Christopher Hitchens must have worked hard to come up with that novel interpretation of Hannukah — that the Maccabee victory over the Greeks was the triumph of fundamentalist peasant religion against rationalism, art, and beauty. The traditional interpretation had more to do with the dedication of Jews to monotheism in face of a direct order by the dominant power to worship their gods — Zeus and his buds — a charming but feckless lot. While one can never say enough in favor of studying Greek art, philosophy and literature, the standard issue Hebrew school explanation was that the Hellenism at issue had more to do with the physical culture of the gymnasium. So the traditional understanding was that the Jewish hellenizers had forsaken adherence to God’s law and all that goes with it for better bodies, athletic competitions and all that went with that. (ie — liaisons with boys instead of reproduction-focused marriage.) Sex and vanity vs. God and babies. Then, too. Maybe the fundamentalist peasants always win that one — since nothing less than survival is at stake.
As for the miracle of Hannukah — a “puddle of oil” that lasted longer than expected, to paraphrase Hitchens — well it may not be the biggest miracle in the book. But keeping the lights going when all around is darkness isn’t nothing either.
Among the normal, everyday Jews I live with, the somewhat reductivist view of this holiday, like most, can be expressed as: They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.
Which brings us to the only real debate Hannukah should generate: Thick latkes or thin? I am a devout partisan of thinner, crispy latkes. Nothing more disgusting than soggy, oily slabs of greyish potato masquerading as holiday food. And those Sephardic jelly donuts are pretty bad too. And yes, this is the food of Northern European peasants in winter. It is not, as Derb would have it, IQ enhancing. And it is certainly not what a Mediterranean, gymnasium-centered leisured elite would break from Aristotle to eat. So here is the recipe you have been waiting for:
3 lbs of yukon gold potatoes
1 large onion (or more)
1 cup of chopped scallions
scant half cup of matza meal
2 eggs, beaten
salt, fresh pepper and vegetable oil for frying
Peel and grate the potatoes and the onions. Use a food processer. If you do it by hand you will stop halfway through and never get to the good part. Place in a strainer or a tea towel, and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Do this more than once.
Mix all ingredients.
Heat a good frying pan or griddle, and add a thin coat of oil. Drop a couple of tablespoons worth and flatten with a spatula. (The flatter the better.) They should be no bigger than a silver dollar pancake. Fry till golden and flip. Drain on paper towels. Serve with sour cream and apple sauce.