on making potato latkes

It is the fourth night of Chanukah and my apartment is empty, my roommates having gone off to their respective families for Christmas. The block of 51st Street outside my front window is oddly quiet as well, as if my neighbors have left to make room for the holiday inflow of tourists that swarms our little island, packs Times Square and Rockefeller Plaza, both a few blocks away.

It is nearly 7:00, and though the sun has set two and a half hours ago, I am only now getting ready to light the menorah. It is a traditional one – wrought brass, burning oil rather than candles. I fill the four rightmost cups, then the shamash, the taller ‘helper’ flame, placing a floating wick in each. I recite the prayers, rote, in Hebrew: Blessed are you, Hashem our God, king of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the light of Chanukah. Blessed are You, Hashem our God, king of the universe, who wrought miracles for our forefathers in those days at this season.

Carefully, I lift the menorah from the stovetop and carry it over to the kitchen window, placing it facing outward, so that passersby on the street below can see it. I turn off the overhead lights, and stand for several minutes in the dark, watching the five smalls flames flicker, leap, and dance for their reflections in the pane of window glass.

:::

I sit down at my desk, intending to slog away at a pile of work, but instead drift into thought about Chanukah – or, more accurately, about Chanukahs past. About, as a child, standing in the kitchen with my family, crowded around several lit menorot, singing. About laughing and clowning in the living room as we exchange gifts – my mother, every year without fail, affixing all the bows pulled from any of our gifts to her hair. About sitting around the table, eating the traditional Chanukah latkes – potato pancakes cooked in oil.

And, unexpectedly, I’m swept by a wave of homesickness, a sudden welling burst of holiday loneliness. I decide the only thing I can do is to create some Chanukah joy in my own home. I decide, in fact, that I’ll make a batch of latkes myself.

:::

It occurs to me, however, that I’ve never actually made latkes. Certainly, in years past, I’d always helped my mother prepare them, but my assistance was solely limited to peeling potatoes. Still, I reason, latkes certainly aren’t a complicated dish: coarsely grated potato, onion and egg, pan-fried in lots of oil. I should be able to handle it. I call my parents home to inquire about the proportions – how many eggs exactly? – but as they’re out, I decide to simply fake it.

:::

Walking to the Food Emporium, I realize the unfolding latke misadventure might make for good reading. And, at first, the idea gives me pause. I wrote online for years before even obliquely referring to Judaism. Posting about the topic still makes me vaguely uncomfortable, as if it’s something I shouldn’t share, or at least shouldn’t advertise, about myself. We Jews are a culturally paranoid people – it’s easy to think everyone’s out to get you when, for centuries, they were. These days, bludgeoned as children by hundreds of Holocaust documentaries, we grow up with the message that, sometimes, being publicly Jewish can be rather bad for your health.

With a bit of thought, however, I conclude my tacit ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy simply supports anti-semitism. Instead, I decide to push for understanding through openness; if Chanukah is something I’m thinking about, a part of who I am, certainly, I should be willing to share that.

:::

I return from Food Emporium with five exceedingly large potatoes, one large onion and a dozen eggs. Setting them out on the counter, I wash my hands, then scrub down each potato thoroughly. The peeler isn’t in the drawer where it should be, and I spend several minutes searching for where my roommates might have placed it. Eventually, I find it – an OXO Good Grip, courtesy of my father, who is obsessed with kitchen gadgetry.

I peel the potatoes over the sink, thinking about the years of potatoes peeled in my parents house. Perversely, I miss the old, less-effective peelers we owned when I was still very young – sparely built metal ones, with orange plastic handles. I have a sudden flashbulb memory of rummaging through the drawer to find them, looking for one of the two right-handed peelers rather than the left-handed one. Which, it occurs to me, was a rather odd possession, considering that my entire family is right handed.

:::

Quartering the peeled potatoes, I place them into a bowl of water to keep the air from turning them brown. Then, without the Cuisinart we always used in my parents’ house, I pull out a metal hand-grater, and begin coarsely grating the first potato quarter. I’m careful with my strokes, watching out to keep my knuckles from dragging across the sharp edges, but it is still repetitive, vaguely meditative work.

In the quiet, I begin to think about the story of Chanukah. Or, rather, about the stark difference between the version we Jews learn as children, and the full, historically accurate one that some of us discover as adults. Observe:

The kid version: An evil Greek ruler, Antiochus, tries to destroy the Jewish people. He takes over the Jew’s holy temple and turns it into a shrine to himself. The brave Maccabees, led by Judah "The Hammer", revolt, fight back, and eventually win, reclaiming the temple. The ner tamid - the temple’s eternal, holy light – has been extinguished, and all the vessels of oil (used to fuel the light) have been shattered. After much search, a single intact vessel is found; though it should last only one night, it miraculously burns for eight, long enough to harvest and press enough olive oil to keep the light burning.

The adult version: The majority of Jews are – much like today – highly integrated into Hellenic Greek culture. They make major contributions to the arts, science and philosophy, and are increasingly involved in sports and popular culture. The Maccabees belong to a violent fundamentalist minority group, the Hasmoneans; they travel around, using violence and murder to coerce integrated Hellenistic Jews back to a segregated, traditionalist lifestyle. Antiochus comes to power, and people recognize him as basically a nut-job – I mean, the guy renames himself Epiphanes (meaning, literally, ”god made manifest’), believing he is a human incarnation of the god Zeus. As a result, he takes stupid military risks, which, combined with the fact that everybody is out to kill him, leads the Hellenistic Jews to figure he won’t last long. Further, while he does ask the Jews to bring him offerings recognizing his divinity and put his picture up in their temple, he’s otherwise fairly tolerant, and certainly never violent towards the Jewish people. They therefore decide to simply ignore Antiochus for a couple of years and wait for him to get himself killed, letting things return to their previous, unharried state. The Hasmoneans, however, have other ideas. They organize a military revolt and take Jerusalem by military force (causing Antiochus’ troops to defile the temple in retreat). The victorious Hasmoneans then secede from Greece and revert the country into a fundamentalist state, cutting off outside communication, outlawing much of the intellectual progress made by Greek Jews, and more or less setting the Jewish people back a couple hundred years.

In other words, if the Chanukah story played itself out again today, I doubt I’d be rooting for the Maccabees. And I certainly wouldn’t be frying up potato pancakes in their honor.

:::

I grate as I think, and after several minutes I’ve made it through the first two potato quarters, knuckles unscathed. Still, I regard the bowl of potato quarters skeptically, trying to avoid estimating how long all that grating is likely to take. Suddenly, it occurs to me that perhaps I do own a Cuisinart. I seem to vaguely recall my parents shipping me their old one a few years back when they replaced it with a newer model. While I’ve never before used it, I can sort of picture unpacking it from a box full of styrofoam peanuts, and so begin diving through the back of less used cabinets.

To my delight, I find the Cuisinart wedged between an unused toaster and a coffee maker (the result of three roommates worth of appliances moving into one kitchen). I dust off the body, wash out the top, then plug it in. Gaining a whole new appreciation for the miracles of technology, I polish off grating the remaining eighteen potato quarters in less time than it took me to hand-grate the first two.

Pouring the grated potatoes into a strainer, I wash off the starch, then dump them into a large bowl. I’m amazed by the amount of grated potato generated from the five potatoes I started with – the bowl is nearly overflowing. I can’t help but laugh, thinking my mother would be thrilled, serving waaaay too much food being the hallmark of Jewish-motherhood.

Once I’ve peeled and Cuisinart-ed the onion, I decide to dump everything across to a soup pot – the largest container I own – lest I spill over the edge while mixing. I crack in one egg, then another, stirring them through with my bare hands. The mix looks about right, so I pull out a pan, fill it with olive oil, and put it over a burner at high heat.

:::

As the oil begins to sputter and sizzle, I start to reconsider my Chanukah objections. Certainly, I appreciate any number of other Jewish holidays whose origins seem a bit dodgy to me. Consider the holiday of Yom Kippur, the ‘day of atonement': while I do believe in some sort of underlying ‘force’ in the universe, I certainly don’t believe some old guy with a long beard is sitting up there in a chair, judging on that holiday whether I’ll be smote in the coming year because I’ve eaten too much shrimp. Still, come Yom Kippur, I pray and I mean it. I’m pleading for forgiveness – perhaps not from ‘God’, but certainly from the best, most Godly part of myself. Which is to say that, though I don’t take the Torah literally, I do take it seriously. I never cease to find value in Jewish tradition, in Jewish practice, no matter the underlying motivation that brings me to it.

Which, frankly, isn’t too unusual. After all, Judaism is a religion that values action over faith, sort of a "feel the doubt and do it anyway" kind of deal. Even the word ‘Israel’ itself means ”he who wrestles with God’. In other words, questioning, considering, doubting – they’re all at the heart of what it means to celebrate a holiday as a Jew.

:::

With the oil bubbling, I pack the first latke – balling a small handful of the potato mix, flattening it out, then tossing it into the pan. Though it sizzles and browns nicely, when I try to flip it, it disintegrates, turning from latke to hash brown. I figure the mixture needs a few more eggs, and crack in another two.

The next pass works a bit better – the latke stays together through flipping – though I seem to have packed it a bit too thick, as the outside singes before the center is cooked through. I toss three thinner latkes in, pour in a bit more oil and let them cook. They come out golden brown, not quite crisp. I lay them on a paper-towel-covered plate to soak up excess oil, then break off a piece of one. It’s still hot from the pan, and I burn my mouth slightly on the first bite, but don’t mind at all. It’s absolutely delicious.

:::

Once I get the hang of it, I fall into latke autopilot, quickly browning up the rest of the batch. I realize I’ve neglected to buy sour cream or applesauce, and so am left to down a plateful straight, no chaser.

Still, I enjoy them, in part because they’ve come out much better than I’d have expected, in part because they taste like Chanukah to me, because they taste like home.

January 29, 2004