Once each month, I go to an Assisted Living Facility/Nursing Home to lead a Jewish/Shabbat discussion. The topics are always Jewish-related (no politics or sports). Sometimes we discuss some aspect of the parshah, sometimes something about a current holiday, sometimes a more general Jewish educational theme.
This shabbat — Shabbat Miketz (which always falls as the intermediate Shabbat of Hanukah) — I was planning to discuss something about the holiday itself.
On alternate months, the discussion is followed by a luncheon. This was one such month. For this shabbat, I asked the home if some latkes (fried potato pancakes) could be included in the luncheon.
To my surprise, I was told, “No.”
I offered to buy some frozen latkes and bring them with me, if they could be microwaved or otherwise heated. In the end, Krys, a member of the Recreation staff, who was not Jewish herself but who had learned how to make latkes, as well as their significance, from her Jewish mother-in-law, graciously made some wonderful, authentic latkes. They were perfect!
Why were the latkes so important to me? Why didn’t I bring jelly donuts (sufganiot), as I’ve done at other places?
To answer, it must first be said that this group of senior citizens is exclusively Ashkenazic. Eating sufganiot is more of a Sephardic custom; one which has also flourished in modern Israel.
More importantly, over the years, I’ve come to understand the intimate connection between custom and observance.
In the beginning of my rediscovery of Jewish observance as an adult, I was primarily interested in the “universal spiritual meaning” of Hanukah and other holidays. I rather distanced myself from customs that had, over time, grown up around observance. I felt that they obscured a more ancient, deeper meaning.
Eating latkes is a “minhag”; a custom. Yet, for Ashkenazic Jews, it has become part of the observance itself. Some people argue that it is, in fact, a mitzvah.
I have sometimes heard the phrase “hallowed by tradition.” How can tradition “hallow” something? Isn’t that strictly within God’s own provenance?
Something that is repeatedly, habitually done in worship can gradually take on the quality of worship itself. It reminds me a bit of the meat of the Sh’lamim (“Peace Offerings”) that was shared in the Temple. The meat and the eating of it were part of the sacrificial process.
I would liken it to a Christian family having a tree at home on Christmas. There’s nothing in Christian scripture or dogma that requires it. It isn’t universally practiced within Christianity. Yet, the celebration of that holiday would be lessened to a substantial degree by its absence, for those families who have grown up in cultures that include having a tree.
One can certainly eat fried potato pancakes at any time of the year. But on Hanukah, they are inextricably connected with the “oil” in the Hanukah story. Eating them on Hanukah thus brings with it — even unintentionally — a special “kavanah;” a special contemplative meaning. Whether one focuses on it or not, it brings the story to mind and makes of the holiday itself something special; something unusual. Eating a special food urges us to give special attention to the particular time in which we’re doing it. Eating matzoh on Pesach is the same.
Parenthetically, in those first of years of my adult observance, I didn’t always get to light the menorah every night. Sometimes I was out and got back too late, or wasn’t free to light them during the next day, etc. One year, having some left over candles, I lit the menorah in April. I was curious to see if it produced the same awe in me as it did/does on Hanukah.
It didn’t. It was just a pretty light.
So, it was very important to me to make sure that this year, latkes were available for the members to eat. It enhanced their involvement in and appreciation of the holiday.
And it was especially touching that Krys took it upon herself to help us fulfill this mitzvah.