Wednesday, December 12, 2007

To Latke, or not to Latke?

This week was Hannuka and though I’m not a particularly religious Jew, I do like a good latke. Brown and crispy around the edges, smothered with applesauce and dabbed with sour cream. I’m not a big stickler for tradition, my needs are few: A couple crispy latkes around the dinning room table, some candles in the menora, a few turns of the dredel and I’ve done my Hannuka thing. I know it’s not a major holiday, I know its hopelessly lackluster next to the blinding glare of Christmas, but I’ve always liked the holiday and I am doing what I can to pass along some Jewish heritage to my son, which isn’t always easy when you are married to a Catholic (albeit non-practicing) and living in a Catholic (also mostly non-practicing) country.

I’ve discovered that Jewish heritage is a relative concept. For one thing, the majority of Jews in France are Sephardic, which is interpreted here as meaning from the North African countries of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, where there have been substantial Jewish populations for many centuries. When the French finally left North Africa, most North African Jews left too, and many came to France. At first I was fascinated. Here was a entire community of Jews who actually knew how to cook! Who knew Jews ate couscous?! And here’s another amazing thought: here are thousands of Jews who never experienced the Holocaust and up until recently lived in relative harmony with their Arab neighbors. Ergo, Jews without a victim complex. What a concept!

But when Hannuka comes around, well…like I was saying, I get this yen for latkes. What can you say to a Jew who doesn’t even know what a latke is? Suddenly, I am no longer charmed by Sephardic melodies, I want to hear a Yiddish fiddle. I want to hear wry, sardonic jokes. I want to hear somebody, somewhere, say “oy gevalt” and mean it. I want to go to the Lower East Side and eat something heavy and leaden that my stomach will remember for days. But I’m in Paris. There is no Lower East Side. In fact, as near as I can make out, there is not a latke in sight—I’m not even sure the Ashkenaz make them here. So what’s a girl to do? Hit the Internet recipe sights, of course. There’s a great recipe for Maxine’s Latke’s on

I am happy with my latkes. They are light and minimally greasy. I proudly serve them to my family. My husband is utterly unimpressed. My son was under the impression I was going to make the sweet doughnuts that the Sepharads make. He refuses to eat them. I get miffed. He won’t even taste one! The scene degenerates and at the end I find myself drying my son’s tears and telling him “it’s OK honey, you’re still a good Jew even if you don’t like latkes.” I feel like a Bad Mother. We all talk about something else. We move on. But I did stubbornly serve them to my in-laws the next night, who were polite but far from enthusiastic. It seems latkes just can’t quite hurdle ethnic boundaries. Oh well. I guess for cultural communion I’ll just have to wait for my next trip to New York.


L'Amerloque said...

Hi !

// …/… When the French finally left North Africa, most North African Jews left too, and many came to France…./…

It's a bit more complicated than that. (smile)

The "Décret Crémieux" in 1870 granted French citizenship to the 35,000 Jews in "Algeria" (i.e. the "North Africa" of the time …)

//Le décret du 24 octobre/7 novembre 1870, dit Décret Crémieux, accordant d'office la citoyenneté française aux 35 mille Juifs d'Algérie, en ces termes : « Les Israëlites indigènes des départements de l'Algérie sont déclarés citoyens français ; en conséquence, leur statut réel et leur statut personnel, seront, à compter de la promulgation du présent décret, réglés par la loi française. Toutes dispositions législatives, décret, règlement ou ordonnance contraires sont abolis. //

Since the "North African Jews" were, in fact, French citizens, why wouldn't they come to France ?

Quite logical, after all …

A great book, by the way:

Sephardic Flavors: Jewish Cooking of the Mediterranean
by Joyce Goldstein
ISBN: 0811826627



David said...

Boy Marge, you managed to say some things that both Ashkenazim and Sephardim can take offense to. Anyway, the latkes look delicious. If I ever get that ambitious I'll give it a go... or I'll just go down to the Lower East Side and get someone else to do it for me... yeah probably the latter. ;-)

Madame said...

Help! I've been trying to learn French Hanukkah vocabulary ( When you play la toupie (dreidel) do you win gelt or do they call it something else? Do they call a latke a latke?

Madame said...

Help! I've been trying to learn French Hanukkah vocabulary ( When you play la toupie (dreidel) do you win gelt or do they call it something else? Do they call a latke a latke?

Margie Rynn said...

Thanks to l'Amerloque for clarifying the Jewish immigration from Algeria. I was aware that Algerian Jews were given special status by France but I didn't realize they were declared citizens. However, I was also under the impression that a lot of Jews from the Magreb started leaving during independence because of a rise in anti-semitism in North Africa that started in the mid-20th century...and thanks for the cookbook tip!

And to Madame:

As far as I know, a latke is a latke is a latke. If someone gives you a blank look, you can try "galette de pomme de terre" I had a hard time finding Hannuka gelt (i.e., those chocolate coins), let alone the word, but in theory yiddish words should work with the Askenazim, right? By the way, a great source for all things Jewish in Paris is Kehilat Gesher, ( a liberal, tri-lingual synagogue with a wonderful American rabbi.

L'Amerloque said...

Hello Again Margie !

Actually, the whole topic of Hannukah foods is almost inépuisable … (grin)

/*/ …/…

En Espagne, Margarita et Juan adorent célébrer ‘Hanoucca chez Abuela et Abuelo! La famille se réunit pour chanter des chansons en Ladino comme Ocho Kandelikas; pour manger des buñuelos, des beignets sucrés frits dans l’huile et dégustés avec du miel ; et bien sûr, pour allumer les kandelikas!


Marina et Alexi vivent à Vladivostok, en Russie. Cette année, le Rabbi de Vladivostok et sa femme préparent un programme de ‘Hanoucca pour toute la communauté juive. Marina et Alexi vont avec leurs parents au musée Arseniev pour un buffet composé de beignets faits maison, de latkes, et autres mets de fêtes. Après quoi, il regardent une vidéo dans laquelle les gens allument des menora tout autour du monde. Le rabbin allume même une Hanukkia publique au milieu de leur propre ville!


Et tandis que la famille de Stacey et de Cameron se régalent avec une montagne de latkes de pomme de terre aux Etats-Unis, les familles juives d’Autriche célèbrent ‘Hanoucca avec de la viande panée appelée schnitzel. Les familles juives au Maroc dînent d’un couscous avec du poulet frit. Et les familles d’Italie ? Carciofi alla Giudia (des artichauts frits croustillants) et des frittelle di zucca (des frites de citrouille) sont toujours très appréciées!

…/… /*/

/*/ …/…

Maîtrisez le vocabulaire yiddish pour une toupie à quatre faces (dreidel), de l’argent (guelt), une crêpe frite (latke); et des lumières de ‘Hanoucca (Chanukah licht).

La meilleure façon de présenter ces termes est, de loin, de les utiliser naturellement, au cours d’un récit, pendant que vous parlez du quartier juif et de la célébration de ‘Hanoucca. Beaucoup de ces termes sont aussi présents dans les livres présentés au début du Deuxième Billet.

Dans le matériel pour Troisième Billet, vos petits feront la rencontre d’un nouveau groupe de mots pour ces quatre articles, mais cette fois, en hébreu ! …/… /*/


Kehilat Gesher said...

Just wanted to say hello from Kehilat Gesher and thank the nice person who made the comment about us and our rabbi. Come on over. We're in Paris XVII and St Germain en Laye.