Learning from Latkes
By Hayley Mica Siegel

A flurry of spinning dreidels, the subtle jingle of chocolate gelt bags, the prominent displays of sufganiot (jelly donuts) in bakery windows, and the radio’s blasting of Adam Sandler’s ‘The Hannukah Song’ signify that Hannukah is around the corner. Although Hannukah is found in the Apocrypha and not in the Tanakh, the Jewish communities’ celebration of the Hasmoneans’ (Maccabees’) victory over the Greeks in 161 BC has become one of the most beloved and well-known holidays in the Jewish calendar. Although the Hasmoneans’ struggle for religious sovereignty and autonomy handily provide topics such as assimilation, the freedom to practice Judaism, and the Menorah’s origins in the Torah for stimulating discussion, these important subjects commonly get swept under the rug in the midst of giving, receiving and buying Hannukah gifts and presents for the eight nights of the hag.

However, while the desires for ‘material’ accoutrements burn brighter and stronger each Hannukah and show no signs of letting up, we can actually gain an appreciation of a deeper spiritual core at the heart of Hannukah and non-festival days by taking a different look at the Hannukah tradition of making latkes (potato pancakes)!

Starting on Friday, bubbes (grandmothers), mothers, and other brave souls will take to the kitchen and prepare the traditional Jewish delicacy of Hannukah, the potato latke, for family, friends, and strangers alike. While it takes less than five seconds to devour a latke, it takes an incredible amount of work to transform a simple potato into the latke masterpiece we have eaten Hannukah and Hannukah again. After washing, peeling, slicing, dicing, grating, food processing, mixing, frying, and dodging jumping fiery torrents of oil to transform the normal tuber into a culinary masterpiece, any physical activity would seem like a leisurely stroll in the park. However, as countless generations of Jews will tell you, all of these efforts are worth it in the end. Each element leading up to the creation of the latke adds a deeper flavor to the final product, as a latke made with love, affection, and attention is easily distinguished from others with less ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ in their batter.

Most certainly, the same can be said for the various steps and completion of a mitzvah. In a perfect world, all mitzvot and aspects of Judaism would be fun and easy to perfom. In our world, we know that is simply not the case. Oftentimes, the responsibilities of donating tzedekah, the performance of gemilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness), and Kiddush HaShem (sanctifying God’s Presence) are placed on the backburner during the holiday season and mad, rat-race crunch to tightly tie up the years’ frayed ends. However, the Hannukah ritual of preparing latkes reminds us to summon all of our emotional and physical reserves during all the steps of a mitzvah. Additionally, each time we take a simple mitzvah to the next level by beautifying it (hiddur mitzvah), we add a deeper layer to the chambers of our souls and bring more light to the lives of those who feel and see only darkness in their worlds.

During this Hannukah, let us we remember that a little bit more ‘elbow grease’ does more help than harm. In truth, we can add new dimensions to the true meaning of Hannukah (‘dedication’) and inspire others to give the gift of their time, love, and support to family, friends, and strangers if we display our ‘mitzvah endurance’ like a badge of honor. The most valuable, lavish gifts we can ever ‘spend’ on our beloved ones are gestures and acts which cannot be seen by the naked eye, and the best part about them is that one need not head to a store to purchase them!

On this special time in the Jewish calendar, may we and all those beloved to us be illuminated by our traditions, history, and culture, and be heartily satisfied in our minds, bodies, and souls.