Considering I've been on this planet for as long as I have been, it's a little surprising that up until recently I'd never been to a Hanukkah party – especially when you consider that it's eight days long, giving many of my Jewish friends abundant opportunity to invite me over.
This year, our friend Howard Raik invited us to celebrate the third night of the eight-day holiday.
Before we ate, Raik related to us the story of the war of Jewish guerillas against the Seleucids who had taken over their temple and sacrificed pigs.
I probably need not explain the problem that Jews have with pigs, but an interesting part of this story is that when the Seleucids were searching caves for Jewish guerillas, the Jews played with the dreidel. Their gaming fooled their pursuers into thinking they were just sitting in the caves gambling rather than regrouping to fight again. To this day, dreidel play on Hanukkah usually involves gambling with very small sums of money. I did not know that.
As many know, the miraculous side of the Hanukkah story is that when the Jews retook the temple and cleaned it up, they found that they had only a little oil for the eternal flame that hangs in all synagogues. Though they thought they had enough for only a day, the eternal flame burned for eight days (a lot less than eternity, but nonetheless miraculous).
The theme of the oil is carried through in the main Hanukkah dish for Eastern European Jews: latkes, the favorite holiday potato pancakes, which are fried in oil.
Raik purees his potatoes with onion, and when they fry, the soft patties get wonderfully lacy edges and an overall crispiness difficult to achieve when the potatoes are merely shredded. The relatively thin potato-onion slurry creates more surface area contact between the pancake mixture and the hot oil, resulting in a crusty pancake.
I ate around a dozen latke. I liked 'em. But what I liked most about this event was the integration of food with religious tradition.
Food is also critically important in the springtime seders – and I've never been to one of those, either (attn: Steve Gevinson, Rob Gardner and other MOT).