The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a tough time of year for Jewish kids. While it is true that Hannukah has its traditions, the blue-and-white color scheme, the rather austere menorah (ceremonial candelabrum), and the lack of popular songs — even Irving Berlin, a nice Jewish boy, wrote a Christmas song rather than one for Hannukah — means the holiday has little of the emotional punch of Christmas, especially for kids.
Christmas, and Christianity in general, has had some great composers writing its music — as noted, some of them were even Jewish. Even if one is not exactly sold on the Christmas story as revealed truth, it is easy to be seduced by the bright colors, the rich, spicy smells, the trimmed tree, and personalities such as Rudolph, Frosty, Scrooge, the Grinch, and Santa Claus himself. Most Jewish kids so seduced feel a hefty portion of guilt along with their enjoyment.
The winter holidays were particularly difficult for my brothers and me because we didn’t celebrate much of anything. This was not a philosophical decision on the part of my parents. They just had no talent for celebration. As a family we discussed the Hannukah story, ate the traditional food, such as potato pancakes, and we even put up some decorations that we made ourselves — but if we threw a holiday party, the guests were all relatives and the whole thing was over — dishes washed and all — by 8:00 p.m. Mostly, the winter holidays just drifted by like other days.
Meeting up with Laurie and her family changed all that for me. Not only were they enthusiastic celebrators of Christmas, but Laurie encouraged me to celebrate Hannukah as well. “Don’t forget to put up the menorah,” she would caution me. “Have another latke,” she would say, offering me a crisp potato pancake. When the economy was cooking, I even got eight little gifts, one for each day of Hannukah.
Laurie is the oldest of eleven children, many of whom have children of their own. Family and friends arrive for dinner, and some years it is difficult to cross the living room because of the wave of presents that rolls out from beneath the ostentatiously decorated tree. Many of the relatives and friends play musical instruments, so music is frequently live as well as recorded. All in all, Christmas is a damned festive holiday.
Though Laurie and I have been together for many years, and I now have a great deal of experience helping her both to pick out a tree and to deck the halls, a certain amount of guilt lingers. It will probably always be with me. But Laurie and her family make the Christmas season easier to bear.
And this year it starts with my mother’s potato latkes.
Sarah Gilden’s Potato Pancakes
My childhood in the wilds of Idaho did not run to potato latkes. I was in college before I encounteredthem. I loved them on first bite, but I thought you had to be Jewish to know how to make them (see, envy runs on both sides of the street). I ordered them at delis as a treat. Then, one December, Mel’s mother, Sarah Gilden, let slip her secret: Streit’s Potato Pancake mix.
Anybody can make terrific potato pancakes. Buy the box; follow the directions. But be sure to add Sarah’s “secret” ingredients: Mince a couple of tablespoons of onion and grate a couple of medium-size potatoes and stir them into the mix. (Oh, and wrap those grated potatoes in a tea towel and wring out as much moisture as possible–dryer potatoes make for crisper pancakes.) Fry them up, serve them with sour cream and apple sauce. Enjoy.
Or, as Mel would say, channeling his Eastern European relatives, “Es, es, mine kinder.”