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Holiday Guide: Hanukkah is here

Submitted by on 1, December 1, 2010 – 12:03 amNo Comment

As holidays go, Hanukkah isn’t one of the most important in the Jewish pantheon. But it does offer a fine excuse to invite friends and family members – in some cases, dozens of friends and family members – to gather for a hearty (read: fattening) meal.

“It’s a good excuse for a big party,” says Josh Cohen.

As Jews everywhere break out the candles, menorahs – and vegetable graters, The Island took some time out to ask local residents how they celebrate the annual Festival of Lights (which, for the uninitiated, commemorates the Maccabees’ successful rebellion against Syrian King Antiochus IV and the miracle oil that was supposed to power the temple’s Eternal Flame for one day but lasted eight). In addition to the stories, we’ve got some latke recipes for you to try.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in joining the celebration, Temple Israel is hosting a community Chanukkiah lighting at 6:30 p.m. this Friday, December 3. The lighting is followed at 7:30 p.m. by a vegetarian potluck dinner. Interested participants are invited to bring their menorahs and candles to light; if you’re interested in attending the potluck, call the temple at 522-9355 to reserve a space. The temple is at 3183 Mecartney Road (behind Harbor Bay Shopping Center).

On Sunday, December 5, the temple is hosting a Children’s Holiday Crafts Fair featuring handmade holiday items that will begin at 1:30 p.m. And on December 12, the temple will host a 10 a.m. meet and greet event for people interested in learning about Alameda’s Jewish community and how to get connected.

“Our Hanukkah traditions have evolved over the time period of when the children grew up,” Elaine Kofman recalls. The traditions include a “very large” party attended by Kofman’s children and grandchildren, her siblings and their families – sometimes as many as 25 people. Kofman began gathering chanukkiah for the children in her family to light many years ago; she’s now got nine menorahs in her collection. But for Kofman, the star of the show is the food. “When I did it, I would make a brisket and the potato latkes and some kind of vegetables,” Kofman says (her daughters-in-law have since taken over the cooking). She says she also used to make a sweet and sour cabbage borscht “just to be different” and to honor her family’s Russian heritage; what gets offered on a family’s table, she says, is dependent on what part of the world the family came from and what food was available there (sufganiyot – jelly doughnuts – are more common in Israel). As far as gifts go, Kofman said she used to give her children presents for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah – they would shake the presents, to see what they were going to open the next night” – but now that her children are adults, they instead donate to local charities in their honor. “You get to the point where you really don’t need any more things,” Kofman says.

Cindy Berk also hosts a huge Hanukkah party: For nearly every one of the 13 years she and her husband have lived in the Bay Area, they’ve hosted a Hanukkah open house. “It’s about community, and keeping touch with people, because we’re so busy during the year,” says Berk, who now serves as president of Temple Israel’s board of directors. Berk says her family’s Hanukkah celebrations used to be focused on the kids, but now it’s all about the latkes (she claims her husband’s are the best in the West). Berk’s husband, who learned how to make latkes from his father, cooks all day as friends and family come through – about 50 people a year, she says. Berk says her husband is a purist who refuses to deviate from the traditional latke recipe he has long employed or the traditional Idaho Russet potato typically used to make them – and that he also refuses to use a food processor, sticking instead with a manual grater. But the couple is less particular about the food guests bring: Berk says one year, a friend brought some (decidedly not Kosher) shrimp rolls. “They were handmade. And they were wonderful,” Berk says.

Josh Cohen says he, too, has the traditional latke dinner with family and candle lighting during Hanukkah. But he’s got another family tradition he carries on as well: Performing Hanukkah music during the holiday. Cohen’s late father, who was cantor at Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham, and his mother, a singer who taught for a quarter century at what’s now California State University, East Bay, offered Hanukkah performances in the 1960s and 1970s. And now Cohen is too, performing with a friend around the East Bay. “We do a little presentation with Hanukkah songs,” says Cohen, who plays the violin, bass, guitar “and a bunch of other instruments.” One gig was at the Reutlinger Home for Jewish Parents in Danville; another was at a retirement home in Oakland where a friend of Cohen’s is the activities director. “They had kind of a multicultural Christmas show. And we did a whole bunch of Hanukkah stuff for them, told the story of Hanukkah and did a bunch of songs, and lit candles,” Cohen recalls.

Skip Soskin’s Hanukkah celebrations center around traditions – and the fine art of bending them. Sometimes he starts the holiday lighting eight candles instead of one (since there was more oil in the lamp when it was first lit); his mother will often introduce new elements – like the story of Judas – in order to bring new foods to the table (in this case, goat cheese, because Judas probably had goats). Soskin, who has celebrated Christmas on and off throughout his life, has another, post-meal tradition if the family Hanukkah party is at his house: He takes a walk around the corner to check out the decorations on Alameda’s Christmas Tree Lane, 3D glasses in hand (the light that passes through them projects the Star of David onto everything). That said, Soskin has stuck with some of the more traditional elements of Hanukkah: he’s got a collection of dreidels that his children, who are 29, 28 and 17, still like to spin during the holiday. And each year he tells the story of Hanukkah in one form or another, another enduring tradition: Soskin says his 17-year-old found the classic “Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins” at the bookstore last week while she visited with friends, “and she made them sit there while she read it to them.” Even though Hanukkah isn’t a major Jewish holiday and, as Soskin says, “comes at the wrong time of year,” he plans to celebrate it again in January: That’s when one of his children returns from Spain. “We’ll do it on the holiday, and then again when he comes home, because he missed it,” Soskin says.

Latke recipes

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Latke recipe from Elaine Kofman in the Temple Israel 90th Anniversary Cookbook; $18, available in Temple Israel’s office during normal business hours, Sundays during religious school and at the Anniversary Tea at 3 p.m. December 18.

2 cups raw grated potatoes

1 medium onion, grated

1 tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. matzo meal

1 tsp. sage (optional)

oil for frying

Combine all ingredients. Drop by tablespoonful onto hot skillet that has been generously greased with oil. Fry on both sides. Drain off oil and serve with applesauce and sour cream.

To freeze, place individually on cookie sheets and put into the freezer. When completely frozen, put into a freezer container. Cover tightly and return to freezer. Reheat on cookie sheets in the oven. You do not need to defrost them first.

Latke recipe from Barbara Kahn

Peel potatoes and grate finely. Depending on how many people will be eating them, I figure about one potato per person.

Grate onions (I figure about one onion to three potatoes.)

When you have grated the potatoes, squeeze the pulp, reserving the liquid, and mix the grated onion and squeezed potatoes in a bowl. Add eggs – two per potato – and mix.

Now check out the reserved liquid. The starch from the potato should have settled to the bottom. Pour off liquid and return starch to the grated mixture and season with salt and pepper. Some people use flour or matzo meal to thicken the mixture, but I use just the starch. (For fun, take a bit of starch and let it sit and see what oxidation does.)

Heat oil in a frying pan (it needs to be hot) and add potato mixture about 1/3 cup at a time. Fry until brown around the edges and the oil is bubbling on top of the latke. Flip and fry the other side.

I serve the the latkes with sour cream and apple sauce. I have a friend from Japan who uses soy sauce.

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