The miracle of Hanukkah is supposed to be that the oil lasted for eight whole nights. No one ever says anything about the fact that the smell of yes-I-made-latkes-from-scratch lasts until roughly next Hanukkah. And longer if it rains the day after the latke fry, which for some reason it always seems to. We have to keep the windows closed against the wind and water and, thanks to all the ambient oil in the air, we’re all terrified to light the heater.
The other Hanukkah miracle is that I always manage to forget just what a pain in the keister it is to make latkes. The grating of eighty thousand potatoes isn’t so bad. It’s the squeezing the wet out of them that reduces me to inappropriate language.
The funny part is that I’m not Jewish and before my son was born, we never celebrated Hanukkah. But he has Jewish relatives and I don’t want him growing up utterly clueless about part of his family’s culture. Plus there’s something about having a kid that made me want to grab every possible holiday. We even do St. Nicholas’ day. But I digress.
I was always worried about having Jewish friends and family over when I started making latkes. I figured mine would be compared to how Grandma from the old country used to make them, and found wanting. But when I apologized in advance for their potential shortcomings, I was always told that this was the first time the Jew in question had ever had latkes.
My goyim friends have had them. Last year, my shiksa girlfriend served some in late December at our usual Monday lunch/homeschooling get-together. She didn’t make them herself. She paid a lot of money to get some from the deli around the corner. Guess what? Mine were better. And way cheaper.
But getting back to the miracle of the oil. This year, I really thought it would be better. I used olive oil instead of plain vegetable. I opened windows in advance, and kept them open late. I scrubbed down the kitchen right after dinner. And thanks to my in-laws’ generosity, we have blinds now instead of nice absorbent curtains, and some fake hardwood floors instead of carpeting right next to the kitchen.
And still this morning, there was that familiar smell. Perhaps not as stinky as in years past, but defiantly present just the same.
The latkes were good, though. I even made two batches: one regular potato-onion, and one where you grate together parsnips, carrots, sweet potatoes, and regular potatoes. I thought these were terrific. My son, who has the good sense to love pretty much anything I make since he knows he’s lucky to have me cooking for him and he’s seen some pretty weird food at friends’ houses, thought they were good. My husband thought that anything lacking in onions failed the pass-fail test for dinner savories. More for me.
After dinner, we sat around playing dreidel. which is spelled correctly in spite of what the WordPress spell-checking software insists. We had some gelt, but nowhere near enough; so we supplemented the stash with a couple of bags of small peppermint patties. These were not York brand. They were smaller and flatter and firmer and, in my opinion, way better — kind of like mint-candy sandwich cookies rather than a big slab of white mintness wearing a thin chocolate shawl.
There’s not much suspense to playing dreidel in our house, since my husband is allergic to chocolate. He can gimel all he wants; he’s not keeping the loot. Especially with me sitting right there. Still, it’s fun.
And loud. There are just the three of us, but my son keeps things lively. Because unfortunately, he has a supply of novelty dreidels from Hanukkahs past. So just when I’d be sure I’d put the winning spin on the nice heavy wooden one I like to use in spite of its Disney decorations, the little wind-up dreidel-with-feet would come hopping over and nun my hay, or shin my nun. And when it was his turn, my son would catapult the built-to-bounce plastic-and-rubber dreidel (with its own special launcher) right into the middle of the game. The later it got, the more hiLARious this became. To him.
Finally, after my husband had yet again won the pot (seriously, how does he do it? and why?), we sat down to a quiet traditional reading of Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story.
Which is actually reasonably educational. It talks about the Maccabees and everything.
We did not light candles. We are not observant Jews. We are not observant anythings, unless you count the close eye I keep on the household supply of chocolate. So lighting candles would be completely inappropriate for us.
A lot of people are confused by where we draw the line. Specifically, they find it weird. They think that if we celebrate Hanukkah, we should go all the way; and if we’re not Jews, we shouldn’t touch it.
I agree it would be pretty weird to indulge in our bit of this holiday if we didn’t have any Jewish relations. Grabbing other cultures’ traditions out of thin air, as it were, is a little too close to colonialization in my eyes. Learning about Hanukkah, enjoying a great meal, and playing a game where you gamble for chocolate feel all right to me.
Lighting candles does not. We don’t have a creche packed in among our Christmas decorations; we don’t have a menorah in the Hanukkah box.
But we do have the traditional scent of simmered olive oil to hold us over until next year. That’s ritual enough for us.