Bubbie’s Latkes

As the eight-day holiday of Chanukah starts, we present Susan Gartenberg’s remembrance of her grandmother’s potato pancakes (latkes in Yiddish). This dish is traditional for Chanukah because it is fried in oil, recalling the Chanukah miracle when one day’s oil in the rededicated Temple lasted for eight days. Susan Gartenberg grew up in Detroit and is a retired preschool and elementary school educator. Her three grandchildren now enjoy their bubbie’s latkes!

My bubbie made the best potato latkes and coffee cakes!

Like many Jewish grandmothers in those days, she never had a recipe.

One day, when my children were very young, Bubbie came to help me make latkes. She wore her usual cotton house dress with a zipper in front. She put on a cotton print apron and watched me peel potatoes.

“Oy vay, you’re wasting half the potatoes!” she cried as I continued peeling with my fancy new left-handed peeler.

She took over and, one-two-three, those potatoes were peeled! I invited more families to celebrate Chanukah with us, and before I knew it, we had 15 pounds of potatoes

peeled and grated by hand (no food processors in those days)!

We fried the latkes, overwhelming our guests with the aroma.

Nothing was too much for Bubbie, not even 50 guests for Chanukah.

Bubbie’s coffee cakes were known throughout our community. She kneaded the dough filled with cinnamon and raisins and allowed it to rise, covered with a cloth, on the top of her gas stove, then baked the cakes in white enamel pans with red trim.

After baking she would cover the warm cakes with a kitchen towel and place them in an empty cardboard tomato  basket. Some of the cakes remained on the stove in her home so she could greet guests with tea and cake and a “shtekel” (cube of) sugar.

My zadie believed women shouldn’t drive, so Bubbie, wearing a flowered front-zippered housedress and a white sweater, and I would walk – and

walk, and walk – to bring her fragrant coffee cakes and latkes to family and friends for the holiday.

I could never replicate the coffee cakes but I can remember that the most important ingredient was the love Bubbie incorporated into every recipe. I can feel it even as I remember her cooking.

Another thing I remember is that I, as the first grandchild, could do no wrong in Bubbie’s eyes.
When my mother would become  angry at me for some childish infraction, Bubbie would say, in Yiddish,  “She won’t do it again.”  I always felt very special and very loved.

The recipe below is adapted from Epicurious.



Get ready for “Thanksgivukkah”

The Jewish holiday of Chanukah usually falls in December, often close to Christmas. This leads to what some Jews call “the December dilemma” – how to celebrate our holiday in a meaningful and fun way without making it seem like “the Jewish Christmas,” because the two celebrations have absolutely nothing in common.

This year, due to a quirk of the calendar, the first day of Chanukah coincides with Thanksgiving. It’s not much of a problem to celebrate the two in tandem, because Thanksgiving, though it has spiritual overtones, is not a religious holiday and there’s nothing about it that makes Jews uneasy about celebrating it. Writers who think they’re clever have taken to adopting the term “Thanksgivukkah.”

A rare congruence

I think everyone is going so crazy about it because it is so exceedingly rare. Data crunchers have discovered that the first time the two holidays would have coincided was 1861–but there was no all-American Thanksgiving then; President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first Thanksgiving in 1863. Until 1942, Thanksgiving was the last Thursday in November; now it’s the fourth Thursday in November (sometimes there are five). In 1888, Chanukah started on Thanksgiving Day because it was the last Thursday of November, November 29. The next time the start of Chanukah and Thanksgiving will coincide will be–well, maybe never! From now on, due to the way the Jewish calendar is organized, the earliest Chanukah can start will be November 29, which is too late to ever be Thanksgiving.

But wait, there’s more! The Jewish calendar is slowly getting out of sync with the Gregorian calendar, by a few days per thousand years. This calendar drift means the Jewish calendar will slowly loop through the Gregorian calendar until it’s back where it is now. But that won’t happen until the year 79811 – and the most prestigious rabbis will probably get together before then to correct it so that the fall holidays will remain in the fall and the spring holidays will remain in the spring.

Then again, Jewish holidays always start at sundown, so even though the first day of Chanukah is on Thanksgiving this year, we’ll begin lighting Chanukah candles the night before Thanksgiving.  In 2070 and 2165, the first day of Chanukah will fall on the day after Thanksgiving; in those years, the first candle will be lit on Thanksgiving Day after sundown. Maybe that will count as another “Thanksgivukkah,” maybe it won’t.

For some interesting charts comparing the Jewish and Gregorian calendars, see this blog by Jonathan Mizrahi (where I got a lot of this information).

Newspapers, magazines and websites are having a heyday with articles about how to combine the celebration of Thanksgiving and Chanukah. One enterprising retailer is even selling a turkey-shaped Chanukah menorah called a Menurkey.

Some clergy are looking for ways to combine the Thanksgiving message of gratitude with the Chanukah message of dedication (the literal meaning of the word, for the rededication of the Temple after the Jewish victory over the Assyrians). One who does it well is Rabbi Yael Levy in this table blessing.

A Thanksgivukkah grinch

Grinches are usually associated with Christmas. If there’s a Thanksgivukkah version, it’s probably Rabbi David Brenner who wrote “Why I Will Not Be Celebrating ‘Thanksgivukkah’”  for the Huffington Post. He says mash-ups dilute the message of both holidays. Thanksgiving helps all Americans overcome the divisions that separate us, he says.

In the rituals celebrating this fall harvest festival, we Americans are united in connecting to our land and the good things it produces. Chanukah is the opposite. Rather than celebrating the coming together of disparate parties, like the Native Americans and the Pilgrims, it commemorates a military victory in second century BCE Judea. The Maccabees were not a tolerant lot, but they triumphed over a much larger force. Rabbi Brenner says Chanukah could better be compared with Independence Day.

(See a cute anti-Thanksgivukkah video by Rabbi Brenner on the Heeb Magazine website.)

Cook New World foods in oil!

Most of the “whee-it’s Thanksgivukkah” articles are food-related, because that seems to be the easiest way to combine the traditions of Thanksgiving and Chanukah. As I pointed out last week, traditional Chanukah foods are fried or baked in oil, to symbolize the Chanukah miracle: when the Maccabees overcame the Assyrians and reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem, they could find only one tiny cruse of pure oil for the Eternal Light, enough for one day. They lit the lamp, and the oil lasted for eight days, until more oil could be procured.

So for “Thanksgivukkah,” just combine a harvest-y and New World food (e.g. cranberries, sweet potatoes, pumpkin) with an oily preparation and you’re all set: potato latkes (pancakes) with cranberry sauce, or latkes made from sweet potatoes or squash, or pumpkin doughnuts.  Or if you’re adventurous, deep fry your turkey! There are some good recipes on the MyJewishDetroit website.

Personally, I’m very much looking forward to celebrating the two holidays together. Thanksgiving is a big deal in my family, the one time of year when my siblings and I all get together. My brother in New Jersey and my sister outside Washington, DC take turns hosting. When our children were little we would deliver Chanukah gifts at Thanksgiving because it was easier than shipping them later, but we were never able to celebrate Chanukah together. This year will be a first.

In the spirit of Chanukah, with a bit of a fall-harvest-Thanksgiving flavor, I offer this recipe for Cinnamon-Apple Latkes. They can be served as a side dish or a dessert. Whenever I’ve made them I’ve gotten rave reviews and requests for the recipe. This recipe makes about 16 latkes. Happy holidays, everyone!