Being Jewish has never been a core facet of my identity. Whenever I explain my background to people, I always emphasize the ‘ish’ in Jewish, as I don’t always feel connected to that aspect of myself. I never had an official bat mitzvah, and I only go to the synagogue once or twice a year, yet Chanukah is one of the few times during the year when I feel a strong connection to my Jewish identity and heritage. Like most holiday celebrations, Chanukah is a time marked by long standing traditions, large quantities of amazing food, and quite a lot of wine. For those of you who don’t know what Chanukah is or what it entails, I will give a brief explanation.
Chanukah is an eight-day celebration, that marks the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. According to the story, the Jews had been oppressed and not been allowed to practise their religion, and so they partook in the Maccabean Revolt. All the Maccabee’s sacred oil had been tainted by their oppressors, but they found one jar with enough oil to produce light for one day. Then, as the miracle goes, the light lasted for eight days, which is why Chanukah is alternatively called The Festival of Lights. The lighting of the menorah, which is an eight-pronged candlestick, occurs every evening for the entire eight-day celebration.
This year, Chanukah is quite early, the eight days of festivities falling in late November/early December. The Jewish calendar functions differently, and so the dates of the holidays vary year to year. There have been years where Chanukah has been close in date to Christmas, but as someone who has traditionally celebrated both Chanukah and Christmas, I always prefer when it is earlier as it livens up November, which is usually a fairly bleak month. While I grew up in an atheist household, Chanukah, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah have always been very important holidays for my family. They provide us with connections to our Jewish identity and family and give us reasons to celebrate during otherwise holiday-less months. Traditions like making latkes with my grandmother, lighting the candles on the menorah with my grandfather, and spinning dreidels with my cousins have formed important memories for me. Thus, I plan on continuing to celebrate them going forward into adulthood.
Last year, due to the pandemic, my family was not able to hold a normal Chanukah dinner and instead all of those traditions were moved onto Zoom. Unfortunately, playing dreidels is significantly less fun when your opponent’s camera is constantly freezing. Thankfully, with all of us vaccinated, we are able to hold an in-person Chanukah dinner and reinstate our celebratory traditions.
This year, an hour before our dinner begins, my mom, grandmother, and myself will start making the latkes, which are my favourite part of the Chanukah meal. For those of you who do not know what latkes are, they are essentially fired potato pancakes. My family makes ours on a griddle, but you can also make them in the oven. In my opinion, a perfect latke is golden brown in colour and crispy on the outside, while slightly more moist on the inside, and dense enough to still hold their shape. There is a lot of debate on the optimal latke recipe, as many people and their families have their own specific methods for making them, and often these recipes have been passed down through generations. In previous years, when we would make enough latkes to feed my entire neighbourhood, my grandmother and I would make our latkes in advance, spending an entire day peeling potatoes, occasionally scraping a knuckle or two on the peeler. Now, we still make a great deal of latkes, but less than before, and we use a different recipe that does not require nearly as much labour. The latke recipe that my mother and I currently use is my favourite, as it is easy to do and creates perfect crispy latkes that are not too greasy. Since my mother and I are avid watchers of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, when we saw that Miz Cracker, my mom’s favourite queen, made latkes on the Bon Appetit YouTube channel, we had to try it out for ourselves. The ingredient in this recipe that I believe makes the biggest impact is the use of schmaltz or chicken fat; I have used duck fat as a substitute, and it also works wonderfully. The addition of animal fat provides the latkes with a rich flavour and a moist interior. The recipe also calls for breadcrumbs, which create a delicious crispy exterior; at some point I think it would be interesting to try substituting the breadcrumbs for panko. The rest of the ingredients needed are all fairly standard in the process of making latkes, such as yellow onions, russet potatoes, and eggs. Once you have your latke “batter”, you can then begin cooking them on your griddle with lots of oil for about two to three minutes per side.
As for the Chanukah decorations, many of the décor items that we use were made by my mother and uncle when they were children. Up until about five years ago it was extremely difficult to find Chanukah decorations, let alone Chanukah cards or wrapping paper; thus, the decorations for the table were often made by hand. In my opinion, the handmade quality of the decorations makes them even more special and unique. Today you can find a wide variety of Chanukah decorations at Walmart or even Chapters Indigo, but I personally prefer to continue making my own or using our older handmade decorations.
I am extremely grateful for my family and the traditions that we share, as the pandemic has shown us how important the people in our lives truly are. This year’s Chanukah celebration is particularly special for me as I did not get to celebrate last year and the year before I had exams on the day my family held our annual dinner. The past two years I really felt the absence of Chanukah and felt less connected to my family and to my identity as someone who is Jewish. I hope that through this article you have gained a better understanding of what Chanukah is and why it is such a special holiday. Whether you are Jewish or not I highly recommend making latkes this holiday season, as they are a delicious and rewarding dish to make. Happy Chanukah MUSE!!