Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Attack of the Latke Lovers

By Susan Esther Barnes

It was the seventh night of Chanukah. The meeting of our Chevra Kadisha (group of people who visit the sick, ritually wash and prepare people for burial, etc.) had barely begun when the rabbi asked, "Who here hasn't had a latke yet this year?" I raised my hand. Nobody else did.

There was a round of gasps. "You haven't had a latke? Seriously?"

"No," I answered, "I never have latkes."

"Susan Barnes," he said, "You must have a latke before Chanukah is over. You think what we are doing here is a mitzvah, but having a latke is a more important one."

"What," I retorted, "I'm going to Hell because I haven't eaten a latke?" (Yes, the rabbi and I actually talk to each other like this).

"Tomorrow night," he asked, "you're getting home early enough that you can make latkes?"

"No," I explained, "tomorrow night I'm volunteering here at the homeless shelter."

He looked distressed.

By this point, the conversation had gone on longer than I wanted. I was blushing. "What's the big deal?" I thought, "Eating a latke isn't actually a mitzvah, a commandment from God. Maybe eating latkes is the tradition of the rest of the Chevra Kadisha, but it isn't mine."

The word "latke" is Yiddish, not Hebrew. When I was growing up, nobody in my family spoke Yiddish. My father and his parents were from Hungary, not Poland or Russia. Apparently, my ancestors spent some time in France and Germany after they were thrown out of Spain in 1492 and before they settled in Hungary, but my father insists we're still Sephardic.

Nonetheless, latkes are associated with Chanukah because they are fried in oil, and Chanukah is about the miracle of the light that lasted for eight days even though there was only one day's worth of oil.

One would think it would be sufficient for me to say, "It may be your tradition to eat latkes on Chanukah, but it isn't mine," and that would be the end of it, but it wasn't.

Ironically, at one point, after the discussion had finally been deflected off of my latke deficiency and had made its way to visiting the sick, one of the women described some advice she had gotten when she was volunteering at a hotline to prevent child abuse.

She was told, "When you're talking with someone, picture that you're riding in a car with them. The person you are talking to is the driver, and you are the passenger. They are driving their own life. You can point out the view to them; you can even suggest they might want to take a different route, but you never try to grab the wheel."

Clearly, at least some of the others in the room had a lot of energy about the fact that I hadn't eaten a latke. The message I got from them was, "You are not okay because you have not eaten a latke. There is something wrong with you. The only way to fix it is for you to eat a latke, and then you will be okay again."

I felt as if suddenly a whole room full of people had tried to grab the wheel from me all at the same time, and I had to try to wrestle it back. I realized how fortunate I am that I am in a place in my life where I know I'm okay. There is nothing essentially wrong with me. I could not eat a single latke for the entire rest of my life, and I would still be okay.

Still, after the meeting, one woman said to me, "You must be allergic to something in latkes."

"No," I said, "If I were allergic, I would have said so."

On the way to the parking lot, another woman offered hopefully, "I'll be making latkes on Sunday. You're welcome to come over and have some."

After I declined her invitation, another person said, "I'll be making latkes on Thursday. I can bring one to synagogue for you on Friday night."

"What?" I said, "You think I want a cold, congealed latke?"

"I'll heat it up for you," she said.

"No thank you," I insisted, "I don't need a latke."

As I said to these folks in the parking lot, I'm not anti-latke. If I were at someone's home and they were serving latkes, I would have one. But I don't need a latke to feel like I have properly observed Chanukah.

What is it that makes us go beyond simple hospitality and causes us to go to such great lengths to try to foist our traditions onto people who clearly do not feel compelled to partake in them? And how can we make it stop?


  1. Dear Susan, I am so sorry, we did not mean to attack ...
    I have given this some thought ... Latkas are symbolic of the communal nature of the holiday. My mother remembers grating potatoes for her mother, my son grates potatoes for me ... my husband will help monitor the frying pans ... my daughter will invite non Jewish friends over... my young niece and nephew will bask in everyone's attention and light. The latkas are an excuse. A wonderful, delicious excuse to be together.
    And that is how the invitation was intended,to share in the joy of being together.... over latkas!

    Happy Hanukkah!

  2. Rachel -

    No need to apologize! I know the invitations were made with the best of intentions. As you say, they were made out of a desire to share something special. It was just a bit overwhelming, is all.

    The "worst" part was actually during the meeting, when I felt embarassed and didn't know how to steer the conversation on to something else.

    I know the stuff afterward was just people trying to be nice.

    By the way, all that "grating potatoes" stuff you wrote about made me think about my sister and me grating cabbage for my grandmother so she could make cabbage noodles. Maybe I'll have to share some cabbage noodles with all of you some time. It tastes much better than it sounds, and seems to have many of the same connections for me that latkes have for you.