The first time my daughter tried to cook latkes she ended up with a fireball. Which proves beyond a doubt she shares my DNA. Both Jewish drama queens with a genetic mutation–Alli and I come from a long line of Jewish mothers who can’t cook. I had one Jewish grandmother who burned everything and one who never cooked at all. I never ate a homemade latke till I was married and got the recipe from a friend. How ironic that of the few dishes I cook well, most are Jewish recipes, and latkes are the JEW-el in the crown. Even more ironic, some of my favorite latke memories are from All Saints Episcopal Day School.
As someone who grew up in a kosher home, among the things I didn’t sign up for is that both of my children attended Christian schools. Alli went to a Catholic middle school and Daniel to All Saints; at night they would sit at the dinner table discussing whether or not they should each take communion. My father would roll over in his grave. But in the end they both learned a lot about Christianity, plus valuable lessons on tolerance and acceptance. And the learning process works both ways.
For Daniel, who was younger, the mixed messages were a little confusing, especially early on. He started at All Saints in first grade, and stayed for 8 years— the only Jewish kid in his class. Every day he went to Chapel and sang Christian hymns and learned the names of the Saints– and then after school he would learn to read Hebrew for his future Bar Mitzvah.
How do Jewish kids adjust to an Episcopal school? Maybe the answer to that (and the answer to almost everything) is food.
Every year during Hanukkah, the school Chaplain would add “The Dreidle Song” to the mix of Christmas carols sung during Chapel. And every year the Chaplain would call upon Daniel to stand up in front of the entire student body, and Daniel would explain about the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians, and why we light 8 candles during Hanukkah.
And then I would go into his classroom and cook latkes. I was never sure who had more fun–the kids or me, and I’m sure there are Jewish mothers doing this in Christian schools all over America.
Through this quintessential Jewish food, for the first time these kids at Daniel’s school also got a taste of Jewish traditions. The tantalizing smell would drift down the hall and I’m convinced that many kids and not a few teachers would have signed up to convert on the spot. More than one classmate of Daniel’s went home and insisted that her parents buy a menorah and light candles. To this day they reminisce about the latkes. Ten years later, a girl from Daniel’s class recently emailed him, asking for the recipe. And ever since they met in first grade, Daniel’s friend Christian got hooked on latkes. He comes over every year to get his latke fix; one year he was so eager he even came a day early. I can’t think of latkes without thinking of him, and we can’t celebrate Hanukkah without Christian.
Sometimes I think if the entire world could be open minded and enjoy each other’s traditions, maybe food could be the secret ingredient to world peace—one latke at a time.