I love holidays, and especially ones that have a killer back-story. And I literally mean killer — nothing better than ancient blood and gore that in modern times is celebrated with costumes, candy, presents, hearts, and flowers. And while I enjoy a pagan festival or two (Halloween, Valentine’s Day), nothing really beats the Jewish holidays for equal parts tragedy and triumph.
As a kid I was very struck by how the Jewish people have faced annihilation hundreds, maybe thousands, of times over the centuries. It actually made me a little nervous, and I was happy to just skim the surface and skip to the part where David slayed Goliath, the Israelites hightailed it out of Egypt for the relative safety of 40 years wandering around the desert, and the Nazis were defeated.
But as an adult, it’s my job to pass the word along to the next generation, and so finding the deeper meaning in the well-worn tales has been really interesting. Lucky for me, I’ve had ample opportunity over the years to dissect the most kick ass Biblical tale of all, as I am…. the Chanukah Mommy.
At least that’s what I was called in the small Northern California town where my kids spent their early childhood. I’ve been called many kinds of mommy — soccer mom, baseball mom, team mom, room mom, and of course, mothertrucker, but Chanukah Mommy is by far my favorite. It sounds so sweet, and yet the history I tell the kids is one of revolt, freedom fighting, guerilla warfare, and children cleaning up after adults. What’s better than that?
The story of Chanukah is a Jewish classic: Someone (in this case, the Greeks) hates on the Jews and tries to force them to renounce their ways. The Jews (in this case, the Maccabees), outnumbered, out-armed, and outranked, refuse and fight back. The eternal underdogs then pull it out and win, against all odds.
This is also a classic-classic tale — think Harry Potter beating Voldemort or Bond taking down Silva (and looking astonishingly fabulous in a Tom Ford suit all the while). That puts it in context for children and also for this holiday season’s astute moviegoer.
The kids always enjoy the part about how the Maccabees got in deep doo-doo in the first place: a dad (and high priest), Mattathias, refused to participate in the Greek ritual of slaughtering a pig, and ended up killing a fellow Jew who was willing to go along with the status quo. He also took out a Greek guard, and then grabbed his five sons and headed to the hills to fight a guerilla war in the name of staying free and true to what he believed. With its similarities to the American Revolution, the Chanukah story is a perfect illustration of how history repeats itself. It’s also a lesson for the young’uns about how bullying ultimately doesn’t work, especially when a scrappy bunch bands together and shifts the battle into a realm where they have an advantage.
I’ve also gleaned some important lessons from those ancient times for grown-ups, too. When the Chanukah story is told to kids, it’s simplified, and it sounds like the fighting is over really quickly. The truth was that the fighting went on for another 22 years or so after the hot and handsome “hammer,” Judah Maccabee, led the revolt. Eventually, Simon, the last of Mattathias’ living sons, signed a peace treaty with the Greeks. He then declared himself both high priest and prince/president/leader of the Hasmoneans. This was a balls-out move, and one that pretty much backfired. The Hasmonean Dynasty lasted less than a century, and although they were pretty good when it came to territorial expansion, they were pretty crappy when it came to the very things that Simon’s dad fought for: morality and religion.
Ever hear the expression “Children grow up not because of us, but in spite of us?”
But then again, when we circle back to the fact that the oil burned eight days — bingo! Some real evidence that reminds us to always expect the unexpected. So if you see your son jumping up to do the dishes, or your daughter finishing homework on her own without one question for you, just get out of the way. These things happened to me just last week, and all it took was my initiating a small skirmish with the sidewalk.
Miracles do happen, and if we’ve learned nothing else from the story of Chanukah, sometimes it’s safe to expect them.
Now if you want to experience something truly miraculous, make yourself a batch of Clinton Street Baking Company’s latkes. The New York Daily News just featured this recipe and its chef/creator, my friend Neil Kleinberg (“Latke Man” — I guess the Chanukah Mommy has met her match!). Also, the cookbook penned by my BBF DeDe Lahman (along with Neil, her husband), the Clinton Street Baking Company Cookbook is a kick ass holiday gift!
4 large Idaho potatoes
Juice of half a lemon
2 large eggs
½ cup finely minced or grated onion (about half a medium onion)
1½ teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour (substitute matzo meal if you don’t want to use flour)
¼ to ½ cup canola oil
– Grate the potatoes on the medium or largest holes of a box grater and into a clean bowl (or use the shredding tool of a food processor).
– Squeeze the lemon juice over the potatoes and mix it in with your hands (to keep the potatoes from browning).
– Using your hands, squeeze the liquid from the shredded potatoes into another bowl and reserve.
– In a clean bowl, add the eggs, onion, salt, and pepper to the dry shredded potato mixture. Mix in the flour until combined.
Discard the top layer of the reserved potato liquid and save the sludgy starch at the bottom of the bowl. Add the starch back into the potato mixture and mix in with your hands or a spoon. (NOTE: The starch is the goods! Don’t skip this step!!!)
– In a large sauté pan, heat the canola oil to just below the smoking point. Form eight to a dozen 2-inch pancakes. Sauté four pancakes at a time, making sure that the oil coats them. (You can flatten them with your spatula if you prefer a thinner pancake.) Once a pancake has golden edges and is partially cooked in the middle, the pancake is ready to be turned. When flipping a pancake, tilt the pan away from you so that the oil doesn’t spray and burn you. Lower the heat so that the pancakes will continue to cook through and won’t burn before they’re done cooking, about another 3 to 4 minutes. When done, remove the pancakes from the pan and place them on a paper-towel-lined plate.
– Before cooking the remaining pancakes, remove the excess potato pieces from the pan with a paper towel or spoon.
– Serve the pancakes warm or at room temperature.
One more note: Whatever you eat standing over the pan is calorie free, since you are doing all the hard work. Also, it’s best to make them a batch at a time. Don’t double the raw ingredients — grated potatoes don’t sit around so well, even with the lemon juice that keeps them from browning.
And a final present for you, my Bitch’in reader — Adam Sandler, looking like a boy I once slow danced with at a camp social AND living the 12-year-old boy Rock Star dream performing the (one) Chanukah rock staple, The Chanukah Song.
Photo of Neil Kleinberg: Allison Joyce