Peace, goodwill, and Hanukkah latkes

One day a year I was the most popular kid in the class.

Rita Maas/Newscom
Latkes: These crisp, potato pancakes, also known as latkes, are easy to make and often served with applesauce.

I used to play down the fact that I was the only kid in my class who celebrated Hanukkah. It was bad enough being an oversensitive little girl with big feet, pointy ears, and the last name Wiener. I didn't really see a reason to show off any of my other weirdnesses.

I wasn't really embarrassed by Hanukkah. I appreciated the nod to the holiday that my teachers made each year at the winter concert – usually in the form of a rousing rendition of "I Have a Little Dreidel." Still, I was no dummy. I knew what the holiday season was really about. Or so I thought.

I have some Jewish friends who grew up angry with Christmas, after years of feeling left out at shopping malls and holiday parades. But not me. I've always loved Christmas carols and Christmas parties and – most of all – Christmas presents. As a kid, I longed to have my own tantalizing pile of perfectly wrapped, beribboned boxes waiting for me under a pine dripping with tinsel.

Every year, I'd devotedly watch the annual Christmas TV special where Charlie Brown picks out a small, feeble-looking Christmas tree to Lucy's great dismay. Afterward, I'd try decorating my father's ficus plants with strings of Styrofoam packing peanuts. "Hanukkah bushes?" I'd plead. My ploy never worked.

Perhaps understanding my desire for just a taste of the celebrations honoring the birth of baby Jesus, my mother did let us put up stockings every Christmas Eve. They said "Shalom" and were covered with blue stars of David, but they sufficed. On Christmas morning, she filled each one with small items – maybe a silver dollar, and some Hanukkah gelt. The irony of this ritual was lost on me for many years.

Hanukkah wasn't bad, of course. It came with no fasting and no uncomfortably long stints in the synagogue studying which men had bobby-pinned on their yarmulkes. Growing up, we celebrated all eight nights of the holiday by lighting candles, spinning the dreidel, and opening one of the lumpy gifts my mother wrapped in snowman paper. The ritual had its magic.

Only when I was at school – and the Christmas holidays seemed to be approaching for everyone but me – did I feel jealousy's evil twinge. My classmates were going crazy with anticipation as they decorated their trees, ate the chocolates out of their Advent calendars, and counted the mornings until Dec. 25.

But one day each year, my mother did something to make me feel like the happiest kid at Bullis Elementary School: She made potato latkes.

The night before, she'd be up late peeling potatoes and chopping onions. She'd mix in eggs and salt and a little matzo meal. Finally, she'd drop spoonfuls of the yellow mixture into a pan of hot oil where they would fry to a golden brown, filling our house with a delicious smell. She'd then lay each glistening pancake onto a paper towel, which would absorb only a fraction of its abundant grease.

The next afternoon, she'd visit my classroom carrying a grocery bag filled with plates, forks, napkins, and jars of applesauce – along with a huge tray of steaming latkes.

The teacher would invite me to help light and bless the Hanukkah candles. We'd read from a grease-stained picture book called "Latke Lad." Then we'd pass out the food.

The latke is an old-fashioned delicacy, spun – almost magically it seems – from a few relatively cheap ingredients. How such a simple recipe can so readily seduce the human palate is still unclear to me. But in my experience, few foods inspire such universal enthusiasm, such overeating, and such goodwill toward the chef.

During my entire rocky elementary school career, I only experienced anything resembling popularity once a year. On that day, other kids actually seemed jealous of me. It had nothing to do with fitting in. It had everything to do with latkes.

In the intervening years, I've held onto my love of caroling, and I'm not above pinning up an occasional sprig of mistletoe. But every December, I keep my mother's tradition. My fiancé and I invite over everyone we know. We peel, we chop, we fry – and then, we eat.

It's still one of the best days of my year.

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