Monday, 7 December 2015

The Festival of Lights......and Latkes by Adèle Geras


Many religions, most religions, celebrate a Winter Festival. Christmas is the main one in the United Kingdom, but there are others, like Hanukkah, which is the subject of this post.  One advantage of not being religious is the fun of being able to celebrate other people's festivals and all through my life, in spite of my Jewish background, I've been a keen celebrator of Christmas. There are good secular reasons for this, mainly to do with food, presents,  and general fun and games, but also, eight years in the choir of  my school has made me a natural lover of, for example,  carols and carol  services. My best memory of carol singing was going round a village in Israel on Christmas Eve of 1966, singing carols to the mainly South African or American immigrants who lived there. Every household without exception was delighted to be reminded of "home" and invited us in to drink something or eat something....we returned to the house we were staying in through orange groves heavy with fruit. I've never forgotten that night.

 Two years ago, I went to a Carol Service at Ely Cathedral and it was a wonderful experience. I'm going again this year. I like the candles. I like the story. I like the whole thing. 

The Winter Festival for Jews is called Hanukkah. It celebrates a miracle.  Antiochus, the Syrian king, had desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem and forbidden the Jews to worship there.  Judah Maccabee and his brothers rose up against Antiochus.   They were   surrounded and besieged and had only oil  enough to light the Temple lamps for one more day. But every day, God made the oil last a little bit longer....it lasted eight days by which time, the Jews had time to make more oil. (No, I don't know how either!) In the end, Antiochus was defeated, the Temple reconsecrated and to this day, Jews light candles on the Menorah, the eight-branched candelabra to celebrate the miracle. 

But not only to celebrate the miracle. In the winter, everyone likes to gather round a fire. The days are short and cold, (and yes, I have memories of snow in Jerusalem during my childhood) and we have to console ourselves and keep warm and light candles against the encroaching darkness. Eating lovely food is one way humanity has found for doing this and for Hanukkah, Jews have concentrated on two delicious things: doughnuts and latkes. Everyone knows what a doughnut is,  and the picture below shows a rather fancy selection on sale in Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, a few hundred yards from where I lived when I was very young.



Latkes (potato pancakes)  may need  a bit of an introduction.  I wrote a book in 1990  called THE TASTE OF WINTER, in which a girl learns about Hanukkah and takes some latkes  in to an assembly at her school, to foster understanding between different religions. I provided a recipe  at the end of this book which I'm reproducing here. They are very labour-intensive but worth it, once a year.




LATKES: 

Grate 2Kgm potatoes.  Wrap the grated potatoes in a clean tea towel and squeeze as dry as possible. Then mix potatoes and two finely-chopped onions with three eggs and enough flour or matzo meal (or a combination of both) to make a paste that looks like a thick pancake batter.  Heat oil (sunflower or olive, like Judah Maccabee) and drop spoonfuls of batter into the oil. When one side is golden, turn over the latke and cook the other side. Serve hot. 








(this picture shows an ancient  Menorah found near Jerusalem in 1900)

There are other delightful things about Hanukkah.  Children like the Dreidels, little spinning tops which work amazingly well. They have Hebrew letters on each face: Nun, Gimmel, Hay, Shin. This stands for the sentence: Ness Gadol Haya Sham,  which means: There was a great miracle there.  The picture below shows dreidels from that same market, Mahane Yehuda. Traditionally, Jewish children get gifts at Hanukkah, and chocolate coins are often given. And many secular Jewish children also get Christmas presents.  I always did.  I always had Christmas dinner and still do. I don't seen anything wrong with that. The world is dark and anything anyone can do to light candles and spread the joy  and share the tasty food should be done, regardless of which God you believe in, or even if you believe in none. 

 



8 comments:

Sue Bursztynski said...

I lived in Israel for a year. I met a girl whose father was a (Jewish) correspondent for a British newspaper, I forget which one. Her argument was, "Why waste a perfectly good holiday just because it's someone else's?" When I visited her parents' lavish Jerusalem home, there was a Dry Bones comic on the wall, done especially by the artist, signed, "Merry Christmas, Eric!" One Jew was giving a Christmas gift to another!

That said, while I do give gifts to my non Jewish friends and grab the excuse to buy those charity cards that Oxfam sells(a goat, clean water, etc), my family don't celebrate it or see any need to. My Christmas Day ritual is to take a picnic lunch down to the beach(sorry, Southern Hemisphere!) and enjoy it while I read a wonderful book, then maybe paddle a bit in the water. I love having the day to myself and was just a bit disappointed one year when my family decided to have a barbecue on that day. ;-)

I heard that story about the oil that there wasn't enough consecrated oil when they were cleaning up the Temple and they had to send a messenger to get more. And that was going to take eight days, so...

adele said...

thanks Sue, that's really fascinating....

Joan Lennon said...

Yum!

Sally Prue said...

You've made me find out the volume of an egg, Adele! The contents of a large European egg are about 60ml. This means I can make latkes without being obliged to eat two whole kilograms of potatoes. Phew!

darkdreamer said...

I'm lazy and buy my latkes ready frozen from the supermarket.

Penny Dolan said...

Have saved the Latkes recipe and will think of you when I'm making them, Adele! What a lovely post.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Depends how many latkes you want to make. For myself, I can get five or six latkes out of a couple of medium potatoes or even one big one and a single egg and a bit of flour and one small onion. So can my mother. My sister used to love hers with sugar, so of course, no onion.

Sue Purkiss said...

Have had latkes in Poland and love them. Thanks for the recipe, Adele!