You are in the midst of moving across country right now, so I am going to assume that your Christmas tree may come a little late this year. Ours is up and has been slowly accumulating and losing ornaments, at a rate commensurate with how much unsupervised time June has in the living room. The menorah, however, is high up on a shelf, just waiting patiently for the first night of Hanukah.
Growing up Jewish in New York or, say, Israel, is really no big deal. You are amongst thousands. Many thousands, even. You’re nothing too special. You’re not even weird.
Ah, but not so in Yakima, Washington. Population 200,000. Jewish population 20.
Yakima is the kind of town where public places don't bother putting up the obligatory plastic menorah next to the fabulously ornate Christmas tree, because absolutely no one will notice and, even if they do, 20 signatures never accomplished much. In fact, one of my most vivid memories after moving to Yakima, at the impressionable age of 8, was when one of my classmates, upon hearing my religion, looked at me wide-eyed and asked, “What’s Jewish?” Say, wha???
I suppose it doesn’t help that Judaism doesn’t come with the most glamorous of holidays; a travesty that makes widespread commercialization nearly impossible. For example, there is the holiday where you get to hang cans of food from a tent-like contraption made out of plants, which just screams weird. Or, how about the holiday where you spend the day fasting, made worse only by the fact that the day is passed in Temple, atoning for all the “bad” things you did all year (how many times must I be punished for dutch-ovening my brother?). Or the one where you have to avoid leavened bread and "get" to bring peanut butter and jelly on matzo to school, while the rest of your Christian friends gorge on Hostess cupcakes and bologna, Miracle Whip, and Wonder Bread sandwiches (this was in the 1980s when clean eating hadn’t been invented yet). Tough sell, all of them.
So, as a child, when you so desperately want to blend in, being Jewish in a small town kind of sucks.
Except at Chanukah. For some reason, Hanukkah is this mystical, magical Jewish holiday as far as Gentile girls and boys are concerened. Its temporal proximity to Christmas helps, from an exposure standpoint, for sure. But can that be it? Maybe it’s the 8 contiguous nights of presents or perhaps the chocolate Hannukah gelt, all wrapped in shiny gold paper. Or maybe it’s the legal, underage gambling (aka the Dreidel Game) or the candle-filled menorah, which just beckons to the pyromaniac in all of us. Or maybe it's because you literally cannot spell it wrong. But whatever it is, Hannukah was the one time of year when I felt, well, a little less odd. Maybe even a little kick-ass.
Of course, we still had to combat some strange food. Potato latkes were always painted as this crazy exciting dish, but are really just glorified hasbrowns, as far as kids are concerned, and not something I or my little brother ever really wanted to eat. So somewhere along the line, maybe because she felt bad for us, my Catholic mother found an old recipe for Cheese Latkes: essentially ricotta pancakes with a Jewish shout-out.
She would make up a huge batch on the first night of Hanuka and we would eat those things for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I would proudly bring them to school, along with a little jam or homemade applesauce, and the kids would crowd around, ooing and aahing. And of course I was stoked because finally, I had something the other kids wanted to trade for lunch. Total score.
They are awesome warm or cold, served day or night. I’ve even made them for Christmas morning alongside eggs and bacon (don’t judge – the whole growing-up-with-two-religions thing has really blurred all the lines).
The wisdom of adulthood has taught me to embrace my cultural differences. But my yearly love affair with cheese latkes hasn't hurt, either. Make 'em yourself and see if you don't feel half Jewish :).
(Serves 3-4 as an accompaniment)
16 oz whole milk ricotta
4 large eggs
6 T flour
2 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 - 2 T sugar
In a medium bowl, whisk all ingredients together until no lumps remain. Heat a greased pan over medium heat, then cook by scant 1/4 cupfuls, the way you would dollar pancakes. Enjoy!