Photo: Anton Ivanov/Shutterstock

Finding Space for Chanukah in Chile

by Eileen Smith Dec 6, 2012
Matador editor Eileen Smith explains how full-on Christmas in Chile brings out the Chanukah in her.

In Chile, there is no Thanksgiving speed bump to slow down the onslaught of Christmas. We go straight from imported Halloween (a holiday that’s only been celebrated in the last couple of years) to flocked doves and shiny golden orbs, and viejitos pasqueros (Santa Clauses) in their fleecy robes and fake white beards, all of which probably give them near heatstroke, as Christmas falls in summer here.

You think you are washed over in a tide of Christmas where you live? I challenge you to come to Chile and find a single non-denominational or non-religious greeting card, a building without a Christmas tree and wreath and garland and lights, a department store not decked out, a supermarket not full of “Christmas boxes,” given to employees as part of an aguinaldo (bonus). I went to an end-of-the-year celebration at a Jewish congregation a couple of years ago, and even there I was served Pan de Pascua, or Christmas bread, a heavy brown yeasty cake that’s somewhere between Panettone and fruit cake. Christmas is everywhere.

I knew this when I moved to Latin America. Chile is predominantly Catholic. And I absolutely respect people’s religious beliefs. I’m not particularly religious. I guess I’m mostly a funerals-and-summer-camp Jew. I’ve been to three different synagogues in Santiago and failed to find a community in any of them. But I didn’t know how much the monocultural approach to Christmas would make me miss having Judaism as part of the conversation. And I definitely had no idea how much it would make me want to get my latke on.

Latkes, or potato pancakes, are the stuff of childhood for me. Back before hydrogenated vegetable oil was the devil, and big scoops full of fluffy white shortening sizzled into the (non-teflon, please, non-teflon) frying pans on the stove, while my sister and I took turns grating dozens of peeled potatoes (and an onion, and hopefully not any knuckles) against the wide quadrille wire grater my mother insisted on using, there were latkes.

I didn’t know how much the monocultural approach to Christmas would make me miss having Judaism as part of the conversation.

In my house we ate them with that year’s homemade apple sauce, or sour cream, crunchy and greasy, slightly oniony and salty. They’re part of celebrating Chanukah, along with sufganiyot, jelly donuts, which are more of a Sephardic or Israeli tradition, and never appeared at my house in Brooklyn. Latkes are crunchy and warming, unhealthy and heavy, and utterly delicious. We would often make them during the eight days of Chanukah as tradition dictates, my sister and I alternating days on which we lit the family menorah. But sometimes latkes show up later in the month as well.

Some Jewish people like to hit the local Chinese restaurant on Christmas. But not us. More often than not, on Christmas day we’d call my grandfather and aunt over and turn to the potato, holding what we called the Smith family latkefest, on Christmas day.

So last year, when I ran into a friend of mine downtown, who, like me, is Jewish, and like me, doesn’t particularly enjoy a two-month celebration of Christmas with no mention of anyone, anywhere that might not celebrate it, despite the presence of synagogues, mosques, Hindu temples, and other non-Christian houses of worship in this country, the Chilean latkefest was born. Chile has tremendously good produce, and potatoes and onions are plentiful and affordable. You can get three kilos of large potatoes for a little over two dollars. Which is cheap, and heavy to carry home, so plan accordingly. We subbed out the hydrogenated shortening for sunflower oil, cheated on the grating, using a food processor, drained and squeezed and dried out the potato and onion mixture, and we fried.

And fried, and fried. We had people from the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Chile. We ate latkes with this year’s homemade apple sauce and greek yogurt, since the sour cream here is runny. The Australian contingent insisted on cinnamon and brown sugar, which was duly whipped up. We lit the menorah, and said the prayers. We played dreidel on my coffee table, using Chilean one-peso coins (worth one quarter of a US cent) for the kitty.

One of the non-Jewish Chilean attendees insisted that another invitee was cheating at dreidel, as time after time, the top spun and landed on gimmel, which gave him all the coins in the pot, whereas she kept on getting shin, and having to put more coins in. When the game finally ended, he won a German hazelnut chocolate bar, which he opted not to eat, what with how heavy the latkes are.

Frying potato latkes in the summer is hot. Frying them in your own kitchen is absolutely idiotic, as everything within a three-foot radius gets covered in a thin sheen of oil. And yet, here in Chile, as the garlands and Christmas card vendors line the streets, and the Christmas parade with its Hello Kitty float makes its way down the Alameda, and my comadre’s 8-year-old daughter tells me that she saw a fake viejito pascuero at her father’s company picnic, I’m picking last year’s wax out of the menorah and finding the boxes of imported Streit’s candles, and I’m starting to get the itch to fry up some latkes again come December 8th1. 1 Chanukah, like all Jewish holidays, is celebrated on the day on which it falls on the Jewish calendar. Chanukah is usually in December, but occasionally shows up at the end of November.

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