For a kosher-observant Jew, traveling is often an adventure. Not just the usual problem of missed flights, disappearing luggage and exotic diseases.
There’s also the challenge of food—what kosher items will be available in scattered locales? What variety will be offered? How dependable will the hechshers be? What has to be schlepped in a suitcase?
Even in the United States, where capitalism has bred an infinite number of certifying organizations, kashrut can be a challenge outside of the largest metropolitan areas that lack a critical mass of traditional Jews.
So I was delighted when I discovered, while working in Washington, DC many years ago, that the nation’s capital had a new kosher restaurant, which meant some fresh meals, instead of simple sandwiches or TV dinners.
I took the Metro one evening after work to a block in the middle of the city. The staff was friendly and efficient, the food Sephardic and delicious. The menu offered fare from the world of pita and hummus; people interested in pastrami and rye need not apply.
I introduced myself to the owners, a middle-aged couple who were born in Yemen, and to their twenty-ish-year-old cook who sported a large, colorful kippah and long swinging peyot. We chatted in Hebrew; I returned occasionally, when my limited budget allowed.
A few weeks before Chanukah I inquired, rhetorically, if they’d be offering latkes during the upcoming holiday.
The husband shrugged. “What are latkes?”
I thought he was kidding.
Who doesn’t know from latkes?
Jews from Yemen don’t, I discovered.
The owners had grown up in, and emigrated from, the Arab country on the Saudi Peninsula that boasted one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities—a Jewish community, diminishing in recent decades, which had faithfully maintained Jewish tradition. Originally, they had settled in Israel, surrounded by fellow olim from Arab lands who also followed their own traditions.
Latkes weren’t one of their traditions.
The fried potato pancakes, which commemorate the Chanukah miracle, are strictly Ashkenazi fare. In Sephardi circles, as in Israel today, donuts, sufganiyot, are more common.
In the old days, Jewish children in Yemen would go chanting from house to house on Chanukah, tin can in hand, to collect wicks for the menorah. If they received wick ends, along with fruit and candies and coins, they shouted, in Hebrew, “Sleep well.” If they left empty-handed, they yelled, “You miser, may your wicks be as dry as your bones.”
Yemenite children had the tradition of dressing in blue, for the color of the heavens, on Chanukah. They had the tradition of receiving coins on each of eight days with which to make a sugar-flavored mock Chanukah wine, rendered red by food coloring. They had the tradition of simple Chanukah fireworks. They had the tradition of eating a donut-like pastry.
But no latkes.
What is Chanukah without latkes? I wouldn’t have a latke-less Chanukah. If the Yemenite owners didn’t know about latkes, I would teach them—if they were interested.
I offered to teach them. They accepted. I called my mother, who makes the world’s greatest latkes. She sent her favorite recipe.
The restaurant’s customers would need their latke requirements fulfilled in December. I certainly would.
I gave the owners the recipe and a shopping list. They bought the potatoes, the eggs, the oil—all the ingredients on Mom’s list.
One late afternoon before the first night of Chanukah, I went back to my apartment in DC, changed into jeans, and took the Metro downtown to the restaurant. For one night, a journalist would become a short-order cook.
The owners were glad to see me. They had already advertised the availability of latkes to an eager public.
I put on an apron, reviewed the recipes and went to work. I showed the owners how to do what I had done my whole life. We cut piles of onions and potatoes (work I did not find grating). We mixed in the eggs and matzah meal. We fired up the grill. We made little potato patties and flipped them till they were sizzled brown.
The owners caught on. By the end of the night, they were flipping and flying latkes like pros.
We lit a menorah in the restaurant before sitting down to sample our work.
Which was delicious.
I went back the other nights of the holiday, and left with a bag full of potato pancakes.
The owners left Washington soon after I did, and I lost touch with them. I don’t remember their names or the name of the long-gone restaurant.
If they’re still in the restaurant business, I hope they still remember how to make potato latkes. But I have a wonderful memory of Chanukah in DC. For eight days, I had all the free latkes I could eat.
Steve Lipman is a staff writer at the Jewish Week in New York and a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.