Hanukkah begins this year on December 12th at sundown. I know this not because I am Jewish but because I’ve been looking forward to it since Hanukkah ended last year. I am a Christian who happens to be friends with a man named Tod… who happens to be Jewish… who also happens to be an amazing cook… and more importantly happens to be an incredibly generous person.
In 2010 my best friend, Melisa met a man at the pool in her apartment complex. They immediately bonded over soccer and life as single parents of teenagers. Before you knew it, they were attached at the hip and showing signs of falling in serious l-o-v-e. Tod is a smart man and he understood the age-old axiom of getting in good with your lady means getting in good with her family and friends. So, in an incredible show of generosity and commitment, Tod invited me, my husband and a few others over for not one, not two, but every single night of Hanukkah. That’s eight nights straight of latkes and tsimis and kugel and matzo ball soup and beautiful cuts of meat and an unending list of other homemade delights. Eight straight nights of opening your heart and your home up to somewhat strangers. Eight straight nights of educating a handful of non-jews to Jewish ways and the fact that Hanukkah isn’t just “Jewish Christmas”.
I was truly excited by the invitation and what it symbolized. Something new and full of potential was emerging from Melisa and Tod’s strengthening bond and this invitation to me and my husband for all eight nights of Hanukkah made us feel a part of the new family that was emerging.
Then life happened. As it always does.
Just days before Hanukkah was to commence, I received a life-changing medical diagnosis (don’t worry, I’m okay now). I was very ill, weak from what was happening to my body and devastated by the news. If I wasn’t sleeping, I was wishing I was asleep so I didn’t have to deal. My husband, Charles, gently reminded me about our invitation to Tod’s place for Hanukkah. I wondered how I would fake it through eight nights of merry-making and feasting when all I wanted to do was hide under a rock. What if I couldn’t control the spontaneous fits of sobbing that I was enduring? I couldn’t handle the idea of ruining Tod and Melisa’s special celebration. At that point I was convinced that I was basically walking around with a neon sign hovering over my head that announced my illness. And if the sign weren’t actually visible, my miserable, grief-stricken, bloated-from-crying face was.
Then I remembered the simple truth that the world does not revolve around me. Sadly, thousands if not millions were out in the world suffering as I was if not worse and life was marching on. My world was crashing in around me but the world at large continued to turn. So, I showered, I put on clean clothes and I vowed to smile through the pain. By the time we were driving over to Tod’s apartment, I was actually beginning to welcome the idea of having something else to think about aside from my own physical pain and personal misery.
I’m not going to lie to you. The first few nights were difficult. Charles would have to occasionally nudge me to bring me back from a long off stare. There were tears covertly wiped away. And the physical pain and fatigue made it hard to feel social. Nonetheless, every night we bundled up and drove over. We ate, we drank, we covered our heads and lit the menorah. Then there were the greetings after lighting the menorah. We’d go around the room and hug each and every person… “Happy Hanukkah… Thank you for having us here, Happy Hanukkah, I’m so glad you could make it. Happy Hanukkah, Happy Hanukkah!”
That last bit. The hugging and greeting was what helped pull me through to the other side the most. You see, my medical diagnosis had left me feeling like my body had completely and utterly betrayed me. I felt toxic. I was having out-of-body moments where my mind and soul felt completely separate from my body. My treacherous body that had betrayed me. I was splitting in two.
Thankfully, I found the best medicine was eight straight nights of beautiful food, conversation and many, many hugs. Hugs that made me feel warm and loved and human again. Eight nights that fed my soul and my body and eventually helped me to remember that there could be a glimmer of happiness after illness and loss.
Melisa and Tod are married now. For their own sanity, they’ve never repeated the “full eight nighter”. They do, however, still have us over for one or two nights of Hanukkah festivities every year. It’s still warm and beautiful… Filled with laughter and candlelight and good food.
And hugs, lots and lots of hugs.
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:18
Melisa and Tod are excellent cooks and both of them in the kitchen creating, is indeed a treat to behold. Here is my favorite recipe for potato latkes.
Crispy Potato Latkes
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds russet potatoes, unpeeled, scrubbed, and shredded
1/2 cup grated onion
Salt and pepper
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons minced fresh parsley
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position, place rimmed baking sheet on rack, and heat oven to 200 degrees. Toss potatoes, onion, and 1 teaspoon salt in bowl. Place half of potato mixture in center of clean dish towel. Gather ends together and twist tightly to drain as much liquid as possible, reserving liquid in liquid measuring cup. Transfer drained potato mixture to second bowl and repeat process with remaining potato mixture. Set potato liquid aside and let stand so starch settles to bottom, at least 5 minutes.
2. Cover potato mixture and microwave until just warmed through but not hot, 1 to 2 minutes, stirring mixture with fork every 30 seconds. Spread potato mixture evenly over second rimmed baking sheet and let cool for 10 minutes. Don’t wash out bowl.
3. Pour off water from reserved potato liquid, leaving potato starch in measuring cup. Add eggs and stir until smooth. Return cooled potato mixture to bowl. Add parsley, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and potato starch mixture and toss until evenly combined.
4. Set wire rack in clean rimmed baking sheet and line with triple layer of paper towels. Heat 1/4-inch depth of oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering but not smoking (350 degrees). Place 1/4-cup mound of potato mixture in oil and press with nonstick spatula into 1/3-inch-thick disk. Repeat until 5 latkes are in pan. Cook, adjusting heat so fat bubbles around latke edges, until golden brown on bottom, about 3 minutes. Turn and continue cooking until golden brown on second side, about 3 minutes longer. Drain on paper towels and transfer to baking sheet in oven. Repeat with remaining potato mixture, adding oil to maintain 1/4-inch depth and returning to 350 degrees between batches. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately.
Serve with applesauce, sour cream, or gravlax.
Recipe from The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook 2001-2017