Mama’s Box Latkes: An Interfaith Elegy

Latke Mix
Photo, Susan Katz Miller

 

I have come to realize that one of the most important Hanukkah traditions in my multi-generational interfaith family is, box latkes. Yes, the latkes made from the mix in the little box from Manischewitz. For me, checking the date on a box lost in the back of the cupboard, tearing open the packets, breathing in the cloud of onion powder that rises up when you dump the packets in the bowl, feeling the little potato starch granules thicken as you stir, these are all Proustian moments.

How did this come to be our way? Here we must pause to imagine my Episcopalian mother, raising four Jewish kids in the 1960s. This was before food processors. Her Jewish mother-in-law lived many states away. So there was really no one around to insist that my mother do things the hard way, with grated knuckles bleeding into the potatoes.

My mother was a great cook. But, often left on her own with four kids and a dog while my father traveled the world on business, she was eager to try the highly-processed products of that era. We ate Manwich Sloppy Joes, and Hamburger Helper, and utterly egregious Libbyland TV dinners with purple “pirate powder” to stir into your milk.

And then, there’s the matter of the matzoh ball analogy. I imagine my mother thinking, “Everyone makes matzoh balls from those little boxes, and that’s considered kosher, so why can’t I make latkes that way too?” A novice mistake, but she stuck with it, even when Cuisinart came on the scene. Because, to be honest, my brothers and sister and I clamored for those box latkes!

My mother died last year. Now, thinking about the love that inspired her to even attempt to make latkes for a family of six makes me ache for her. Who would begrudge my mother this shortcut, when she was putting her own religion aside and devoting herself to raising four, count them four, Jewish children. I give her credit for making latkes at all, because the truth is, even when you use the mix, the endless frying in small batches is a pain in the tuchus. A single hungry child can eat every single latke you make as soon as they come out of the pan, until the batter is gone.

The first time I attempted to wean myself off making box latkes, the heap of grated potatoes turned alarming colors, because it took me so long to grate them that they oxidized. Those rainbow latkes were exceedingly ugly–my family was afraid to eat them. I also discovered that making sure the potato strings are no longer raw, without burning the latke to a crisp, is an art that takes practice.

I think a few years went by before I dared to get back on the grater to try again. But eventually, I got the hang of it. These days, I usually grate potatoes for latkes at least once during Hanukkah. I have even mastered hip contemporary variations, such as Sweet Potato Ginger Latkes. Everyone in my family–Jews and Christians and Buddhists and those who claim both religions or none–loves a latke made from scratch with the lacy golden brown edges.

But the truth is, in my family, we also stand by those fluffy box latkes, and crave this taste of home. Last year at Hanukkah, just after my mother died, with winter closing in around my raw grief and the brightness of the holidays refracted through the pain of loss, I’m not sure I made latkes at all. But this year, I stocked up on those little boxes. I will tear the packets, stir the mix, and eat the latkes, in her memory.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families, interfaith education, and interfaith peacemaking. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.

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Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas: Book Review

Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas
Photo by Susan Katz Miller

 

The world of interfaith families in America is filled now with a kaleidoscope of beliefs, practices, and identities unimaginable to our grandparents. We are not just Jewish/Christian families. We are Buddhist/Pagan/atheist families. We are Muslim/Catholic families. And we are Hindu/Jewish families (sometimes called HinJews). I call this #GenerationInterfaith.

For children, seeing themselves, and families that look like theirs, in literature and in the media, can be reassuring, affirming, empowering, and also entertaining. So I am always glad to recognize and review new children’s books that depict the increasing complexity and diversity of interfaith families.

So far, most of those books have been about families celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas. (I have reviewed many of those in the past). But this year, #GenerationInterfaith expands with Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas, a picture book by Pamela Ehrenberg, with illustrations by Anjan Sarkar. This book recognizes, I believe for the first time in a picture book, that Jews and South Asians are marrying each other in the US today. (At least a couple of earlier Young Adult books feature Jewish/Indian protagonists, including My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, and The Whole Story of Half a Girl).

The story in this new picture book is simple and sweet, as are the illustrations. The family consists of a big brother and toddler sister, with a Jewish father and an Indian mother (more on her religion later), and an Indian grandmother, Amma-Amma, who lives with them. The family prepares a Hanukkah feast of dosas, a savory South Indian pancake made of dal (lentils) and fried in oil. The little sister creates havoc, but the big brother is able to save the day by singing to his sister a mash-up song he invents: “I have a little dosa, I made it out of dal.”

This slim book packs in a lot of cultural information. The family visits the Little India Market to shop for ingredients, all of which are depicted in a charming two-page spread. And in the back, we get recipes for dosas and sambar (a dip for the dosas). In the PJ Library edition, a subscription program that sends out free Jewish children’s books, the book also has a full page for adults on the story of Hanukkah, and book flaps explaining both traditional Hanukkah customs, and multicultural suggestions for foods to fry during Hanukkah (including Italian arancini and Puerto Rican sorullitos).

To be clear, this is not a “Hanukkah and Diwali” book, parallel to the “Hanukkah and Christmas” books. The family depicted is clearly raising kids with a formal Jewish affiliation of some sort: mom picks up the kids from Hebrew School. Meanwhile, there is no mention of any Hindu traditions or beliefs. So, possibly the mom has converted to Judaism. Or, she has not converted but is raising Jewish kids (who have either been converted themselves, or they belong to a movement that accepts patrilineal Jews). It is also possible to imagine that this family is giving their children interfaith education in addition to formal Jewish education, and that they do in fact celebrate Diwali.

So, does this book depict an interfaith family? Jews are multicultural. There are Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, black Jews, Chinese Jews, Arab Jews, and, in fact, Indian Jews going back for generations. To me, the most important character in this book is actually the grandma, Amma-Amma, who wears a sari and bindi, who directs the making of the food, and who then retires for a nap. Amma-Amma represents the South Indian cultural mentor here, and she is presumably a Hindu, or perhaps a Jain. (Some Indian Jews do wear bindis today, but it is statistically improbable that she would be from one of the small Indian Jewish communities). And while it is fairly common for a spouse to convert before or after marriage, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a mother-in-law converting.

So, for me Amma-Amma represents the idea that every family formed by people from two religious backgrounds is an extended interfaith family, even if the nuclear family becomes single-faith after a conversion. Extended family is formative and influential in the lives of children. Because Amma-Amma lives with the family, her role in passing down family traditions, and the importance of the bonds of affection across generations and religious boundaries, are clear in this book.

So, yes, I do like to imagine this family celebrating Diwali with Amma-Amma, if only to help her celebrate “her” holiday. Such a celebration would be formative for any children, no matter what religious label or formal religious education the parents choose for them. And I remain convinced that the religious literacy any such children would gain from this experience, and the familiarity and affection they would develop for another tradition, would be good for them, and good for the world.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families, interfaith education, and interfaith peacemaking. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.

The Dance of Hanukkah and Christmas: 8 Tips for Interfaith Families

Christmas and Hanukkah cookies, photo Susan Katz Miller
Photo, Susan Katz Miller

The Woolf Institute in Cambridge, England, works on Jewish, Muslim, and Christian relations. They asked me to write on how interfaith families will choreograph Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations this year. In general, organizations in the UK are more open to discussing interfaith families as a part of interfaith relations than their US counterparts are. I am grateful whenever anyone acknowledges the role that interfaith families can play in interfaith peacemaking. Visit the Woolf Institute blog to see my new post there, or read it below…SKM

The solar Gregorian calendar determines the timing of Christian holidays, while both the sun and moon guide the Jewish calendar. As a result, each year interfaith families must choreograph the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas in a new way. In 2016, this dance will require some expert steps, since the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve.

This convergence increases the complexity of preparation, and coordination, in order to give each holiday its own time and space and integrity. But after more than 50 years of celebrating both holidays, I know that it can be done, without actually mixing or blending or fusing the two together. Here are my eight strategies for mastering the Hanukkah and Christmas dance this year:

  1. Don’t forget Hanukkah on Christmas Eve. If you are traveling, remember to pack the Hanukkah menorah. In the excitement of Christmas Eve, don’t forget to set aside a few minutes to gather everyone and actually light the first candle. Enjoy the synergy of a glowing Hanukkah menorah and a sparkling tree, and talk about the common theme of light at the darkest time of year. Safety tip: If you are going off to a mass or church service, be sure to light candles when they will have time to safely burn down.
  1. Postpone Hanukkah gifts. On Christmas day, lean into Christmas. After a full day of Christmas and stacks of presents, do remember to light candles for the second night. But consider putting off Hanukkah gifts until later in the week. In fact, resist the false competition between the holidays that has given rise to the whole idea of Hanukkah gifts.
  1. Tell the Hanukkah story. Emphasizing the religious freedom angle in the Hanukkah story is a perfect activity this year. We are lucky to live in a time and place with the freedom to celebrate either, or both, or any religion. Singing the Hanukkah song Rock of Ages (different from the Christian hymn of the same name) in English rather than Hebrew on the nights you celebrate with extended Christian family members will make the story more accessible.
  1. Give to others. Once Christmas has ended, lean into Hanukkah. The middle nights of Hanukkah would be perfect for giving back, in lieu of more family gifts. Stress that both holidays encourage us to care for those in need. Engage children in deciding what causes they want to support with charitable donations this year.
  1. Organise acts of service. Christmas encourages empathy for those who, like Mary and Joseph, must travel and seek shelter. Hanukkah provides an opportunity to talk about how Jewish history compels us to work to promote social justice. Celebrating these intertwined themes by engaging in acts of service together to support refugees and religious minorities.
  1. Give Hanukkah gifts at the end. If your family does give Hanukkah gifts, wait until the end of the week when the novelty of Christmas gifts has worn off. Some families like to emphasize books and clothes as Hanukkah gifts for children, rather than toys, to further differentiate the two holidays.
  1. Time the parties. Hanukkah spans two weekends this year, and Christmas sits squarely on the first weekend. So the second weekend could be a good time for a Hanukkah party. Try a party on Friday night with the festive lighting of both Shabbat and Hanukkah candles. Or, plan a family New Year’s Eve party with the lighting of havdalah candles for the close of Shabbat, followed by Hanukkah candles. Or, arrange an elegant adult New Year’s Eve party with caviar on latkes, champagne, and gambling with dreidels.
  1. Try not to stress. As you move through the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas this year, don’t fret over a misstep or two. Everyone forgets to light candles on occasion. Everyone has a relative who makes some awkward comment about interfaith families. Everyone has a different comfort level with where to place the Hanukkah menorah in relation to the tree. Through it all, do your best to stay in touch with a sense of holiday joy.

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Hanukkah AND Christmas: 7 Books For Interfaith Children

 

Once upon a time, December holiday books for children focused on either Christmas, or Hanukkah. Now, many children grow up in Jewish families celebrating Christmas with Christian grandparents. Or, they grow up in Christian families celebrating Hanukkah with Jewish grandparents. Or, they grow up in interfaith families celebrating both. Here, I review seven Hanukkah and Christmas books, in order to help you find the right book for your young interfaith children or grandchildren.

1. The first popular book on this topic was probably Light the Lights! A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas (ages 3-5), from 1999. This sweet and simple story focuses on a girl participating in both holidays at home, but does not go into the underlying religious meaning of either one. This may be frustrating for parents who want to teach religious literacy, but for young children celebrating one or both of the holidays in a secular fashion, this book is a safe choice.

2. In contrast, I do not recommend My Two Holidays: A Hanukkah and Christmas Story (ages 3-5) from 2010. The boy in this book feels embarrassed in school to admit that he celebrates both holidays. While emotionally dramatic, this plot twist does not ring true in my experience with contemporary interfaith children, and reading it could make children who feel just fine about celebrating both, feel a sense of shame. The author seems to have bought into the (increasingly mythical) “December Dilemma” conflict. Avoid this book.

3. Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama (ages 5-8) from 2012, features jazzy modernist collage illustrations, and a recipe for Cranberry Kugel. The mixed media style echoes the hipster parents in this book, who mix the holidays together in a sort of Chrismukkah mash-up. They hook candy canes on their menorah, and leave latkes out for Santa. If your family does this kind of blending, this is your book. But for families trying to help kids to understand and respect the differences between the two religions, well, this is definitely not your book.

4. Published last year, Eight Candles and a Tree (ages 3-5), follows Sophie as she explains to friend and playmate Tommy that she celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. Tommy only celebrates Christmas. I appreciated the very gentle tension as Sophie diplomatically answers questions about how and why she celebrates “both.” Sophie explains the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights in the Temple, but both children mention only the more secular aspects of Christmas (the tree, the feast), so this book works for interfaith Jewish families celebrating a secular Christmas at home, as well as families celebrating both religions. This would also be a good pick for young Christian kids curious about a cousin or friend who celebrates both, as they can identify with Tommy.

5. New this season, Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise (ages 3-8) features the most dramatic and emotionally satisfying plot of any book for interfaith children I have seen. Rachel is flying with her family to spend Hanukkah and Christmas with her father’s Christian family. Rachel is upset when she leaves behind her menorah on the airplane, but her kind Nonna (Italian for grandmother) saves the day by creating a lovely new menorah for her, out of recycled perfume bottles. The Christian cousins gather affectionately around the menorah with Rachel to help her celebrate, modeling bridge-building across the religious divide. The author weaves in some of the meanings of Hanukkah, but the references to Christmas are oblique. This book (from a publisher of books on Judaism) was clearly written for interfaith children being raised Jewish, who celebrate Christmas only with extended family. In fact, it was a recent selection for PJ Library, the free Jewish book program for children. But I recommend it for any interfaith family.

6. The other new book this season is perfect for those who celebrate both holidays, and want to begin to teach their children the underlying meaning of both Hanukkah and Christmas. December’s Gift (ages 3-8) follows Clara as she helps her Bubbe to make latkes, and then helps her Grammy to make Christmas cookies. (The book includes recipes for both, and charming illustrations). Bubbe tells Clara the story of the destruction of the temple and the miracle of the Hanukkah oil. And Grammy teaches Clara how the star-shaped cookies and the star on the tree represent the star that led wise men to the birth of a king. There is no mention of Jesus by name. But for interfaith parents who want to give their interfaith children an interfaith education, this book is an excellent start.

7. Finally, I cannot resist writing about a book I have long imagined—a book that does not exist, yet. One of my very favorite authors, Patricia Polacco, is from an interfaith family, but has yet to write a book about that experience. She has written many Christmas books, and perhaps the two very best children’s books about loving friendships between Jews and Christians (Mrs. Katz and Tush, and The Trees of the Dancing Goats). A book about an interfaith family from Patricia Polacco is at the top of my holiday fantasy wish list.

 

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

 

Christmas and Hanukkah: 2014 Round-Up

Chanukiah

This year, Hanukkah ends just in time to give a day of breathing space between the eight-day celebration and the arrival of Christmas. This is how I like my December holidays: completely separate in space and time, while connected by the common threads of family togetherness, feasting, singing, and light at the winter solstice. And this year, the two holidays are just close enough that we will get to light candles for the final night of Hanukkah, and then also celebrate Christmas, with my interfaith parents and all my siblings.

It’s a busy time of year for interfaith parents, and it’s also busy for me as a source for stories on interfaith parenting. This year, I allowed a reporter to also interview my son for the first time, for a story on the blog of the PBS Newshour. This story features a Hindu and Christian family, as well as my family, as we move into a less binary interfaith landscape. They also published three of my photos, including the one of the Hanukkah menorah above. Go take a look. (Also, to catch up on the debate over use of the word hanukiyah versus “Hanukkah menorah”, search my twitter feed @beingboth).

I have an essay entitled “How Not to Spoil Your Interfaith Kids at Christmas and Hanukkah,” my debut on the Jewish parenting site Kveller.com. In this piece, I describe the efforts in our interfaith family to keep the gift-giving under control.

And in my most recent response on The Seesaw, the Jewish Daily Forward‘s interfaith families advice column, I advise a Jewish dad who is feeling uncomfortable when his interfaith kid gets to celebrate Christmas. My response, “Let it go!”

Over at Beacon Press, in case you missed it, you can read my essay on “An Interfaith Child’s Christmas and Hanukkah” on Beacon Broadside. Also, you can order books direct from the publisher through the end of the month at 20% off (with free shipping) with the code GIFT20 . Some of my favorite recent Beacon Press books in the religion/worldview category include Faithiest by Chris Stedman, Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel, A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects by S. Brent Plate, and a new gift edition of Victor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning.

To browse through the many, many, many posts I have written on Hanukkah and Christmas over the years, on this blog and on Huffington, just type Christmas Hanukkah in the search box on this blog.

And in the new year, I’m looking forward to giving a public lecture at Claremont Lincoln University, in Claremont CA, on January 10th. Let your friends and family in the LA area know that they are welcome to attend.

I am sorry to see this year, the first full year with Being Both, the book–a year filled with lovely book adventures and important conversations with so many of you about interfaith families–come to an end. So here’s to more of the same in 2015! And in the last few days of 2014, may all your latkes be warm, and may all your lights be bright, as we head into, and then out of, the darkest days of winter.

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, a great holiday gift available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

An Interfaith Child’s Hanukkah and Christmas

I’m very pleased to announce that Being Both is the December selection for the #UUreads program. I wrote this piece for Beacon Broadside, the marvelous blog from my publisher, Beacon Press. To read it on that blog, click here.

Snow in Hawley, PA

Holidays in Honesdale: Jewish Continuity and Interfaith Inclusivity

Photo credit Elizabeth Lucy
Photo credit Elizabeth Lucy

On Saturday, I attended Shabbat services in Honesdale PA, in the foothills of the Pocono mountains, in the same temple where my father became a Bar Mitzvah in 1937. The Delaware and Hudson Canal Company built this white clapboard synagogue with a steeple on the banks of the Lackawaxen River in 1856, in order to serve local Jewish merchants. Each year, more than 50 family members and friends return from across the country for a massive Thanksgiving meal, and to celebrate important rites of passage together at Congregation Beth Israel.

And so this year, as the convergence of Hanukkah and Thankgiving approached, we traveled from at least six different states, through snowy mountain passes, to witness my cousin Nora become a Bat Mitzvah. Nora lives outside Boston, but she is part of the sixth generation of our family to worship in what was once the tiniest temple in America. Throughout Shabbat, throughout a long weekend together that included celebrations of Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, the Bat Mitzvah, and my sister’s wedding, two themes recurred: Jewish continuity, and the inclusion in our family and our Jewish practice of people from across the world, and from across the spectrum of religions.

As always, as we entered the sanctuary, I searched the memorial yahrzeit plaques on the back wall, to find the names of my grandparents. In earlier generations, my family tree included cousins who married each other for lack of Jewish partners, as well as great-aunts and great-uncles who never married, never had children, for the same reason. Going through a box of photos from the last century in my grandmother’s house this week, I came across a photo with this scrawled on the back: “Leon’s Catholic girlfriend”. I adored my great-uncle Leon. He played fiddle, and worked in the family department store in Honesdale, and drew pictures of cats for us when we visited him at Katz Bros. The fact that he remained a bachelor uncle because he could not marry his Catholic sweetheart is poignant.

In the next two generations of my family, there have been a dozen happy interfaith marriages, starting with the wedding of my parents in 1960. Nora’s parents, my cousins Sig and Ruthie, are, like my own parents, Jewish and Episcopalian. I sat with my father and mother, now 89 and 82 and well past their 50th year of marriage, in the temple on Saturday morning. My teenage children sat up in the choir loft, singing with their first and second and third cousins.

Before Nora read from the Torah, we unrolled the scroll and wrapped it around the tiny sanctuary, circumscribing our radically inclusive community. My mother, who shepherded four Jewish children through the Bar and Bat Mitzvah process in the 1970s and 80s, was thrilled to be allowed to touch the parchment for the first time. Then Nora’s 91-year-old grandfather, my very erudite cousin Bill, who has spent most of his lifetime in this little town, devoting himself to Beth Israel, said the priestly blessing over the Bat Mitzvah girl from his wheelchair. There may have been one or two dry eyes in the house, but I couldn’t see them through the mist of my own tears.

In his words to Nora after her Torah reading, my cousin Sig referred to our synagogue as tiny but “huge if judged by the size of its metaphorical tent.” As a family now encompassing Jews and Catholics and Quakers and Episcopalians and Buddhists and humanists, those related by blood and those related by choice, we crammed into the familiar pews. We represent roots reaching from China to Italy, from Japan to Ireland, from Armenia to Colombia. And on Saturday, people with African, Russian, Danish, Polish and Dutch ancestors recited blessings over the Torah.

As a family, we cling to our quirky Classical Reform ways, eschewing yarmulkes and persisting in our love for familiar German tunes played on the organ, as well as incorporating Bach and Paul Simon and anyone else we please into our services. And yet somehow, we have not assimilated out of Jewish existence, through six generations at Beth Israel, and through three generations of being an interfaith family. My siblings and I have each made different decisions about the religious labels of our children, but all of us return to Honesdale, all of us return to Beth Israel, all of us are passing on love for Judaism.

On the night before Nora’s Bat Mitzvah, on the only night of the year that is Hanukkah Shabbat, my parents watched their seven grandchildren (some Jewish, some Catholic, some interfaith) light candles, say blessings, and sing Rock of Ages together. Recently, my Catholic nephew has been asking to learn Hebrew. So my daughter Aimee, who was raised in an interfaith community, with education in both Judaism and Christianity, taught her youngest Jewish and Catholic cousins to play dreidel. And thus she taught my nephew his first four Hebrew letters: nun, gimmel, hay, shin.

My father left Honesdale PA at age 17, but more than 70 years later, he still pays membership dues to Beth Israel. By the end of last week, my brother, the one raising three Catholic kids on the West Coast, had agreed to join the congregation as well. This is kind of crazy given the reality of geography, but also kind of gorgeous, and it makes sense within the context of our family. Our cousin Liza has agreed to be the next president of Beth Israel, and I trust that her creativity and open heart, her love of history and her embrace of all, will keep the congregation vibrant. Even if the Jewish ancestry in our family is but a single drop of holy oil, that drop will burn brightly for all to see, miraculous.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.