I usually tell non-Jews that Hanukkah is like Christmas, but eight times better.
I don't really remember all of the Hanukkah gifts I've received over the years, which is the central thesis of Hanukkah: You're going to get a lot of gifts. I distinctly recall getting my first CD, Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream; I played it until my little Discman couldn't read the CD anymore. That was the beginning of me giving a shit about music. Of course, I could mention the time my mom made a bunch of awesome sweet potato latkes, but the truth is that receiving those albums are the memories that have stuck with me the longest.
Hanukkah has certain traditions, and I feel like the whole concept of Hanukkah gelt is very odd. The giving of gelt was this original notion of giving a gift, lokay: money represents a gift, albeit a somewhat thoughtless one. It's strange to have children obsessing over something that is essentially meant to represent antiquated gold coins. We obsess because it's really deliciously bad chocolate, but I think we should be a little more sensitive about the stereotypes that already exist about our race. I don't think having a whole nation of Jewish kids obsessing over getting gold coins by spinning dreidels is a great thing.
Latkes are also a classic tradition. I've never experienced any disasters with them, but I could see how frying up a million latkes could easily create a grease fire. Thankfully, I've never experienced that. I'm sure there are tons of disasters that go on in kitchens for Christmas that I just don't know about. I've never hosted a real Christmas dinner—I've eaten Chinese food on Christmas for the last million years.
I think we should be a little more sensitive about the stereotypes that already exist about us. I don't think having Jewish kids obsessing over getting gold coins is a great thing.
Nom Wah is my favorite place for dim sum on Christmas Day. In Montreal, we used to go to VIP. At the time, I thought it was the greatest Chinese food in the whole world; it was very sweet, heavy on the cornstarch, and Cantonese-Canadian.
But then I had other Chinese food.
I don't go home to Montreal for Hanukkah because it's right before Christmas, so it's a weird time of year to leave New York. This year, we're going to celebrate at Mile End by running latke-oriented specials: we're doing a lot of different latkes with different toppings, and we're also making fresh jelly doughnuts. But I think people just want chicken soup, brisket, and chopped liver. We're so uncreative—the Jewish table—around the holidays in a lot of ways. You just want to act like it's any other Jewish holiday, minus Yom Kippur.
I've always thought there were other things that could be involved in the Hanukkah meal, though, like olive oil cake. Even though it's Italian, it makes sense that we'd eat that. It's a cake that literally has oil in the name. But what else? Cucumbers soaked in chili oil? How far out of the loop should we go in terms of trying to consume oil-laden foods here? Anything with oil as a fundamental part of its preparation, we could do that, for sure. I like eating chocolate on Hanukkah, because it has a shitload of fat, and salmon, because it's such an oily fish. It goes really well with latkes, but I might be predisposed to want to have lox and creme fraiche in general.
In the end, for me,Hanukkah is a good holiday—there's not a lot of religiousness around it, so it becomes about eating and getting gifts. The recurring Fridays were always the most Jewish to me, and felt the most memorable. I have such distinct memories of Shabbat dinners. That's one of the beauties of celebrating Shabbat, is that it comes every week. That's the cool thing about Jewishness: we set aside one time a week to gather and celebrate, you don't have to wait the whole year for it to come around again. I don't always do it, but it's a beautiful moment when it happens, and it's one of the holiest.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2014.