Marylyn Haspel’s kitchen is the perfect classroom for Hanukkah 101
Category : News
Original Article from Charleston City Paper – http://www.charlestoncitypaper.com/charleston/marylyn-haspels-kitchen-is-the-perfect-classroom-for-hanukkah-101/Content?oid=5609722
Learning a Latke
I’ll admit, for a long time everything I knew about Hanukkah, I learned from an Adam Sandler song. Well, from the Sandler song and from this one day back in kindergarten when we made cardboard dreidels and ate latkes to “experience another culture.” (I went to Catholic school.) I know I’m not alone. It’s all too easy for those celebrating Santa and his eight tiny reindeer to think of Hanukkah as the “other” holiday, the one overshadowed by twinkling Christmas trees. One thing I’ve never forgotten, though, is the taste of those hot, crispy kindergarten latkes, and how those decadent little potato pancakes made my taste buds sing.
So I’m delighted, these many years later, to be invited to the West Ashley home of Marylyn Haspel to eat latkes and discuss Hanukkah. Haspel is a Jewish woman who’s remarkably in touch with the cultural intricacies of her faith. And as she dollops spoonfuls of latke batter into a hot, greased pan, Haspel begins to peel back the meaningful layers of the holiday.
“A lot of people think Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas. It’s not,” she says. “The significance of the two celebrations is totally different. The timing is really the only similarity.”
For anyone who doesn’t know, here’s a basic synopsis of what Hanukkah is all about: According to Jewish teaching, in the second century BC, the Holy Land is ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who are led by a guy named Antiochus IV. Antiochus begins severely oppressing the Jewish people, massacring them and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs — a non-kosher animal — on the altar. Outraged and devastated, a small guerilla army of faithful Jews, known today as the Maccabees, eventually defeats the colossal Seleucid army, driving them away and reclaiming the Temple.
So they go to re-light the Temple’s menorah (the candelabrum), lit every night and cleaned every morning by the priests of old. But the Maccabees find that there’s only a day’s worth of olive oil that has escaped contamination by the enemy. Miraculously, the one-day supply burns for eight days, until new oil can be ritually purified. To commemorate this miracle, Hanukkah was instituted. At the heart of the festival is the nightly menorah lighting: a single flame on the first night and so on till the final night, when all eight wicks are ignited. The oil is the key signifier here; it represents the triumph of light over darkness, the righteous over the oppressive.
And the commemoration of that oil is why we are sitting in Haspel’s kitchen today, watching small patties of starchy goodness pop and sizzle, crisping in a golden wake. Latkes and other foods cooked in oil, like sufganiot (jelly doughnuts), are popular Hanukkah fare. Periodically, Haspel glances at a recipe in her mother’s cookbook, the handwriting graceful enough to warrant its own computer font. She purees raw white potatoes and onion in a Cuisinart — a gloriously modern innovation, considering that all the grating and pureeing was once done by hand — then adds egg, salt, pepper, flour, and baking soda. She heats oil in a wok (another modern touch), and we begin latke frying.
Latkes are kind of like regular pancakes. The first few are the lopsided, ugly guys, the ones that the cook gets to nibble on before they find a groove and begin pumping out perfect patties. That happens here, but we don’t mind. We pick them apart with our glistening fingers, blowing on the bits before popping them into our mouths. Latkes are also kind of like Hot Pockets. You know you should wait two minutes before biting into one, but you can’t do it. You bite, get burned, wait 12 seconds, learn nothing, then bite and get burned again.
To cool things down and balance out the richness of the oil, latkes are typically served with sour cream or applesauce, and Haspel hasn’t spared on that front either. As she doles out spoonfuls, she tells me more about herself.
Haspel, who’s 62, was born in New York to a Russian mother and a Hungarian father, and she was brought up in a large extended Jewish family and an even larger Jewish community. “When you’re raised Jewish,” she says, “that identity becomes everything about you. I’m not just talking about religion. It’s a culture, too. There’s a mindset that comes with it. It becomes who you are.”
Haspel wears her grandmother’s earrings today, and as she recalls memories, her hands flutter to her ears. Though she and her brothers went to Hebrew school three times a week in her youth, she credits her grandmother with giving her a Jewish identity. Bloodline weighs heavily on how Judaism reaches an individual. There is a fundamental split between two origins of the faith — there are European Jews, Ashkenazim, and Jews of the Arab-Muslim world, Sephardim.
They differ religiously in many ways and also maintain cultural variants. Sephardic Jews are credited for many Israeli-style foods like hummus, pita, and falafel, and they have deep roots in Charleston — the first came here in the 17th century seeking freedom from religious persecution. The Eastern-European style foods associated with Judaism, like challah bread, borscht, and the latkes we’re making today, come from the Ashkenazi Jews. The Ashkenazi came here in droves at the turn of the century. Mostly made up of Germans, the group left Germany because of persecution and lack of economic opportunities.
Haspel’s people are of Ashkenazi origin, and the food she makes is a direct reflection of that. Though Hanukkah isn’t thought of as a significant religious holiday by many practicing Jewish people— others like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover, hold deeper meaning — it still has its special traditions. Haspel’s custom of cooking a big meal the first night of Hanukkah is one shared by many of her counterparts. She normally makes a huge beef brisket, cooking it low and slow in the oven for hours until it’s nearly falling apart. It couples well with her latkes and whatever other tidbits and side dishes she happens to throw in that evening. It’s important to her that she not spend the whole time in the kitchen, away from friends and family.
Haspel laughs, recalling a time when she was eight years old and her mother put in a concerted effort to cook an enormous, authentic Hanukkah meal. The table was set and everyone was hunkering down to enjoy the feast when her younger brother, overcome with excitement, vomited on the table. “After that year,” she says, “we stopped trying so hard and just decided to appreciate our time together.”
Still, Haspel recognizes the power of food in bringing people together. She left New York to go to Ohio for college. There she says was one of only a few Jews in the area. She held Seders, inviting her non-Jewish friends over to enjoy the celebratory dinners. It seemed to close the gap between them, and it also served to ease the ache of loneliness she sometimes felt.
“Judaism is generally not an invitational religion,” she says. “This group of people have, as their core principle, a sense of separateness, of being the chosen few.” This is a somewhat foreign concept to me. I grew up around Catholics and Protestants, where religious conversion is the ultimate objective. I ask her why she thinks it’s not a priority in the Jewish faith.
“Because it’s hard,” she tells me, chuckling. “Suffering is an integral part of being a Jew. It’s so ingrained in our history, it becomes a part of the load you bear. You don’t just invite people to share that with you.”
Nowadays, conversion to the faith isn’t as uncommon, with inter-marriage becoming increasingly familiar and the distance between levels of orthodoxy spreading. The process is still grueling, though, and Haspel notes that it simply isn’t for everyone.
Haspel’s own second marriage in 1997 to her current husband Mark required a meshing of faiths. He’s from an Orthodox Jewish background, and they’ve had to align their tenets to find a home-life that suits them both. They don’t keep a kosher home, and they both love seafood. However, Mark doesn’t want pork in the house, and Haspel’s fine with that. For her part, it’s always been important to her that there be no Christmas tree in the house during the holidays. She feels it detracts from the observance of her own religion. Nightly Hanukkah gift-giving, she tells me, is something that was not always an interstitial part of the festival. It came about as an answer to Christmas presents under the tree. In her childhood, she never received gifts on each night of the holiday, and she never made a habit of it with her own son. They exchange one or two small gifts on the first night, and that’s that.
When Haspel and her husband moved to Charleston seven years ago, they intentionally sought out a neighborhood in West Ashley that has a dense Jewish population. She says that Charleston has a wonderful Jewish presence — it’s closely knit and focused, and Judaism has a deep historical resonance here. “Jews are a social people — it’s important that we be around other Jews. Our interconnectedness, it makes us feel stronger,” she says.
But Haspel doesn’t want that connectedness to stop and start with members of her faith. She’s a board member of the Charleston Jewish Community Center’s Without Walls, a group that offers programming centered on the goal of building relationships through a Jewish lens. And on Dec. 13 the center has planned a Hanukkah Gospel Brunch where members of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim and Charity Missionary Baptist Church of North Charleston will join a host of other singers from both the Jewish and secular community to worship through music.
Haspel’s convivial readiness to share her faith and her holiday are never so evident as they are right now. I stand in her kitchen — a naïve Catholic schoolgirl, a pesky journalist, a virtual stranger — sneaking bites of latke to her dog, Bear. She smiles warmly at me and says, “Let me make you a plate to take home.”