Mendel Letters 56 — Hanukah
December 4, 2021
Hanukah is early this year, right after Thanksgiving, which gives us some space between Hanukah and Christmas. In the 1950s Bronx, Hanukah was not such a big deal the way it is today as the commercialized Jewish Christmas. We played with dreidels and lit a menorah each night adding a candle until we got to the eighth night. Because Hanukah is a historical holiday, it celebrated the Maccabee’s victory over Greek forces in the 2nd century BC, and not a religious holiday recorded in the Old Testament, we all went to school. As kids, Warren and I received token gifts, chocolate candy and 50 cents each from your father Zayde Solomon and a dollar from Bubba Rachel, Mommy’s mother.
In the 1970s Judi and I were teachers and community organizers at the United Community Centers in East New York Brooklyn. At the day care center, where she was the assistant director, Judi and the staff invented their own winter holiday they called the Festival of Lights. The pre-kindergarten and school-age children learned about winter holidays from around the world including Christmas, Yule Log, Three King’s Day, Loy Krathong, Diwali, and Hanukah. Our kids attended the program and were among the few white and fewer Jewish children.
At home Judi and I decided to separate and celebrate both Hanukah and Christmas. We saved the big gift giving for Christmas. For Hanukah the kids got “gelt,” a few dollars, and a book. We used to invite all the families active in the community center to our apartment where we lit candles, sang Hanukah songs, told the story of Hanukah, and ate latkes, traditional potato pancakes with sour cream and apple sauce. I got to tell the Hanukah story and was in charge of latkes making.
We usually had almost fifty people attend so I made the latkes with 20 pounds of potatoes and 6 pounds of onions. That morning the kids and their friends helped me peel potatoes and skin onions. If you soak the unskinned onions in cold water you don’t cry so badly. I sliced and diced the potatoes and onions and the kids ran them through an electric food processor, finely chopped but not liquefied. We put the potato-onion mixture in an extra large bowl with 2 tablespoons of baking powder, salt to taste (I don’t use pepper or eggs), and flour to absorb some of the expressed liquid.
That evening I had multiple frying pans running simultaneously on the stove and an electric frying pan for keeping cooked latkes warm. I covered the bottom of each pan with about a quarter inch of oil and set them on high flames. When the oil was smoking hot I used a slotted spoon to make 4 or 5 3-inch round latkes in each pan, turning them over when the edges were crisp and the tops had congealed. Between rounds I drained some of the expressed liquid from the bowl and added more flour. Cooked latkes drained on paper towel and then went into the electric fryer to keep warm until people were ready for more. Eventually people were sated and I got to eat some of my creation.
The community center also had a holiday dinner and the old director used to make the latkes. Once he was ill and although he attended, he couldn’t do the cooking. People asked me to make the latkes and I said he wouldn’t be happy. My latkes were flat and crisp and his were more like deep-fried potato puffs, he made them with extra flour and lots of eggs. Our families came from different villages in Eastern Europe and each village made the only authentic latkes their own way. I cooked the latkes that night and he stormed out complaining that they weren’t the real thing.
Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.
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