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Christmas Latkes

Hanumas. No, it’s not a yoga asana. Or the name of a jewelry store. Or the name of a stop on the Tokyo subway.

It’s a holiday. And I don’t pretend that we pioneered it, but my college roommate and I certainly reveled in it.

At the time, neither one of us was observant religiously. But we were deeply attuned to the power of ritual. And we had developed some of our own, some of them pretty kooky, but marvelous.

Such as when we lived in a duplex apartment in Binghamton whose address was actually “42-and-a 1/2 Chestnut Street” where the bathtub was so short that even I couldn’t lie down in it and I’m pretty short. But you could be recumbent in it. (I like that word, “recumbent.”)

Still, I would wedge myself into a bath and Diana would come in and read me poetry. T.S. Eliot—no, not “The Love-song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The cats stuff. And A.A. Milne. I can still hear her reading me “King John’s Christmas”:

 

King John was not a good man,

And no good friends had he.

He stayed in every afternoon . . .

But no one came to tea.

And, round about December,

The cards upon his shelf

Which wished him lots of Christmas cheer,

And fortune in the coming year,

Were never from his near and dear,

But only from himself.

When we graduated and moved to New York, we found a spot for our regular Sunday brunches. We got a family membership at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And we actually left the apartment together each morning in a mad dash to catch the Third Avenue bus (and it was always so damn cold) that took us somewhat close to our jobs near Rockefeller Center.

But when the holiday season drew near, we made a bold decision. Since we had slightly more discretionary money than in our Binghamton days, we decided to splurge and buy a Christmas tree. I’d only ever had family Christmas trees. I’m pretty sure Diana had never had one at all.

So it was an exotic hike up to 86th Street to buy a tree we could afford and to haul it back to 79th Street and our postage-stamp-size apartment.

I don’t remember buying the lights for it. But I remember that it did have lights. Diana remembers Christmas carols. I remember her teaching me the dreidel song.

More than that, I remember her making the latkes.

I’d never had a latke. I’d had knishes and kugels and blintzes and bialys, all of which seemed marvelously fattening, tasty and unhealthy (don’t tell me a kugel is good for you just because there’s a little cottage cheese in it). But I’d never had the likes of a latke—the shredded potatoes bound together with eggs, then fried to a golden crispness and topped with sour cream (forget the applesauce).

So we sat in front of our tree and ate our latkes and had what was, for each of us, our first Hanumas, as well as our first Hanukah and Christmas observance that was distinct from our families—and truly our own.

Life moves on. Within a year or so Diana left New York. I left New York. We kept in contact, but sporadically. Eventually she moved to Seattle and became a columnist for JTNews, a newsweekly that reports on religious and cultural aspects of the Jewish community. And I became a Lutheran pastor, who still makes latkes (most years) when putting up the Christmas tree.

This sounds like a sentimental story—and it is. But it’s also a case of heart and hope trumping dogmatic differences (though for Diana and me, that Hanumas wasn’t about differences of any kind at all, but rather the shared faith in ritual to bind people together).

Enter Facebook.

I don’t like Facebook so much. I don’t really get it. As my sister put it, most of the people she’s “friends” with are the people she sees every day. So why bother posting when you’re going to see them at the deli for dinner that night?

But it was through Facebook that I reconnected with some friends I’d lost touch with—and lost touch with mostly because we move and morph and change. We stop sending holiday cards. And then we lose each others’ e-mail addresses.

Diana and I have picked up a conversation that never stopped, but just went silent for a while. And it’s been through our recent exchanges that I’ve fully remembered the power of that first Hanumas to filter down through the intervening years:

Like how, when my daughter Linnea was four and totally revved from putting up the Christmas tree, she sat down to eat her first-ever latkes. Then raised her head from her plate to say, a transfixed glow on her face, “Latkes are my future!”

Like how, on Christmas Eve, the last song I listen to is a Hebrew song about Hanukkah, with a trumpet descant that always makes me cry.

Like how I’ve never been sure if the nine lights of Hanukkah and the star of Bethlehem are really any different at all—illumination being both their hope and aim.

Light in darkness let us sing,

Brightness now returning,

House of prayer once dark and cold

Now with candles burning.

When the lamp seemed empty,

And its fire forever spent,

Then the flame sprang up anew,

For our hearts deep yearning.

—Lawrence Rosenwald

—Jo Page

graepage@gmail.com


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