Hanukkah, my Hanukkah: A tribute to my grandmother

Celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwanzaa with light, renewal, and love.

WASHINGTON, DC, December 20, 2011 — Hanukkah, my Hanukkah, what memories you bring.

Hanukkah is the holiday that reminds Jews that what has been destroyed can be rebuilt. Each year my mother’s extended family held a Hanukkah party, and I still hold these parties deep in my heart along with what they taught me. 

My family’s Hanukkah party tradition began as part of the family group that my grandmother’s children formed after she passed away, with my grandfather following her just three months later. My grandmother died before I was born, but I was given her name.   

Giant menorah at Grand Army Plaza, NYC.

Lighting of the giant menorah at Grand Army Plaza, NYC.

My grandmother had been born in Latvia. But she was sent to Baltimore when just a girl, barely 13, saved by her parents from a pogrom that wiped out her family. Not long after this, at 15, she was married. The marriage was arranged by a cousin who’d also gotten out of Latvia and in whose house she lived for two years.

What she accomplished after what she’d lost still teaches me, even today. She remade family with her eight children. My mother was the youngest. And I’m the youngest of all the cousins. 

The family Hanukkah party she inspired was run each year by Bunnie who is married to my first cousin Mishel. He is more than 20 years my senior which gives you an idea of the generational span of the extended family that still lived under the canopy of love that Mary Roseman created. 

At the party, the children all sang the blessing and lit the menorah: Eight candles for the eight days the light lasted in the temple that had been destroyed and despoiled under orders from the Seleucid tyrant Antiochus. Pigs were slaughtered on the temple’s altar, under orders of Antiochus, who ordered the altar to be dedicated to the Greek god Zeus. The Jewish rebels, the Maccabees, who had been hiding out in the hills, threw out the despoilers and reclaimed the temple. 

One day of sacred oil for light remained to light the menorah as the Maccabees and their followers began to rebuild their sacred space. But, like hope and love, the light lasted for eight days, providing the inspiration for Hanukkah: Eight days of light, eight candles that we light, one at a time, adding one more for each of the days of Hanukkah as a reminder of the time it took to restore the temple and honor the miracle that illuminated the work of its rebuilding. 

I too must restore. I carry with me, like the one valise my grandmother carried from Latvia, the generational loss of family that, like that ancient synagogue, needed to be rebuilt after it had been ravaged and sullied. 

Part of that suitcase of loss is the unconscious memory of my grandmother’s journey from Latvia and beyond. Over the years, that loss has deepened. As the youngest grandchild, I have lost not only my grandparents, but my mother, my father, and all my mother’s and my father’s sisters and brothers. My sister, too, is gone. The extended family is now scattered, and, effectively, gone from me as well. 

But today I recall those Hanukkah parties, those extended family gatherings of the past. I recall the stories, layered with loss and love. I am learning, as Hanukkah teaches, that lives can be rebuilt, that loss can be overcome. I need no longer carry my grandmother’s valise of loss. But I must try to live in the memory of the grandmother I did not know, in her spirit, in her hope. The future is now up to me, and I must carry on her work of rebuilding. 

No matter your tradition—Jew or Muslim, Christian or non-believer, celebrant of Kwanza or Bodhi Day, we all seek rebirth. We all seek light. We all are joined with each other in our search for the center of this word: Enlightenment

On Christmas or Hanukkah or on the holiday of light you and your loved ones honor, we celebrate renewal as well as the hope of rebirth that only love can offer. 

As a symbol of growth and renewal and dwelling at the heart of any holiday celebration are the holiday foods and dishes we share together. Our Hanukkah parties were no exception.

Grandmother’s recipes for the holidays are still in my mother’s three-ring binder, where the past is written down in cups of sugar, pinches of salt and latkes. That traditional potato pancake remains this holiday’s signature food, reminding us still of loss and light. 

Here is my grandmother’s recipe for latkes, updated with the help of Abby Mandel’s Cuisinart Classroom (some variations): 

3 large Idaho potatoes. Unpeeled, scrubbed and cut into the largest pieces that will fit in the tube.

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Two teaspoons salt

Freshly ground pepper

1/2 stick unsalted butter

¼ cup oil (olive oil is better, I think, for the holiday and the tradition)

Parsley sprigs 

1. Use the fine julienne disk: Shred the potatoes. Soak them in cold water.

2. Put 2 tablespoons each of the butter and oil in a heavy skillet. Put two tablespoons each of the shredded potatoes in the skillet and pat them in a round shape. Brown one side well, turn the pancake and brown the other side.

3. Transfer the pancakes to paper towels (I prefer a rack with paper towels beneath to ensure crispness) and repeat with the remaining potatoes, more oil and butter as needed.

4. Arrange the pancakes, light and crisp, on a platter and garnish with parsley.


A loving, if slightly irreverent, tribute to the holiday by the ever joyful Adam Sandler follows:

And now for the more traditional Dreidel Song:


Mary L. Tabor is the author of the memoir: (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and The Woman Who Never Cooked. She says, “I ferret out the detail, love the footnote, am never bored and believe it all leads to story. Best advice I ever got? ‘Only connect …’ E.M. Forster” Find out more at http://maryltabor.com

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