December 6, 2015
Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, an eight-day commemoration of a miracle that, according to tradition, occurred in about 160 B.C. Enemies vanquished (for the moment), the Israelites turned their attention to the Temple, which had been defiled by the bad guys. An important element of the Temple was the “eternal light,” a lamp that burned sacred oil and was never permitted to go out. The baddies, of course, had put it out, and when the Jews re-lit the lamp, they discovered they had only one day’s worth of oil. Sanctification doesn’t happen overnight, and acquiring a fresh supply of sacred oil would require eight days. Miraculously, that single day’s supply of oil lasted for the necessary eight, and today Jews around the world celebrate the “festival of lights” by lighting special candles (because: eternal light) and eating fried things (because: oil) (also because: delicious).
From a religious standpoint, Hanukkah is actually a fairly minor holiday, but its association with both glittering lights and special foods, combined with its tendency to be celebrated in December, has framed it, in the popular imagination, as the “Jewish Christmas.” As a result, for the past 100 years or so, the Hanukkah celebration (in the USA at least) has featured not only sparkly candles and delicious fried things, but also presents, making it pretty much a trifecta of terrific. And just to gild the lily (and give Jewish kids something to brag about to their gentile friends), custom dictates that presents are given on every single one of the celebratory eight days.
Eight days of presents AND potato pancakes! It’s difficult to imagine a better combination. And yet, for me, the most important part of Hanukkah is the candles. It’s not because I’m particularly religious – though hey, thumbs up for the eternal light of faith, mercy, truth, whatever you’d like it to embody – but because I need light to read. The one-day lamp that burned for eight days? I’m all for the rededication of the Temple, but the really critical part? EIGHT DAYS’ WORTH OF READING.
Of course, reading has two requirements. We’ve already covered light; here are the books. For the eight days of Hanukkah, we’ll be running some especially tasty discounts on some of our favorite books. Get with tradition (albeit a fairly recent one) and give the books as presents, or give’em to your own self. Just don’t dribble them up with pancake greasies. Check in daily to see the featured title.
Ok, and about those pancakes. First of all, if you are the Pancake Maker, then ABSOLUTELY get the books for yourself: He or she who grates the potatoes and stands over a skillet full of hot fat is more than entitled to some righteous reading matter. And second, if you are craving some latkes and have no family tradition in that department? I’d recommend any recipe (and they’re widely available online) by Joan Nathan: She’s never steered me wrong.