My First Experience with Hanukkah, The First Night

by Ellen Ambrose in General / 12.23.08

On the morning of December 21st, my husband informed me that we were going over to a friend’s house to eat latkes and matzo ball soup. I was delighted because I love matzo ball soup and was excited to try latkes. When I inquired about latkes, my husband told me that he thought they were potato pancakes similar in consistency to crepes. I was intrigued and wondered if I would like them.

When we arrived at our friends house for dinner, things started to unfold about what was actually happening. Let me begin by saying up front that our friend is not Jewish; it is his girlfriend who is Jewish, and she was running the show!

The first clue was the small menorah sitting on the counter. I immediately inquired about the Hanukkah calendar and was told that it was indeed the first day of Hanukkah. I casually asked a question about why there were two candles on the menorah instead of one and was told that the center candle is always present. It was at that point that I knew that I better figure it all out or just go with the flow. I felt both confused and blessed to be included in this great spiritual ritual and wondered how we were so lucky to get the invite.

Before I knew it, people started to arrive who obviously knew what was going on through their religion or through their own natural born instincts (mine must have been taking the night off that night). I was under the impression that we were the only invited guests when in fact, it was a dinner Hanukkah party and there were several Jewish people coming together to celebrate the first night.

While all this was going on, I snuck onto the computer in the back bedroom to quickly get the 411 on Hanukkah and it’s meaning. In just a few minutes time, I found out that the word Hanukkah means ‘dedication’ in Hebrew. Hanukkah is in fact a dedication to the miracle that occurred in 165 B.C.E. when the Jews defeated the Hellenist Syrians. The Hellenist Syrians had previously controlled and outlawed all Jewish rituals. Finally, the Jewish people were able to resume worship and only had enough oil to light the menorah for one night; but the oil actually lasted for 8 days. This was recognized as a miracle and the dedication officially began and was named Hanukkah.

Whew, I felt much better at least having a little bit of a clue, but I was still mostly clueless. So, into the kitchen I ventured, where I found the hostess pan-frying latkes. They were actually similar to hash brown patties and absolutely nothing like crepes. I filed the spousal error away for future use. The hostess informed me that all of our clothes would smell like fried latkes in the morning and that the day after clothes smell is part of her Hanukkah memories from when she was a child.

Right before dinner was served, everyone was called into the kitchen for the official lighting of the first candle. The hostess said a prayer in both Hebrew and English and lit the two candles. I felt moved by her spirituality and ability to speak Hebrew in front of a group of familiar and unfamiliar people. The next thing that happened is my 4 year old son promptly blew out the menorah candles, creating a state of unease and confusion. I tried to re-light the candles as quickly as possible but was fumbling around with the lighter as it had a child safety latch and I was on my D+ game at best at that moment.

During dinner and the breaking of the bread, I noticed that people were eating latkes in different ways. Some had applesauce on top of them and some had sour cream and some people had both. When I inquired I was told that there were not rules or specified ways to eat latkes and it is really “whatever floats your latke boat.” Hmm, that sounds like the type of metaphor that I would typically butcher. I am glad that I did not come up with that one.

I also noticed that the matzo balls in the soup were incredibly huge. When I make the soup, I roll up little tiny balls that are about a fraction of the size of the tennis ball size balls in this soup. When I got home, I did some research and found out that it really is based on how your family makes it.

As we were walking out the door, we got a great hug from the hostess marking our first official Hanukkah experience. I thought it was quite nice. When I woke up this morning, I was greeted with the aroma of fried latkes in my closet. My first Hanukkah memory.

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