Dad and the Menorah

Holidays are for renewal. Family reunions on the Fourth of July. Family and friends gathered together for Thanksgiving. Picnics on Memorial Day. And then there are those days on the religious calendar which draw us together in faith and spirituality - Christmas, Easter, and Hanukkah. As important as faith and spirituality are, to me the most critical concern is family and the nostalgia that is generated. The celebration of your special holiday can be relaxed or as extravagant as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. What you and your family get out of a holiday really depends upon what you put into it in fellowship, love, and trust.

For me, Hanukkah was the holiday that that gave validity to the concept of family. I was an only child with virtually no
cousins to interact with in holiday celebrations. Two of my cousins lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, and my other two cousins were in Chicago, Illinois while I lived in the Los Angeles area. We truly were separated by oceans and continents. Partially because of the distance problem with my cousins but mostly of love, I turned to my parents and bachelor uncle for affirmation of family.

We did not adorn the house with fancy, store-bought decorations. We found it so much more satisfying to cut and paste, hanging childish (and childlike) decorations across our living room and the adjoining dining area. Even though we had a lovely Israeli-made Menorah (an eight-chambered candelabra lit each night
by the Shamos, or helper candle, to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Even thought there was only enough oil to last but one night, a miracle happened: the oil lasted a full eight days and eight nights.), each year my father and I built a Menorah from scratch, literally. Some scrap wood here, some wrapping paper and aluminum foil there, lots of white glue and lo and behold! A Menorah appeared each year. Our homemade Menorah was of dubious aesthetics, but to me it was beautiful because Dad and I had made it together.

During Hanukkah our kitchen became Latke Central. A latke is a positively scrumptious fried pancake made of shredded potatoes, eggs, flour, and a lot of elbow grease. Mom and Dad and my Uncle Paul had their production line set up to a tee. Mom was IN CHARGE. She always had a happy smile on her face in spite of the incredible mess we were about to leave on the kitchen table, counters, and floor. It was an organized free-for-all with every adult (and kid) watching out for everyone else. Hot peanut oil in the frying pan can put a dent in your frivolities. Ouch.

Mom would get out her cast-iron frying pan, which came out of hibernation only once a year for the ritual of producing latkes. Uncle Paul set up shop on the counter between the kitchen sink and the table. Watch out for falling potatoes! Uncle Paul had the dubious honor of grating 10 lbs. of potatoes by hand into a huge yellow bowl. I had the privilege of washing and peeling the potatoes before passing them on to my uncle. As skilled as he was in this job, I cannot begin to count the times over the years he almost grated his knuckles into the mix. When all the potatoes were grated, we had to pour off what seemed like gallons of
discolored potato juice into the sink. Yuck! While we were doing all this prep work Dad was dancing around the kitchen, loudly singing his own made-up lyrics to the Russian Sailors’ Dance from the Red Poppy Suite by Gliere. This particular musical selection was by no means a “standard” Hanukkah song but now, 50 years later, whenever I hear the opening bars of this beloved, to me, musical masterpiece, I automatically flash upon Dad’s silly song, down to the last syllable. To me, that was Hanukkah.

Once Mom pronounced her frying pan ready to go, Dad stepped over to the stove, approaching it as an artist might approach an empty canvas. For the next 30-40 minutes he turned out one perfect latke after another, many of which never made it as far as the dining room as greedy hands reached out hungrily. We simply could not wait a second later. This, also, was Hanukkah.

The instant the latke platter reached the dining room table, again it was every person for himself. Overflowing bowls of applesauce and of sour cream quickly disappeared as we anointed out latkes with the oh-so-delicious garnishes.

After dinner, after the sun had set, we blessed and lit the Menorah candles, moving further each night from the right side to the left. This, too, was special. Each year, our daughter, now 29 years old with a family of her own, slips into place next to me, placing her hands over mine, chanting the ancient Hebrew words.

This is what family is all about. Thank you, Dad.

See Hanukkah Menorahs, Tableware, Bakeware, Decorations and more in the
Hanukkah Section of the Holiday Shop

©2006, Terry Kaufman, for
No reprints or any commercial usage without written permission, except for linking to this page, which is encouraged