A Chanukah Treat
by Mark Ari
Jews are big on books. This is well known. They love them.
Ok, so maybe individually there are plenty of Jews for whom books are nothing special. But as a group, as a cultural entity or differentiated ethnicity, Hebrews reserve a high place in their values for books. It isn't unusual, if you hang out long enough with a bunch of Jews, to catch them dancing wildly with a royally arrayed text in their hands, showering it with kisses. I've seen it myself. I've danced and kissed. I've whispered words of endearment. Volumes of tender coos. And while I may have to admit to a greater textual promiscuity than is usual, most Jews share some of these feelings of tenderness and excitement when it comes to bound leaves of the written word. It's a tribal trait. A learned one handed down along with a penchant for self-deprecating humor and a taste for chicken fat.
My grandmother, when she had a book for me, always dipped her pinky finger in honey and had me lick it before I received the present.
"You think that's sweet, Moishele?" she said. "Wait until you see what's inside here!"
And she was right. To this day, when I come across an old book with pages that stick together, I smile and think of her, which is better than being disgusted.
So, more than 2000 years ago, when Antiochus, the king of Syria, forbade Jews to read the Torah, its no wonder that a lot of our ancestors were upset. The Torah is an important book. And it's not like there were a whole slew of novels or collections of verse or, for that matter, history, math or physics in wide circulation at the time. What scribes there were had their hands busy with Torahs. It is simple supply and demand.
So, if we couldn't read the Torah, what were we going to read? Tombstones? The odd Steele left here or there by some long gone conqueror? Please. Hellenic travelogue mythic-histories? I know I couldn't do it. That's all Greek to me. I'm not religious in any conventional sense of the word, but if I were around back then when Antiochus prohibited Torah and backed the law with a death penalty, I would have had my gotkes in a twist. Count on it.
Of course, Antiochus also forbid Jews to keep their Sabbath and placed a of statue of Zeus in the sacred Temple of Jerusalem. This did not win him any friends either. But I think the book problem weighed heaviest. Reading was very big. It was the major pastime. Like football today.
So, in 167 B.C.E., the Jews rallied behind a certain priest, Mattathias whose son, Judah, got a bunch of guys together to fight for freedom. They, Judah and his brothers and their pals called themselves "Maccabees," hammers. A good name, I think.
After three years of fighting, Antiochus' army was kicked out of the country. Scribes got back to work with gusto, resting only on the reinstated Sabbath. The temple of Jerusalem was reclaimed, washed down, swept out and purified. However, when the Jews were about to re-light the menorah, they discovered it only had enough oil for one day. It would take a week or better to prepare more.
So what were they going to do? The menorah is supposed to be eternal. You can't stand around an eternal light that has gone out and not light it. It's not respectful. But neither can you light such a light, knowing that in one day that little flame is going to flicker and be gone. That is simply too disheartening. The people had just fought a tough war. Many died in it. Those left were tired. Hurting. The only thing keeping them on their feet was exhilaration at their victory, an exhilaration that might be hard to maintain should they have to stand in a dark room alongside an eternal light that was not lit.
Luckily, Judah, a wise fellow for his size, realized that the future, at least, lends you time to worry about it; the present is less generous. He lit the light. Most likely, he took a deep breath afterwards, and tried to relax with a good book while the getting was good.
And wouldn't you know it, but that light stayed lit for eight days. That is the terrific miracle of Chanukah. It may not look like much against plagues and parting seas and what have you, but squeezing eight days of light out of a one-day supply of oil is nothing to sneeze at. To commemorate this fortunate temporary hiatus of the laws of nature, we celebrate Chanukah, the "Festival of Lights" by lighting candles and eating oily food.
This brings us to the purpose of this column, the "Potato Latke." For many Jews, the potato latke, along with the dreydle, the Chanukah menorah and deep-fried jelly donuts, is an integral part of the yearly holiday. Chanukah without latkes is as incomplete as an unlit candle or an unopened book.
Why potato? I don't know. On Purim, we eat hammentashen, a three-cornered cookie that represents the three-cornered hat worn by the villain of the story, Hamen. Maybe Antiochus looked like a potato. Or, like any person who cannot appreciate the importance of a good book, perhaps the self-styled all seeing king, Antiochus, was a sort of potato-blind for all his alleged eyes.
Large Mixing bowl
Box or hand grater
12 large potatoes
1/2 - 3/4 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 - 3/4 cup matzo meal
2 teaspoons salt
Too much oil (your choice of kind)
1.Peal the potatoes and immerse them in a large bowl of cold water.
2. Place eggs and chopped onion in a mixing bowl and beat them together while adding matzo meal.
3. Pat dry the potatoes and grate them using the large holes on a box or hand grater. Do not, under any circumstances, use a blender or food processor. The grating must be coarse.
4. Drain the potatoes well. Press them as best you can to get the water out of those suckers. Lay them on a tea towel and squeeze to gather additional moisture.
5. Stir grated potatoes into the onion-egg-matzo meal mixture until evenly blended.
6 Form the mixture into pancakes (about 5 inches diameter) that are not quite flat. They should be about 1/2 inch thick at the center and a little thinner on the outside so that when the pancakes are cooked through, the edges are raggedly crisp.
7. Heat oil in heavy skillet at moderate heat until very hot. Reduce heat slightly. Set pancakes in oil and sauté, turning once or twice, until golden brown.
Serve hot with sour cream and applesauce.
Serves 4 hungry people, or 6 moderately hungry people, or eight dabblers.
Preparation time is surprisingly long but worth it.
from the November 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine