A Child's Chanukah in Wales

My memory of Chanukah as a child is that it always seemed to be a "cross-over" holiday (not that it really had anything to do with Xmas! But it did seem to fall at that time of year). Before we emigrated to Canada, we lived for four years in a little town in South Wales called Llanelly (try wrapping your tongue around that one!).

There weren't exactly a lot of Jewish families in Llanelly, so none of my best friends were Jewish! Marjorie was my very best friend. She and her family lived in the house across the street from us. Some years when we lit the menorah candles in our "front room", I would look through the window to see their brightly lit Christmas tree across the road.

Under the tree, I knew there were gaily wrapped boxes of mysterious presents. We didn't get presents for Chanukah, but we did get "Chanukah gelt" which was usually a couple of "real" coins and a bag of "virtual" ones - gold-foil wrapped chocolate sixpences, shillings and half-crowns.

At Marjorie's house, there were doorways with mistletoe as well - and I secretly wished that her older brother Trevor (on whom I had a crush) would try to kiss me under the mistletoe. But he never did. Maybe he was angry with our family because one day Major, our Boxer dog - trying to be friendly, of course - took a chunk out of his raincoat.

We lit the Chanukah candles each night - two on the first (one to light the other), three on the second and so on, until the last night when we watched the nine brightly coloured flames dancing. My two sisters and I joined in the chorus of Mo'atzur; I think that's all we ever really knew of this traditional Chanukah song, because our Hebrew reading skills were very limited.

It was a very nice song, but somehow it didn't have quite the same lilt as all the carols Marjorie knew. I used to secretly join in those too, some in Welsh, but most in English - because I did learn the words at school - although I always kept silent when we came to a line about "the little baby Jesus".

My mother used to bake a few Christmas cakes each year - to give to some of the neighbours. I loved the taste of the batter left in the bowl after the tins were placed in the oven. And leftovers of marzipan which she used to make (from scratch), several weeks later, to coat the cakes before icing them. Two layers of glacial white - left to harden before becoming a foundation for the intricate decorations she magically wove in many shapes and sizes from the tubes of green and red icing. And her liquor-laced, fresh from the oven, minced pies in their delicious mini-pastry pouches - a treat that I miss to this day!

Strange that I should remember Christmas cakes and minced pies so vividly and yet I can't picture my mother making "latkes" - potato pancakes, a traditional Chanukah dish. But I'm sure she must have, because I somehow acquired the certain knowledge that a latke without onion is not a latke. This indisputable fact became a major bone of contention between my ex and me, many years later, as we celebrated our first Chanukah together.

So convinced was I of his apostasy, that I half expected him to bring home a Christmas tree! I must say that it was quite gratifying to have his current spouse recently affirm that the essence of a latke is its onion content!

But, despite my failing memory (or maybe the pototoes grown in Wales were unsuitable latke material?!), the latke does have a long and noble history. This was very well articulated by Professor Robin Leidner in Latke vs Hamentash, a paper she delivered a few years ago. And she very kindly permitted me to "webify" her words - along with her foolproof recipe. Mind you, it's not a recipe for Latkes, but for Hamentashen (now there's a story of another cross-over holiday of the costumed kind!). Oh well ...Enjoy!

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Revised October 19, 1997
Copyright © 1995 Hilary Ostrov