This Friday evening, Jews around the world will celebrate the first night of Chanukah with menorah lightings, blessings, and foods that honor the miracle of the oil.
Technically speaking, I am not Jewish, but this year my family will observe Chanukah anyway. In the past, I’ve made latkes and left it at that. My head told me that this was as much as I could do, that I didn’t have a right to this holiday, but my heart disagreed. This year my heart won, and I’m looking forward to celebrating the holiday for the first time. More than anything else, I want to do justice to the traditions of the holiday, traditions that I readily acknowledge to be borrowed.
Because I am borrowing them, I want to treat these traditions with great care and respect. Above all, I want to avoid observing the holiday as some kind of religious tourist: “Oh, look at the pretty little menorah–how quaint, and wouldn’t these latkes would be delicious with bacon?”
No, to the extent that I am able, we will try to celebrate Chanukah as a Jewish family would. Every evening at sundown, Mimi will wield the shammash candle and light the menorah, while I sing the ancient Chanukah blessings in Hebrew. And, after studying Kashrut dietary laws, I’m planning 8 nights worth of Kosher meals.
This is the most obvious way for me to understand Jewish traditions. Food is an amazing inroad to culture, maybe none more so than Jewish culture, which is, of course, scattered all over the globe. In addition to theology, the preservation of ancient Jewish values and traditions seems to be concentrated in food and recipes, things that can be stored in the memories of peoples and individuals, treasures carried in the mind. In her work, The Book of Jewish Food, the great Claudia Roden evokes this idea when she writes:
Every cuisine tells a story. Jewish food tells the story of an uprooted, migrating people and their vanished worlds. It lives in people’s minds and has been kept alive because of what it evokes and represents.
I’m interested in celebrating those “vanished worlds” during Chanukah this year, partly because I sense that my own ancestors may have once been citizens of these lost worlds. I’d like to try to recover some of richness of Jewish tradition for my own child and — who am I kidding? — for myself.
So, with our friends Tom and Angie and their daughter Lydia, Jim and Mimi and I are going to have a little party on Saturday night, the second night of my first Chanukah. We’ll light the lights and enjoy the evening with foods that honor the star of the Chanukah celebration — olive oil — and dear friends. And then we’ll head out to Opelika’s Victorian Front Porch tour, a celebration of a very different sort.
Here’s the menu. Except for the latkes and the liptauer — foods I’ve been making for years — the dishes come mostly from the Sephardic tradition since I’ve been reading a lot about Sephardic cooking lately (more on that soon).
Orange Marinated Olives
Rosemary~Cayenne Roasted Nuts
Liptauer with Crackers
Latkes with Apple Sauce & Sour Cream
White Bean Salad with Lemon and Cumin
Fennel & Orange Salad
Olive Oil Lemon Tart
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Vin du Maison
As a side note: Tikkun magazine and the Network of Spiritual Progressives co-sponsor a webpage dedicated to exploring the holidays of many of the world’s religious traditions. Their Chanukah Guide is available on this page and is a useful resource for non-Jews who may be interested in respectfully observing the holiday.