by Rabbi Ilana Krygier Lapides
(AJNews) – “The miracle is these things have clogged our people’s arteries for 2000 years, yet we survived”
Grampa Boris referring to latkes in A Rug Rats Chanukah.
Whenever folks who aren’t Jewish ask me about Chanukah and what kind of holiday it is, I’m always struck by the disconnect between what my answer is and what they expect it will be. Most assume that the all-encompassing grandeur of Christmas will extend into the Festival of Lights for us Jews, but no matter how we slice it, it really doesn’t. Chanukah centers around the usual: “They tried to destroy us, We won, Let’s eat” that sums up most Jewish holidays, but unlike the symbolic awe of Pesach, or the silly manipulations of Purim, or the piousness of the Yom tovim, or the hut-dwelling of Sukkot, Chanukah is a straight-forward military victory – with a tiny miracle thrown in.
My first memory of Chanukah as a child is of hanging out in the kitchen of our house in Maple Ridge. My sister, Jessica (z”l) and I played dreidel on the kitchen floor, while my mother, Phyllis (z”l), fried latkes and boiled hot dogs, and my Dad, Henry (z”l) tried to scrape the wax from last year’s candles off of the menorah.
We ate our simple one-course Chanukah dinner and then the chanukiyah was placed on top of a cookie sheet on the kitchen table (and moved to the stove overnight). With the kitchen lights out and just the glow from the candles illuminating our faces, we sang the broches and mangled a rendition of Maoz Tzur.
I remember the tiny, windowless kitchen at the old I.L. Peretz School. At Chanukah time, all the children were abuzz as the Mommies and Bubas sweated over sizzling frying pans; their hair and clothes saturated with the wafting aroma of onions and potatoes that made learning for the students all but impossible.
Some years there would be an evening Chanukah Concert. Dressed up in home-made dreidel crowns, and carrying aluminum foil-covered swords, students sang of the Maccabees triumph and the miracle of the oil. We kids went home clutching our little, kitchen-assembled goody-bags which contained a dreidel, a mandarin orange, and a small mesh bag of chocolate gelt. We felt like we’d won the lottery.
Later, as a fresh-faced teacher at the newly amalgamated Talmud Torah/Peretz School hybrid, the Calgary Jewish Academy, the latke lunch blossomed into an occasion for government relations, cultural outreach, and school marketing. I remember a very jolly, red-faced Premier Ralph Klein announcing that he never missed a latke lunch if he could help it. Alumni, who not long before were themselves on the stage singing the dreidel song, sat at tables of honour showing off brace-less teeth and the beginnings of facial hair, flirting and talking about how the gym looked so small, the teachers so tired, the students so tiny. The parents, busily active in the little kitchen at the base of the gym-stairs cranked out hundreds of latkes, cookies, and carrot sticks, and kvelled at their little ones looking so smart in their white tops and blue bottoms.
Later, my own little family created traditions in the kitchen: lighting multiple menorahs, gifting Chanukah-themed, wrapping-paper-covered presents, playing dreidel, and enthusiastically, but ultimately futilely, attempting to make latkes as well as my Buba used to.
This year, the first year for my husband and me in an empty nest, our kChanukah kitchen will be different yet again. Online delivery will send slick gifts straight to our grateful adult-children’s doors. And through the miracle of Zoom, we will light the menorahs in our respective kitchens together, stretching from B.C. to Calgary, to Montreal, and further on to Israel.
Does the kitchen-ness of Chanukah mean that it’s not important? Absolutely not. In fact, the small, humbleness of the holiday may be the thing that makes it so very vital. The simple magic of lighting a small candle, eating unpretentious food, and playing a no-talent-required, luck-of-the-spin game while gathered in the kitchen with those we love, might be one of the most poignant, spiritual Jewish experiences many of us have. And if that’s so, then the joy of bringing light into the darkness can light our souls and spark our hearts, even in the coldest winter – one candle at a time.
From my family to yours, Chag Chanukah Sameach, a freylechen Chanukah, a very Happy Chanukah.
Rabbi Ilana Krygier Lapides is the Calgary Jewish Community Chaplain.