God. Against all odds, a small band of faithful Jews, led by a freedom fighter named Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies on Earth, drove the Syrian Greeks from their land and reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, rededicating it to the divine light of God.

When the victors sought to relight the Temple’s menorah (the seven-branched candelabrum) in celebration, they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Syrian occupiers. Miraculously, they lit the menorah with the one-day supply of oil that somehow lasted for eight days until new holy oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity. To commemorate this miracle, Jewish sages instituted the festival of Hanukkah.

At the heart of the festival is the nightly lighting of a special menorah called the Hanukkiah, using the shamash (“attendant”) candle to light one candle each night until all nine candles are ablaze. Special prayers accompany the lightings, and blessings and songs of praise are sung after the candles are lit as families exchange “gelt” (everything from jelly beans to coins, often made of chocolate) and gifts large and small. They also play “dreidel” (a game of chance played using a four-sided top) and share special holiday foods cooked in oil to symbolize the endurance of the Jewish people. In observant households, lighted menorahs are placed in windows to bring light to the darkness.

“Hanukkah really is a celebration of the return of the light, maybe not considered a high holy event in the Jewish calendar but a very big deal to families and especially children,” explained Ina Eisenberg one evening not long ago when we dropped by Greensboro’s historic Temple Emanuel to learn about the “Festival of Lights” from half a dozen of the congregation’s longtime members and finest cooks.

“Hanukkah is a celebration of memory and food, a time to light the menorah and say prayers and give small gifts, and certainly eat!” Eisenberg added with her distinctive Memphis-born laugh. “Purim and Passover may be the traditional cook-off holidays in Judaism, but the foods of Hanukkah are simple and fun. That’s part of their charm. They lift the spirit and bring people together. It’s all about sharing love and eating food you probably wouldn’t eat other times of the year. If I don’t make Mrs. Felsenthal’s famous matzo balls and chicken soup, for instance, which my mother got from Mrs. Felsenthal’s daughter decades ago, my husband is completely crushed. Ditto my challah bread.”

Diane Goldstein, who owns a collection of 25 different kinds of menorahs, was prompted to remember the lights of Hanukkah in the apartment building where she grew up in Queens, New York. “Almost everyone in the building was Jewish and there was always a large lighted menorah in the lobby at the holidays — a really beautiful sight on a winter night — lighted menorahs, in fact, in almost every window of the building,” she recalled. “It was to great step into that lighted lobby and smell all sorts of wonderful things being made for Hanukkah — brisket and jelly doughnuts and, best of all, potato latkes!”

Barbara Sohn, who grew up in Greensboro and is known not only for her baking prowess (“That’s my therapy”) and famous brisket recipe, added, “The unifying element in all these foods — of all Hanukkah cooking, in fact — is oil, a symbol of the oil that miraculously lighted the menorah. Everything from cookies to meat must be made with oil.”

“In other words,” quipped Ina Eisenberg, “Hanukkah food is a heart attack on a plate.”

“The old joke says that’s why Jewish men die early,” someone added, prompting a wave of laughter from the gathered cooks.

Amy Thompson, Emanuel’s current president, explained that her annual tradition is to peel and shred 10 pounds of potatoes and soak them in water to prepare for the annual gathering she and husband, Joe, host for friends and family one night during the holiday. “They come for our latkes. Mine is a very traditional recipe and I’ve learned that’s what everyone likes best.” And though some cooks experiment with other main ingredients, such as sweet potatoes or zucchini, Thompson has found there ain’t nothin’ like the real thing. “Nobody in our house liked them as much as my original recipe. Hanukkah is somewhat like Thanksgiving in that regard. There’s a turkey and stuffing that your family really likes. And if you try something new, well, it never works out. You end up going back to the tried and true favorite. That’s our latkes.”

Naomi Marks is a New Yorker who came to Greensboro to attend college after the Second World War, met her late husband, Arnold, and became a founding member of Temple Emanuel. She recalled how she and Arnold loved the family-centered quality of the holiday, teaching their three children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren the traditions of the holiday.

“The first night, my kids always got a nice gift, something they really wanted, followed by smaller gifts the rest of the week — books and puzzles and things like that. They also loved playing the dreidel game. When they got a little older, our kids always brought their friends home for Hanukkah, many of whom weren’t Jewish,” she recalled. “They loved the food and intimacy of our celebration. In some ways it is a nice complement to Christmas — the lights, the food, the sharing of gifts with family. My potato pancakes were very traditional as well. But I always made my own warm applesauce to serve with them. That’s what made mine special.”

“I didn’t grow up with Jewish foods and holidays,” said Midge Pines, Temple Emanuel’s first female president, “because I was actually born into a Catholic family in New York. My mother, however, was Jewish, and when we moved out to Los Angeles I joined the synagogue. The fun part for me was learning the Jewish holidays and traditions along with my three young sons. These days, when you come to my house at the holidays, you’ll get pickled herring and a delicious kugel — which is not specifically a Hanukkah dish but, my goodness, you can’t eat latkes for eight days in a row!”

The lively conversation of Hanukkah fellowship and foods shifted back to an unexpected moment of “darkness.” The delightful cooks of Temple Emanuel agreed that the lights of Hanukkah would perhaps be even more meaningful this year in the aftermath of recent tragic events in Pittsburgh, when a hate-filled gunman attacked the Tree of Life Synagogue, killing 11 members of the congregation during their Saturday morning prayers.

Three days later, a gathering estimated at 2,000 people turned out for an impromptu rally against hate and violence at Temple Emanuel, an overflow crowd that filled the temple sanctuary and adjoining spaces to standing room only and spilled outside to hear reflections from a cross-section of the Gate City’s spiritual leaders. 

“It was a remarkable thing to witness,” said Amy Thompson. “People from every faith tradition in Guilford County showed up seemingly out of nowhere — Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics and Christians of all sorts — to show their support and help us grieve. It was mind-blowing and deeply touching to the Jewish community, sending a wonderful and much needed message of hope and solidarity — that there is always light in the darkness.”

Midge Pines’ Pickled Herring

1 6–8 ounce jar herring fillets in sour cream
1 hard-boiled egg
1/2 to 3/4 tart apple, pared, cored and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 small can of red beets, chopped
4 tablespoons sour cream
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon oil
2 tablespoons sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

Chop herring fillets in very small pieces, removing any skin, bones and scales.
Chop egg, apple, onion and beets.
Add all together with sour cream, vinegar, oil, sugar and seasonings. Mix well.
Serve with crackers or cocktail rye.
Keeps for three or four days. Do not freeze.

Barbara Sohn’s Amazing Brisket

1 4–5 pound first cut brisket
1 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1 package Lipton Onion Soup Mix
1 bottle Heinz Chili Sauce
Potatoes and carrots
Heat oven to 350 degrees

Place brisket in deep roasting pan. Combine sugar, soup mix and chili sauce; spoon over meat and cover pan. Cook for 2 1/2  hours, remove and cool for one hour.
Slice meat against grain, cover and cook brisket for another 2 hours, or until brisket is tender.
Add quartered red bliss or Yukon Gold potatoes (unpeeled) plus a small bag of baby carrots and cover with sauce, for the last hour.

Midge’s Kugel

12 ounces noodles
1 cup cottage cheese
1 cup sour cream
3 eggs, beaten
1 stick butter, softened
Salt and pepper to taste.

Cook and drain noodles according to package directions. While still hot, add the other ingredients and stir well. Pour mixture in greased casserole and bake in preheated 350-degree oven 35 to 40 minutes.
For variety (and to make it sweet), you can add 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon and a handful of raisins,
To make it savory, add only 1/2 stick of butter. Then sautée one medium chopped onion, 1/2 cup chopped mushrooms and 1/4 cup chopped celery  When veggies are browned, add to noodle mixture and bake as above.
Pour mixture in greased casserole and bake in preheated 350-degree oven 35 to 40 minutes.

Can be frozen — defrost completely before warming in a 350-degree oven 10 minutes.

Mrs. Felsenthal’s Famous Matzo Balls

1 cup water
1 stick butter
1 cup matzo meal
Parsley, sugar, salt, paprika, ginger, nutmeg and grated onions to taste
3 eggs, separated

In a medium sauce pan combine water and butter. Heat until butter dissolves. Add matzo meal and stir until water is absorbed. Season to taste with parsley, sugar, salt, paprika, ginger, nutmeg and grated onions. Mix well.
Beat egg yolks until lemony and add to matzo mixture. In a clean bowl, with clean beater, beat egg whites until stiff; fold into matzo mixture. Chill well in covered container for at least 4 hours
To make the matzo balls, dip fingers in warm water and roll chilled mixture into balls.
If you wish to freeze, place on a cookie sheet and freeze. The frozen balls can be placed in a plastic bag until you need them. When ready to use them, drop them in boiling chicken broth and cook for 30 minutes on medium heat.
Add to your favorite soup! Yield: 27 medium/small matzo balls

Simple Chicken Soup

3 chicken breasts
4 carrots, halved
4 stalks celery, halved
1 large onion, halved
Water to cover
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon chicken bouillon granules (optional)

Put the chicken, carrots, celery and onion in a large stock pot and cover with cold water. Heat and simmer, uncovered, until the chicken meat falls off of the bones (skim off foam every so often).
Take everything out of the pot. Strain the broth. Pick the meat off the bones and chop the carrots, celery and onion. Season the broth with salt, pepper and chicken bouillon to taste, if desired. Return the chicken, carrots, celery and onion to the pot, stir together, and serve. 

Naomi Marks’ Easy Potato Latkes

2 cups raw grated potatoes
1/2 cup grated onion
Pinch of baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon of flour or matzo meal
2 Eggs

Peel potatoes and soak in cold water for several hours, then grate and drain.
Beat eggs well and mix with other ingredients, add a little pepper if desired.
Drop spoonfuls on hot greased skillet and cook until golden brown, both sides.
Keep warm in oven until ready to serve with warm applesauce

Easy 10-minute Applesauce

3 Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored and quartered
3 Fuji apples peeled, cored and quartered
1 cup apple juice
2 tablespoons cognac or brandy (optional)
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons honey
½ 1 teaspoon cinnamon

Combine apples and all other ingredients in microwave-safe container. Microwave uncovered for 10 minutes.
Use blender or potato masher to blend to desired consistency.
Serve warm or chill for later use.

Amy Thompson’s Mandelbrot
(A sweet bread similar to biscotti)

3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 3/4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4  teaspoon salt
1/2  cup walnuts

Optional: chocolate chips, dried cranberries.
Beat the eggs and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the oil and vanilla and mix thoroughly.
Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon together and add to the sugar mixture. Mix until blended, adding the nuts as the dough starts to come together.
Briefly knead the dough on a floured surface. Divide into 2 pieces and shape each into a log about 3 inches wide. (Add chocolate or cranberries at this point.)
Place logs on greased cookie sheet.
Bake at 350 degrees for 30–35 minutes, until golden.
Remove from oven and let stand until cool enough to handle. Slice logs diagonally into 1/2-inch slices. Lay them on the cookie sheet cut side up and return to oven.
Bake on the top shelf for 10 minutes and then on the bottom shelf for 10 minutes until toasted and brown.

Sweet Sufganiyot
(Traditional jelly doughnuts) 

3 cups flour
2 teaspooons baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2  teaspoon vanilla
1/2  teaspoon nutmeg (optional)
2 eggs
2 cups sour cream
Oil for frying
Jelly (any preferred flavor — black raspberry a favorite)
Powdered sugar

In a bowl, blend together the flour, baking soda, sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, eggs and sour cream.
In a skillet, heat the oil, and when very hot, drop tablespoons of batter into it. When the batter puffs up and turns light brown, turn it over and cook the other side.
Set doughnuts on paper towel to cool.
Make a small hole and fill with jelly. A cooking syringe can make this easy. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve immediately.  OH

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