A Hanukkah Story (miracle, included)
By Lesley Hyatt
On the morning before Hanukkah begins, I walk outside and see Nena Sara laughing over my little brothers, Matan and Ori, who try to spin wooden dreidles on the rough cement sidewalk. “Vueltanlos! Vueltanlos!” she says, smiling. The boys’ stubby 4-year-old fingers are hopeless, so I show them how it’s done. They sit at attention and watch the dreidles whirl, wobble, and drop like tired warriors.
“Mira,” says Nena Sara. She points at the Hebrew letters and claps her hands. “La nun y la gimel! Un nes gadol! Beeg mee-ra-col! Es buena suerte—good luck!” she adds, winking at me knowingly. Nena Sara, who lives with us, is a Jew from Mexico City. She speaks Hebrew perfectly, and Spanish, too. Her English is not so good, but we always understand her.
But big miracle? Seriously? Of course I roll my eyes at her. How could I not? Nena Sara knows just as well as I do that while all of our friends and neighbors celebrate and sing lalala about victory and light, at my house a battle rages for eight long nights. Over here, Hanukkah means WAR. It’s the one week a year when my normally loving, kind, smoochy smoochy Abba and Ima confront each other in an 8-night, take-no-prisoners, culinary showdown.
Every Hanukkah it’s the same thing: Latke vs Svenj: Who will win?
Trust me, not even a Maccabee can stop the insanity when a Russian Ashkenazi faces off a Moroccan Sephardi in an American kitchen.
And this year? It’s gonna be WORSE THAN EVER.
Well, who do you think decides the winner? Who’s always been the sole voting constituent? ME, Maya Rose, that’s who. And I am extremely democratic: I flipflop my votes, switching loyalites each night—one night latke, one night svenj. At the end of 8 nights, Abba and Ima each have 4 votes: A nice, peaceful tie and shalom bayit—a peaceful home—prevails. But my brothers turned 4 this year, so now, they get to vote, too.
Oy! It’s gonna be a Hannukatastrophic!
I leave my brothers with their dreidels and return inside. Abba’s already in the kitchen crunching potatoes through the grater. Abba insists on grating the potatoes by hand.
“It’s a mitzvah!” he says, throwing his arm in the air. “We grate the potato right down to our own skin! A drop of blood is the latke’s secret ingredient. For a truly sublime latke, a Jew must be as brave and self-sacrificing as a Maccabee! Ti dolzhyn vzyat kapku krovye shtop vigrat vaynu! Am I right, Maya Rose?”
Does he really expect me to answer this question?
My abba grew up in the Soviet Union. But don’t even say the letters U-S-S-R in his presence. If you do, he’ll yell, “Ya ruskayi yevrei-ashkenazi!” –I’m a Russian Ashkenazi! And, obviously, PROUD OF IT.
During Hanukkah, Ashkenazi Jews make latkes: potato pancakes fried in oil. My Abba makes the BEST latkes on the planet: crispy on the outside, soft and salty on the inside. And Abba’s latkes are full of surprises. Who knows what he might throw into the batter? On the 8th night last year, he made Mexican style in honor of Nena Sara—sprinkled with queso fresco and topped with fresh salsa and guacamole. Seriously amazeballs!
As Abba starts chopping onions, tears roll down his cheeks but he doesn’t flinch. He is so dedicated! And yet…Ima won’t even taste Abba’s latkes!
“Potatoes for Hanukkah?” says Ima. Zeh pleelee!
Ima’s family is Sephardic—Moroccan Jews who moved to Israel when she was only two. She looks at Abba’s latkes and rolls her eyes. “Ay, you poor Ashkenazim. You’ll never rise above, davka, the lowly potato. You dig it up by the roots from the cold, cold ground. Ay, you Ashkenazim! You know nothing of honey, pomegranate, saffron! You know nothing of spice—the LIGHT of life!”
Thus, during Hanukkah, Ima makes svenj—sweet, airy doughnuts fried in oil. According to Ima, svenj are the ONLY treats worthy to celebrate the holiday miracle. And Ima’s svenj are full of surprises. On the 8th night TWO Hanukkahas ago, she topped her svenj with fresh rasberries and warm melted chocolate. Totally a-men!
On Hanukkah mornings, Ima rises before dawn to make her dough fresh each day.
“Svenj need air—oxygen—nachon, bat shel-lee? Like our brave warriors of old, Yehuda Maccabee and Matisyahu, svenj RISE UP! Filling the world—and our bellies—with light…and victory!”
The sun has set and our Hanukkah menorah burns with the foreboding fires of the first night and the shammes. As I take my seat at the table, I realize I have chewed my fingernails to nubs, but my brothers fidget and giggle in their chairs.
Ignorance: such bliss!
But even Nena Sara appears happy and calm, smiling beside Ori and humming
ocho candelitas para mi, her own favorite Hanukkah song from childhood. Nena Sara maintains her neutrality during the annual Hanukkah War. She refuses to vote, claiming she is neither Sephardi nor Ashkenazi. “Somos jalebis,” she says. Mizrahi Jews who came to Mexico from Syria.
Nena Sara’s favorite holiday by the way? THANKSGIVING. Every November she makes her own favorite holiday dish: sweet potato pudding topped with marshmallows and brown sugar. “Que rica es la comida Americana!” she says. Nena Sara loves American food. She loves American EVERYTHING.
Suddenly, the kitchen door swings open and Abba appears, setting down the platter in his hands with a flourish. “Traditzya!” he says, as we all admire the perfectly crisp latkes. “Tonight, tradition! Onions, eggs, salt, and a smidgen of matzo meal.”
“And potatoes,” adds Ima smugly. Abba ignores her and so do I.
I throw my arm in the air and attack with my fork. Abba’s latkes crackle and melt salty heaven in my mouth. As I add a spoonful of apple sauce and sour cream from the bowls Abba puts on the table, I swipe a glance at my brothers. They are blissed-out in latkeland. It dawns on me that Abba may win the First Night skirmish by a landslide vote. Guilt starts to overseason my taste buds, but then Ima disappears into the kitchen and returns with a porcelain plate full of bite-sized svenj, snow-peaked with powdered sugar.
“Is there a spy among us?” she says. “I, too, chose masorti—tradition— for our first night.”
Abba narrows his eyes, but I ignore him and pop a svenj onto my tongue. Sweet paradise dissolves in my mouth.
“Ima!” shouts Matan.
“Abba!” smiles Ori.
Every eye at the table rivets to me. Gulp!
Nena Sara once told me, Donde hay gana, hay maña—where there’s a will, there’s a way. I force myself to think. Maybe my brothers will cancel each other’s vote every night? They never agree on anything anyway. And then…I can carry on my own tradition. One night latke, one night svenj—a nice, peaceful stalemate. Shalom bayit could prevail! With this in mind, I cast my vote.
“Ima,” I say with conviction. Abba sighs, but with a nod, he concedes the evening to Ima.
I breathe a sigh of relief.
On the 2nd night, Abba’s latkes taste like the garlic French fries at Saul’s Deli—people drive an hour across town just to eat them. Ima recognizes the unmistakable scent. “Clever,” she says. “Garlic latke. Saul would be impressed.” She’s already admitting defeat, even before she serves her svenj topped with homemade apricot jam.
My brothers vote unpredictably:
“Abba!” shouts Matan.
“Ima!” laughs Ori.
“The svenj are delicious,” I say to Ima, “but tonight, Abba gets my vote.”
And so it goes.
3rd night: Curried potato latkes can’t compete with svenj dipped in Nutella. My brothers split their votes anyway, both of them licking chocolatey hazelnut goo off their hands.
4th night: Latkes mixed with chives and topped with something Abba calls crème fraiche.
“It’s French,” he says.
“Classy,” I say, knowing he’ll get my vote even as I bite into of Ima’s mango-topped svenj.
And my brothers? No surprises!
I can’t believe the pattern doesn’t change on the 5th night when Ima throws down a plateful of svenj drenched in salted caramel.
But nope. Ori votes for Abba, even though he didn’t even touch the green latkes. (Abba had mixed pureed kale into the batter. What was he thinking?)
Meanwhile, Nena Sara pays no attention the battles raging on the table. She ends every meal by folding her napkin in her lap and saying, “Deliciosa la cena! Felíz Januka!”
OK, 6th night? Borscht latkes! Beet red and dolloped with sour cream. Thankfully, it’s my Abba night, but I feel a little sorry for Ima—her svenj are deep red, too, sticky sweet with pomegranate jelly. Matan consoles her. “Ima!” he shouts.
I can’t believe I’m actually enjoying the holiday. The latkes are always golden at the edges; the svenj always feathery light. And the only surprises are on our plates: My brothers always always ALWAYS split their vote.
But on the morning of the 7th night, Ori wakes with a fever. Nena Sara sits by his bedside all day. Ima and Abba check on him between their shifts in the kitchen. When the sun sets and our menorah is ready for lighting, Ori gets up, walks over to the window and…AAAGGGHH! Whatever he ate for lunch lands SPLAT all over the rug. So disgusting!
Ima sends him straight back to bed.
Suddenly, my heart almost stops. I know I should be worried about Ori, but the only thing on my mind is the Hanukkah War! If Ori’s in bed, he won’t be able to vote. And if Ori doesn’t vote, we can’t end with a tie. The whole Hannukalactic universe will destabilize!
I barely taste Abba’s turkey sausage latke and Ima’s lemon curd svenj.
“Abba!” shouts Matan. Clueless, as usual.
I barely look up from my plate.
“Ima,” I whisper.
That night, I don’t sleep. I do the math over and over in my head. Finally, I realize that if Ori stays sick for one more day, shalom bayit might still triumph.
I pray to Hashem. Please, I beg. Please make Ori sick ONE MORE DAY.
But Ori wakes up laughing.
We. Are. Doomed.
I wake early on the morning of the 8th night and sneak into the kitchen. Ima’s already been up: Her svenj dough sits atop the stove, a tea towel covers it like a shroud. But the kitchen is empty now so I tip toe around, peeking into drawers and cabinets. What am I looking for? At first, I’m not sure, and then I am: I’m looking for a miracle.
I stop to gaze upon all the food on the kitchen countertop—onions, flour, matzo meal, jams, mangos and pomegranates, potatoes, eggs, and more. So much more! Everything for every kind of latke or svenj Abba and Ima might use for every past, present, or future Hannukah. I stand there staring at it all. And then…a ray of light shoots into my brain.
Here’s the thing about miracles: Sometimes you have to make them happen. Maybe Hashem can only present what you’ll need—but it’s up to you to use it. Like, for example, the exactly right ingredients for the recipe to save your world.
The other thing about miracles is this: To make a miracle happen, you might need some help.
I exit the kitchen and wake up Nena Sara.
By the time the sun sets, I can barely breathe. I can’t look at Abba or Ima or my brothers or even Nena Sara, my accomplice. What if our plan fails? What if they never forgive me? What if the Hannukah War never ends?
I look at the menorah in the window—the nine candles standing tall like proud warriors. Abba hands me the shames candle. “Maya Rose,” he says, “you lead us tonight.” My heart pounds in my chest as I take the shames. Yes, I think to myself. Tonight, I will lead. I imagine myself as proud as a Macabee. And as brave.
Behind me, my family begins to sing Ma o’tzur. I sing the second line extra loud—tikon beit tefilati. Please restore our prayerful house.
We take our seats at the table. Ima looks crisply at Abba, who starts to rise up from his seat. But Nena Sara taps his shoulder. “Perdón,” she says, motioning him to stay seated and nodding at me to stand.
Abba’s eyebrows stretch up to his forehead and Ima’s lips pucker together forming a tiny, suspicious o.
“Shto eteh?” says Abba.
“Ma zeh?” says Ima.
“Just a sec,” I say, following Nena Sara into the kitchen. I’m losing faith, but I power on. What else can I do?
Nena Sara and I set the plates on the table, steaming with small puffy mounds, orange and sticky white.
“Latke!” shouts Matan.
“Svenj!” shouts Ori.
Abba and Ima narrow their eyes at each other.
“We change tonight un poquitito,” says Nena Sara.
For the first time in my life, I cannot speak. I can only stand there watching.
Ima picks one up with her fingers. She licks the top. And she smiles! “Marshmallow?” she says.
“Mmmm,” says Abba sniffing the air and picking one up with his fork. “Sweet potato!”
My brothers attack the plate. With their mouths full, they cry, “Happy Thanksgiving!”
“Exactamente!” says Nena Sara.
That’s when I start talking. I tell my parents about the kitchen—how I saw the sweet potato Abba planned to use for his latkes and the marshmallows Ima planned to use for her svenj. “And then,” I say, “Voila!”
By now, everybody is eating and laughing and Abba and Ima feed each other like they’re eating wedding cake.
“But what we call them?” asks Abba.
I think for a minute. “Svenke!” I say.
“Svenke!” everyone repeats. Svenj and latke—united, in peaceful coexistence.
“Sí!” says Nena Sara. “Svenke. God bless America! Felíz Januka!”
“Feliz Januka!” shout Matan and Ori.
“Happy Hanukkah!” I shout.
Nes gadol haya po! A great miracle has happened here.