I love the word “tradition” because it is an accounting of long, established customs and beliefs passed on from generation to generation. Typically, our entire belief system and core values are based on family teachings. Our parents and grandparents passed their wisdom down to us, and we, in turn, pass certain traditions down to our children and grandchildren. My own family’s Hanukkah (or Chanukah) traditions stem from the teachings of my grandfather.
My paternal grandfather was a man of few words. He had a strong impact on me because he was an advocate for maintaining tradition. For example, every Sunday my grandfather visited his five son’s homes to see his grandchildren. Each time I walked inside the chapel of the synagogue named after my family, I knew my grandfather would be sitting in the first seat of the second row, on the left, as was his custom. I always looked forward to Hanukkah because every year my grandfather rented the ballroom at the Kankakee Hotel for our family Hanukkah celebration. He passed his traditions on to me, and I have passed them on to my daughters. And, for that reason alone, I love the word “tradition” because it is an accounting of the customs and beliefs my family relies upon to this day.
The Jewish Festival of Lights -The Celebration of Hanukkah
Over twenty-one hundred years ago, the land of Israel was dominated by Syrian Greeks who sought to institute their Greek culture on the people of Israel. When Jews were prohibited from practicing their own religion, a small band of faithful Jews defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth and drove the Greeks from the land. Ultimately, they reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and re-dedicated it to the service of God. The Wailing Wall in the old city of Jerusalem is the physical remains of that temple today.
Jewish families around the world celebrate the tradition of Hanukkah in the month of December. The word “Hanukkah” in Hebrew means “dedication.” Hanukkah is a joyous and religious holiday that celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. During the celebration of Hanukkah, with parents, grandparents and children in tow, families light their menorahs every night when the stars appear. A menorah is a large candelabra that holds nine candles. The central candle, or shamash, sits either slightly higher or lower than the other eight candles and is used each night to ignite another candle, for eight nights in a row, until every candle is aglow on the last night of Hanukkah.
Why Families Light their Menorahs
After the Syrian-Greek war, the Jewish people wanted to relight the Temple’s menorah to announce to the world that God makes miracles for those who stand for truth, justice, and charity (Tzedakah.) The temple’s menorah was meant to be kept burning every night and to never be extinguished. However, the Jews found only a small amount of purified olive oil…enough to burn for just one day. Miraculously this one-day supply of oil burned for eight days. Thus, the Festival of Lights and the celebration of Hanukkah was born!
The Hanukkah Religious Blessing:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments (the ten commandments) and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah lights. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.
Joyous Hanukkah Traditions
The joyous part of the Hanukkah tradition is also wonderful. I love this time of family togetherness, sharing of fun gifts, and singing of songs. Many families play games-like the traditional ‘dreidel’ or top game, eat delicious foods cooked in ‘oil’-like traditional potato latkes, and of course, light the Chanukah candles.
Tonight, on the first night of Chanukah, our huge and wonderful, blended family will be separated by thousands of miles. But none of us will be alone: While Shelly and I will be in California lighting our menorah, we can take comfort in the fact that the Chicago, Indiana, Texas, New York, Idaho, and other California clans will light their menorahs with their families tonight as well.
During the celebration of Hanukkah, I wish Oroville and Wilbur Wright had never invented the airplane because I can’t help but recall the happy memories with my grandfather and large family, celebrating Hanukkah in Kankakee by the Sea, at the Hotel Kankakee, lighting the traditional menorah and eating potato lakes.
And now, Darlings, another Hanukkah tradition: A delicious potato latke recipe
First a few tips:
- A starchy potato=a crispy latke. Buy russet potatoes.
- Use a box grater to grate the potato and onions, NOT a Cuisinart.
- As you grate the potato, place it immediately in a large bowl of ice water to keep the potato from turning brown.
- After grating, squeeze the water completely out of the potatoes. This is key!
- Use only egg whites, not egg yolks. Yolks make the latke cakey in texture.
- Do not use inexpensive oil. Olive oil is the best and gives a better flavor.
- Do a sizzle test in your pan with a half-inch of oil. When a shred of potato immediately sizzles, the pan is ready for cooking.
- Do not freeze or refrigerate latkes.
- If you make them in the morning, place the latkes in a baking pan in your oven on high for a few moments to heat them.
RECIPE: Serving 20 Latkes
- 2 pounds of russet potatoes, peeled, grated and placed in a large bowl of ice water.
- 1 large yellow onion, peeled and grated.
- 2-3 egg whites
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon potato starch
- ¼ cup of all-purpose flour plus up to 2 tablespoons
- Extra virgin olive oil for frying
- Drain your potatoes and transfer them to a large kitchen towel.
- Squeeze out all moisture, making sure potatoes are completely dry.
- Transfer potatoes to mixing bowl.
- Squeeze the grated onions in the same towel until all moisture is gone. Transfer the potatoes and onions to a bowl.
- In another large bowl combine the egg whites, salt, pepper, potato starch and flour and mix thoroughly. Add more flour if necessary, to form a batter that is loose but still holds together.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, heat about ½ inch of oil until a shred of potato dropped into the oil immediately sizzles.
- Drop latke batter (2 tablespoons per latke) into oil and flatten the latkes slightly with the back of a spoon. Turn the latke once until browned 1 to 2 minutes per side.
- Use a slotted spatula to transfer latkes to a platter lined with paper towels.
- Serve immediately with applesauce and sour cream.
Happy Hanukkah! And Merry Christmas! This recipe is for everyone to enjoy, whether your family tradition includes the celebration of Hanukkah, or not. My ultimate concierge and I wish my Jewish darlings and your families a very happy Hanukkah!
For tips on how to prepare for your holiday traditions, you may enjoy this musing: How Preparation Will Save Your Holiday Sanity.