November 11, 1999
Of Latkes and Light
Authors share Hanukkah memories
Just about this time every year, I start to feel like a Maccabee -- besieged, not by the Syrian army, but by Hanukkah itself. As the 25th of Kislev inches closer, the pressure increases to squeeze more commercialization out of Hanukkah than the oil from a latke.
So here's my vote to simplify Hanukkah and restore its inherent values: freedom, conviction, dedication, hope, continuity, peace, rebuilding, community, family. To help achieve Hanukkah's miraculous retransformation, we need help -- lots of it! That's why I asked children's authors who've written Hanukkah stories to describe the simple joys of their own celebrations.
Jane Zalben, author of over 40 books, including "Pearl's Eight Days of Chanukah" (Simon & Schuster), "Beni's Family Cookbook for the Jewish Holidays" and "Papa's Latkes" (Holt): "When my children were young, we all fought over who would set up the candles. I still love to pick out the colors of the candles, setting them in the menorah each night and watching them glow in the window. My husband, the architect, made a modern menorah out of brass plumbing parts and another one out of copper tubing. They stand alongside the one from Israel with oil and wicks, and the homemade ones from hair curlers and empty spools of thread.
"A tradition that was a holdover from my parents was 'the search for the presents.' They would leave little notes throughout the house until we finally found the little gift. Our traditions have also evolved: One year, we did a latke bake-off, where everyone made their own personal recipe. My husband's blackened Cajun latkes with bits of jalapeno peppers were a hit, and turned into 'Papa's Latkes.' Since the children are now 18 and 22, Hanukkah has less significance than Passover and Rosh Hashanah, when they return home. To me, Hanukkah celebrates a group of people who stayed true to themselves. That's an important lesson in today's world."
David Adler, author of 150 books, including "Chanukah in Chelm" (Lothrop), "The Kids' Catalog of Jewish Holidays" (JPS), and "One Yellow Daffodil" (Harcourt) says of his Hanukkah memories: "I grew up as one of six children. Along with our parents, our grandmother lived with us. We called her Mutti, which is German for mother. On Hanukkah, we all lit candles together, made and ate latkes together, and played dreidel together. The most fun was watching my brother, Eddie, and Mutti. Eddie was strict about doing everything the right way and after a few rounds of dreidel he often complained, 'Hey, Mutti's cheating.' He was right. She did cheat. She cheated to lose. She wanted us, her beloved grandchildren, to win." Adler says he, his wife and three sons -- now 22, 15 and 10 -- each have their own hanukkiot, but light the candles together and follow the family tradition of making latkes together. "Whatever you do," he advises. "Do it together. Instead of just serving latkes, make it a family project."
Eric Kimmel, author of close to 50 books, including "Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins", "The Chanukkah Guest" and "The Magic Dreidels" (Holiday House), also remembers his grandmother, who lived with the family in Brooklyn: "Hanukkah was my favorite holiday, bright and warm. My grandma spoke Yiddish and told stories about Galicia as if it were 'Paradise Lost'." Her old brass menorah had these two big lions standing on their hind legs holding up the shamash candle. She used old-fashioned orange candles that gleamed off the polished brass and then flowed down into rivers of melted wax. I'd gobble down her latkes, made with shmaltz (chicken fat).
"Hanukkah is a time to touch base with who we are. It's a roots holiday. But if it's the only Jewish holiday families celebrate in a year, it's meaningless. Copying presents is the Christmas spirit, not the Hanukkah spirit. To families I say, 'Nobody can make you do anything you don't want to do. Think about why you're celebrating Hanukkah. Is it as a Jewish holiday or as a substitute for Christmas?'"
Judye Groner and Madeline Wikler are the founders of Kar-Ben Books, which has published over 150 books for Jewish children and their families, including "All About Hanukkah," which they wrote together. Wikler suggests, "Get away from the gifts and go towards the mitzvot. It's tough, but try going from getting to giving. One year, for example, my family went to a nursing home on Christmas so others could celebrate their holiday."
Groner tells the story of her son Ben (of Kar-Ben), who moved from day school to public high school at the age of 16 and decided to have a Hanukkah party: "His guests included an African-American and a boy from India. While I served teenage-boy-portions of latkes (the house smelled of oil for weeks), he regaled his friends with the history and customs of the holiday, taught them dreidel, and led them in song. I realized the Jewish tradition had become a part of him. The amazing thing is that had I said, 'Gee, why not have a Hanukkah party and invite your friends,' he never would have agreed. It came from him, spontaneously. So let your kids call the shots. Let the ideas come from them.
"We think of Hanukkah for kids, but that doesn't have to be. When the empty nest came, we did a grown-up party and had the classic latke-hamentaschen debate: our guests argued the merits of the two holiday delicacies from the points of view of medicine, physics, economics and art. We laughed and sang a lot, but the latkes -- a lo-cal attempt baked on a waffle iron -- needed oil to be the real thing!"
Rahel Musleah, author of "Sharing Blessings: Children's Stories for Exploring the Spirit of the Jewish Holidays" (Jewish Lights) -- oops, that's me. We didn't have latkes in Calcutta, where I was born, but to reflect the miracle of the oil, I often make the classic Indian delicacy of piaju: thinly sliced onions and cilantro coated with chickpea flour and deep-fried. My most beautiful image of Hanukkah is symbolized by my Indian hanukkiah: Shaped like a Magen David, it has nine brass holders that encircle the red glass cups we fill with oil. As is our custom, after the blessings we chant Psalm 30, "Mizmor shir hanukat ha-bayit Le-David, (A song at the dedication of the House of David). As I watch the flames dance and shimmer in the red glasses throughout the evening -- for the oil usually burns until midnight -- I think of my favorite line from the psalm, addressed to God:"Hafakhta mis'pedi le-mahol li" (You have turned my mourning into dancing).
May Hanukkah be a holiday of light, blessing and dancing.
Rahel Musleah is also the author of the forthcoming "Why On This Night? A Passover Haggadah for Family Celebration" (Simon & Schuster), and offers programs on the Jewish communities of India. You can contact her with your favorite Hanukkah tradition at: Rahelmus@aol.com.