By Guest Blogger Buffie Longmire Avital
This year Hanukkah will begin on the evening of November 28th and for the next eight days Jewish families like mine will light candles each night, starting with one and progressing to eight stunning lights on the final night. This beautiful time of pause, reflection, joy, and bringing light to the darkness both literally and figuratively is my favorite holiday. I did not grow up celebrating Hanukkah, in fact I did not grow up Jewish. My first memory of lighting a Hanukkiyah [i.e., menorah] was as a college student; one of my dearest friends brought her Winnie the Pooh Hanukkiyah and asked her friends to join her in lighting it. We would light that same Hanukkiyah together throughout our time at college and later throughout our early twenties in NYC as we navigated our graduate programs. Perhaps this was the start of my great love for Hanukkah.
It wasn’t until I converted and married my Israeli American husband that I owned my first Hanukkiyah; a beautiful wooden one that could be shaped in multiple ways to create intricate lighting patterns. The gift was from his aunt, and it symbolized the beginning of our Jewish family and life. For me Hanukkah represents the journey I continue to take as I carve out my identity as a Black American Jewish woman and mother.
In the summer of 2010 my husband, nearly 1 year old son, and I moved to Greensboro from Brooklyn, NY. We moved for my new position as an assistant professor in the psychology department at Elon University. We hosted our first Hanukkah party that year. It was a few friends and colleagues with young children. My son ate more goldfish than latkes, the traditional potato pancake that is eaten during this Jewish holiday. Perhaps, the goldfish were more appealing than my latkes, which were too thick and falling apart. I used a simple grater and because my son was allergic to eggs, I was limited to using applesauce as a binding agent. Despite my sad latkes, it was a wonderful time and one of the first times our new home was filled with laughter, song, and joy.
It took me a few years to perfect my latke making. My son eventually grew out of his egg allergy, but new friends came into our lives with other dietary needs such as being gluten free, nut free, and vegan. Our family keeps kosher [we don’t eat pork and do not mix dairy and meat], and as a mom of a child that continues to have food allergies while concurrently being someone with their own food allergies, I am particularly sensitive and passionate about creating meals that everyone at the table can enjoy without fear. Over time my latkes have evolved just as our hosting of an annual candle lighting has morphed into a standing room only experience that my husband and I have dubbed “Latke-palooza.” In recent years I have taken to creating themes for our latke experience. Friends and family that attend our events [both Jewish and not] know they will be getting a tasting experience taking them around the world and/or country. I have made latkes inspired by Japanese pancakes, Indian curry using sweet potatoes, a Tex-Mex jalapeño flavor, brisket topped, sweet with apple and bourbon, and some that reflect our adopted [or my return to] our southern roots. The only constant is the first latke recipe that I mastered, one that reflects my husband’s Sephardi [Moroccan Israeli] heritage.
There is great debate on how to eat a latke: Team sour cream vs. Team Applesauce, both are welcomed at our home. In addition to bringing fun flavors to latkes I started creating sour creams and applesauce infused with complimentary flavors for people to indulge in. Of course, no Hanukkah extravaganza is complete without sufganiyot [jelly doughnut holes]. The house smells of onions, various other flavors that surprisingly all blend together to create a delicious aroma, and the crackling sound of sizzling latkes combined with excited conversations fill the space.
Just as everyone has begun to feel the effects of multiple fried potato pancakes, toppings, and other goodies we call everyone to the table and begin lighting candles. We have a collection of Hanukkiyah now and our friends often bring their own. My husband and at least one of the many Rabbis in attendance will say a few words before we begin singing the blessings and then transition into more songs. In the first few years, adults lit the candles with babies and toddlers on their hips now those children light on behalf of their families. They no longer need to be held and some are beginning to catchup in height to the parents that held them.
Each year I must hold in the tears when I see all the faces in the room become illuminated as the glow from all the candles becomes bright. Jews from all different cultural and racial identities, non-Jewish friends and family that are equally diverse, as well as families of all different compositions and sizes take up the space we have created. It is in this moment that I feel the most connected to my Jewish identity. It is all the light, hope, and faith that I need to bring into the new the year with me and that is why for me Hanukkah is the celebration not just of light but of holding onto and including others in your space.
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