Hanukkah memories

From the TJP archive, a favorite Hanukkah column from Harriet Gross in 2011

Paraphrasing an old carol of the season: “Hanukkah’s a-comin’, the goose is getting fat … ”

Well, Hanukkah is here — and in my house, the holiday has always been sans goose. But things were different at Boubby and Zeyde’s. Zeyde used to like chicken for Shabbos, turkey for Thanksgiving, goose for Hanukkah. My Boubby the Philosopher would fix the latter, and though my immediate family always went to first-night holiday dinner there, we wouldn’t eat it.

Recalling another old ditty: “She’s too fat for me.” My father couldn’t tolerate fat in any form, so nothing in our house was ever cooked with butter, Crisco or schmaltz (from chicken or goose). We used vegetable oil, which made for eight days of extra-crispy latkes.

My mother had her “ways,” as we all do. Whenever she visited me and my little family 500 miles away from her home, she’d open her suitcase and the first items on top were washcloths. Mine, she said, were too soft and fluffy. She liked worn, thin ones. To me they looked like dishrags, but okay — this was, after all, my mother.

However, when she came for Hanukkah, her grater topped the washcloths. I had one, but it couldn’t possibly get the potatoes right. And who was I to complain? (Full disclosure: I never used my own grater. I’ve never made a from-scratch latke in my life. I buy those little boxes, follow directions, and nobody complains. Maybe they don’t even know, because I toss out all the little boxes before anyone sees them.)

Anyway, my mother’s grater was a large-size, heavy-duty, all-metal oblong, flat as a latke itself, with a sturdy rolled edge and crimped metal pieces running lengthwise and crosswise. I doubt it would get through airport security these days. I would love to have it now, just for the memory, but it’s one of those things that somehow got away after my mother died and a half-dozen female relatives joined me in closing up her house. Whoever has it has never admitted taking it, and I’ve never eaten latkes in the home of any of those women, so I guess I’ll go to my own grave without knowing.

I do have my Boubby’s old huckschissel and the chipped-paint woodhandled chopper she used with it, but they’re just for show; I’ve never chopped anything by hand. Blenders and Cuisinarts were invented for people like me.

I’m the one who would tell my children, when they were very small, “Some kids have mothers who stay home and bake cookies, and some kids have mothers who do other things. And you have one of the ‘other’ mothers.” When my mother came to visit and it wasn’t Hanukkah, I’d go off to write and edit in our community newspaper’s nearby office, and she and my daughter would bake cookies. When it was Hanukkah, they’d roll out dough for stars and dreidels and menorahs, shaped with those fancy little cutters that every Jewish family has.

I have them, but I’ve only used them once myself; the project was just too labor-intensive and I gave up when I saw that the tops of the menorahs kept snapping off their skinny bases before anyone could even eat them. Since then I’ve only made drop cookies and I wish Pillsbury or some company like that would make those handy slice-and-bake rolls with holiday designs all the way through the middle, for Hanukkah. Kosher, of course. With menorahs.

But I do love Hanukkah! Every year, my little bit of local family gathers around my table for a holiday meal. We have brisket, the world’s most forgiving meat. Every year after Thanksgiving at the cousins’ house, the group reconvenes at mine for Shabbat brisket. I put it in the pan with onion, garlic, salt, pepper, paprika and whatever bits lurk in the almost-empty bottles and jars in my refrigerator. Ketchup, mustard, salad dressing, duck sauce — it doesn’t matter; the meat is always delicious, and I always make enough extra to freeze for Hanukkah so I won’t have to cook any more. With it: the famous onion-topped green bean casserole that’s a Thanksgiving staple in many families but not in ours. And we have many, many latkes, the boxed kind, of course.

And when I give that final wipe to the kitchen counter after all else is done, it’s with a thin, worn dishrag that reminds me of my mother and her washcloths. Happy Hanukkah, everyone!

Harriet Gross can be reached at

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