One afternoon in 1941, my Aunt Miriam immigrated to the United States, escaping the Nazi invasion of her temporary home in Rotterdam, Holland, by a single day. She arrived at Ellis Island, at the age of 20, with her mother and brother--her father had already relocated from their home in Berlin to New York City. But it was only Aunt Miriam who was detained and then roughly interrogated for seven long days. (The problem had something to do with her not qualifying for political asylum because of her age.) When things were finally straightened out, though, and her mother came to fetch her, Aunt Miriam wasn't as happy to leave as she might have been.
During the week, she had taken up with a handsome Lithuanian man and the night of her release coincided with the Passover dance. "What can I say?" she explained when I recently asked her about the experience. "I was very busy while I was there. I was a good dancer and not the quietest violet."
I retell this anecdote so that you don't underestimate how much my Aunt Miriam loves the Jewish holidays. I can't remember the first time our family attended one of her Hanukkah parties. But one of my earliest recollections is of my brothers and sisters and I huddled on the dark doorstep of Aunt Miriam's and Uncle Sidney's Los Feliz home and the look of extreme excitement on Aunt Miriam's face when she'd fling open the door.
She'd be wearing a bright Bedouin wedding dress of embroidered silk and her wrists would be rattling with silver slave bracelets. Inside, there would be 40 or so guests, people speaking so many foreign languages that it sounded like a cocktail party at a Trilateral Commission. At this point, a stranger to her home might have wondered if something theatrical was about to happen. And, of course, it was.
Her dramatic flair might have been inherited from her father, an Orthodox rabbi who also wrote secular plays on subjects such as the unfortunate romantic denouement of Anne Boleyn. From the time Aunt Miriam was very young, her creative expression helped reshape the traditional format of her family's religious celebrations. Consider her younger brother Bernie's Bar Mitzvah: Aunt Miriam co-wrote and performed a bloody-but-tragic operetta based on a fictional character she invented named Mondi the Convict.
It only makes sense that Hanukkah would represent to her some kind of free-floating proscenium upon which to stage her alternative theater projects. I could tell you about the Super-8 movies she has scripted and produced, short films with serpentine plot lines and titles like "The Case of the Missing Hanukkah Gelt." There was also the year that she thumb-tacked a white bedsheet on the archway between the living room and the dining room and had her husband, children and grandchildren act out, in back-lit silhouette, the saga of the Maccabees re-interpreted as a Western adventure complete with prop 10-gallon hats and blazing six-guns. Aunt Miriam narrated the action in rhyming verse while the theme song from "Bonanza" blared in the background. At some point, usually toward the end of the evening, she performed an improvised modern dance to Israeli folk music. Do you want to hear about my Uncle Sidney's slideshow documenting his entire stamp collection?
After the entertainment came the food. The interesting thing about what you'll find to eat at a Hanukkah party is that the menu is different from house to house. I've eaten Polish latkes , which are more like flapjacks and made without any potatoes at all. In "The Jewish Festival Cookbook," the authors talk about Portuguese cheese latkes , which are sprinkled with olive oil to symbolize the ancient miracle of lights. Once, while attending a Hanukkah function hosted by Israelis, out came a plate of freshly made jelly doughnuts, a sight which surprised me until someone explained that hot fruit fritters are what you serve at Hanukkah parties in the Land of Milk and Honey.
Unlike the dishes at other Jewish holidays whose ingredients are dictated by religious dietary laws, Hanukkah food is all about custom and taste-memory, about the way ethnicity takes over in the kitchen at holiday time. Because Aunt Miriam is from Germany she follows her grandmother's Rhineland latke recipe, which requires nothing more than eggs, grated potatoes, and a little salt and pepper. Alongside the platters and platters of potato pancakes--she makes about 200 of them--are bowls of sour cream and homemade applesauce. The cranberry sauce is her domesticated version of preiselbeeren sauce, a puree made from tiny berries that she's only seen in Germany.