And In Walked the Chassids
Sometimes it takes the truly unexpected to make you see the light
When the new kosher Israeli grocery store opened, I was in heaven. Before, there had been plenty of kosher food that was available at different places, but nothing out of the ordinary. This store was gourmet.
They had everything you could imagine for both Ashkenazim Jews who were from Eastern Europe and Sephardic Jews who originated in Spain. For me, though they had the one food I craved more than anything when I became kosher: Cheese.
Sure, the other stores had cheese, but it was mostly just shredded mozzarella or maybe some shredded “taco cheese”. This store had all kinds, from Havarti to Camembert to Goat cheese, and everything in between.
They also had the other food I’d been craving - fresh bread. Other than challah and challah rolls, you had basic white or whole wheat bread, pita, and maybe rye if you were lucky. This store had whole loaves of sourdough, and pumpernickel, every flavor of bagel – fresh not frozen - Portuguese sweet bread, boule, brioche, French rolls, focaccia, and baguettes.
The store even had an area that functioned as a patisserie and confectionery with every sweet your heart could ever desire. They even carried Godiva chocolate. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten Godiva.
So, when I decided to throw a Channukah party, there was just one grocery store I went to. I agonized over the menu for two weeks, wanting it to be truly elegant. There would be the prerequisite potato latkes (pancakes) but they wouldn’t be the sole attraction.
While I could have just had it catered, I’d always loved making the food for a party myself. Since I’d become kosher, however, I hadn’t had the opportunity. Unless you lived in a major Jewish area like New York City or Miami, you didn’t generally have the variety and quality of food to pull such a party together. And don’t even get me started on the wine outside these cities.
I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t good kosher wines available. We’d come a far way from Manischewitz, the grape stuff that tasted like cough syrup and gave you a sugar headache after a thimble full. There were some wonderful kosher wines from all over the world. But again, it was a matter of access. While we had a few decent wines, it was usually a choice between a weak cabernet and a bland chardonnay.
When the gourmet kosher grocery store moved in, it was like we’d hit the lotto. Another Israeli in the area opened a wine shop down the street. It didn’t carry just kosher alcohol but the kosher symbol graced at least half of the bottles found there. And if the owner didn’t have what you wanted, he would order it for you.
Planning the Soiree
I got to work on menu. First, the cheese platter. I figured a few favorites with an appropriate wine to go with each, some breads and other accompaniments should do it. First, I put Gruyere on the list, my favorite aged cheese. I selected a white Cheddar which I’d tried at the new store and loved and a mild Gouda, always a safe bet. Triple Cream Brie was a no brainer, as far as I was concerned. Finally, I added a Manchego, a hard cheese made from sheep’s milk that comes from Spain to the list, a nod to the Sephardic friends who were coming.
As for the wine, I figured a Pinot Grigio would go with both the Gouda and white Cheddar. A Pinot Noir would work with the Gruyere, and or maybe a Reisling? I wasn’t much into Reislings as I don’t love exceptionally sweet or dry wines, and the kosher ones I was familiar with were one or the other. No, better to stick with the pinot noir since it could also double for the gouda. A chardonnay for the brie.
Which left the Manchego. After consulting with the owner of the wine shop, I took his recommendation and got a Rioja Blanco which was pricey but he assured me well worth it. I’d also get a six-pack each of nut-brown ale and a pilsner, for some of the men who preferred beer before the main course dinner.
To accompany the cheese, I’d have whole wheat crackers, some good, crusty French bread, fresh grapes, berries, sliced apples, and dried Turkish apricots, honey, fig spread, and marmalade. Olives, roasted almonds, and walnuts would round things out. I made a note to scatter a few small dishes of colorful Jordan almonds around.
So, for the cheese platter, I’d have four wines. They should also do for the rest of the meal with perhaps a featured dinner wine. I had a couple of bottles left of a favorite cabernet sauvignon that came from chile. That should do it.
As for the meal, I’d start with a few salads, Asian pear and baby greens drizzled with lemon and honey, a golden beet salad with pine nuts in a Dijon vinaigrette, and cucumbers in a dill yogurt dressing.
I decided on a pasta dish for the main course that I made with cauliflower noodles when I could pull it off. Otherwise, I had a bag of the standard egg noodles which were practically as good.
For sides, I’d make asparagus with a touch of olive oil, broiled until they were almost black then sprinkled lightly with salt, something my brother had taught me how to do which was easy but tasted decadent. And of course, the main event – Latkes, though I was planning on substituting sweet potatoes for the standard plain ones, and I would also make a potato vegetable version with carrots and zucchini. Served with sour cream and apple sauce. I’d whip up some type of cake for dessert and pick up a little something extra at the gourmet store.
There were eight adults coming with four children, and I’d just learned a dog would also be in attendance as one of my friends had just gotten a rescue puppy she didn’t want to leave alone yet. I looked again at the menu. Was it overkill? Should I nix some of it? I decided to just have smaller portions of everything as I was already attached to the courses I’d set.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
A few days before the get-together, my phone rang just as I walked in from getting the groceries. It was the Rabbi.
“Hi, Nechama, how’s things?”
I replied everything was fine, asking how he and his family were. We talked for a minute, then he got to the point.
“Listen, Nechama, I hate to do this to you. There are a couple of bocherim coming in from a Yeshivah in New York, and there’s no where for them to eat for the first night of Channukah. I know you’re having some friends over and I wouldn’t ask but we’ll be out of town and there’s no one else who can add them.”
Bocherim were unmarried yeshiva students usually still studying for their ordination. These would be ultra orthodox Chassidim likely from the Rebbe’s yeshiva in Crown Heights. They were used to standard fare, matza ball soup, boiled chicken, greasy potato wedges, maybe some fish and a salad added for Shabbos. I doubted they would care for the meal I had planned.
“I’d be happy to have them but the only thing is I’ve planned a rather unusual menu which I really don’t think they’ll like. . . “
“Oh, don’t worry about it. You’ve got a couple of days left. You could still change it. Or don’t bother, it’s up you. They’ll just be happy to have somewhere to go.”
I started a slow burn. Oh no, I wasn’t changing my menu. “Maybe later in the week would be better. I’ve just been planning the first night for a while now and we’ll be having wine – are they even 21 yet. . . ?“ I could just imagine them leaving with wine in their system, getting stopped and sharing with the police who had given several underage boys alcohol.
“They’re set for the rest of the week. It’s just the first night you have to worry about. . . Get a few beers if you want for them and they’ll be happy. I think at least some of them are probably 21.“
Wait – did I miss the part where I’d said yes? And what was this business about ‘at least some of them’? Some definitely implied more than two. Knowing better than to keep fighting when the decision had been made for me, I sighed. “The menu is set so they’ll just have to make due. And just to be clear, no one underage will be drinking at my house.”
“Fine, fine, thanks Nechama. I knew you’d be a sport.”
“So, there will be two of them?” I asked.
“Not more than four or five, I think.”
He hung up before I could respond.
Thank goodness Jewish women didn’t know how to cook for under 20!
Everybody’s a Critic
I had warned the Rabbi we wouldn’t be starting until late since several of my friends would be coming from work and that I didn’t have enough menorahs for four or five bocherim to light. The tradition in orthodox homes is for the men of the house to light them, and each man had to light his own. With vials of oil not candles. In a doorway to illuminate the darkness. I wasn’t sure I even had four or five doorways and the fire hazard alone was bad enough without four small children and a skittish puppy that would be running around. I wasn’t sure how we would handle that one. Thank God it was just the first night.
I had been cooking for three days and had just finished up everything but the asparagus which I’d do at the last minute. The salads were done, just not dressed, the pasta dish had come out perfectly and was prebaked – I’d finish it just as we were moving into the dining room. The latkes were draining on paper towels and the cheese plate was ready in the fridge. The cake was settled under a glass cake dome and the baklava was still in the container waiting to be plated for dessert.
The phone rang and it was one of my friends asking me if I could pick her son up from the babysitters since she was stuck at a deposition – she worked as a lawyer. Happy to do it, I looked at the time and saw it was only 5:30. I still had two hours before anyone would be arriving.
I hadn’t heard from the bocherim so who knew when they’d get there traveling from New York. I grabbed my purse and headed towards to door just as the doorbell rang. Opening it, I saw four young men in black hats, black suits with long black coats, and white shirts standing at the entrance to my apartment.
I stuttered a hello, welcomed them in and apologized that I had to go run an errand. While they were introducing themselves, I rushed into the kitchen to put out a pan of fish, fresh bread, fruit, and nuts and plate some cookies. Then I grabbed the green salad I was going to serve and added it to the table. I mentioned where they could rest but figured it if they wanted to, and explained we wouldn’t likely be starting before 7:30 or so. I also mentioned that the menu might seem a bit eclectic for their tastes so to feel free to eat whatever I put out.
“What is for dinner? Besides the latkes, of course?” the one I think was named Reuven asked.
Looking pointedly at the time on my phone, I replied distractedly “There will be a cheese course and some other things along with the latkes then dessert. There should be plenty.”
“You know even if have the cheese before the brisket, you really should wait several hours before eating the meat,” another, Shalom? said.
“Good thing we’re not having meat then,” I replied.
“I mean the brisket.”
“Which is meat,” I said.
“Yes, exactly,” he said.
“Which is what we aren’t having, I said.”
He looked crestfallen.
“But you have to have brisket on Chanukah,” Reuven piped up sounding horrified.
“I beg to differ,” I replied.
“Then what are you serving?”
I sighed and looked at him pointedly. “In addition to the latkes there will be several salads and a lovely grilled ratatouille pasta dish – that’s eggplant- made with cauliflower noodles.”
Several of the bachurim looked at each other confused. Shalom spoke up once more. “And jelly donuts for dessert, right?” Jelly donuts and latkes were both served on Channukah since they were fried in oil and the holiday commemorated a miracle when a small amount of oil burned for eight days.
“Homemade Caramel Apple Upside Down Cake, and Baklava.”
“But you have to have jelly donuts!” This was Reuven again. “What does upside-down cake have to do with Chanukah? Does it even have any oil in it at all?
“Very little. That’s what the latkes are for. I wasn’t raised with jelly donuts, I was raised with latkes.” As for what upside down had to do with tonight, was he kidding?
Unable to take any more right then, I apologized for leaving them and ran out the door. It was at least a 45 drive to the sitters. I let out a breath of relief, settled comfortably and alone in my non-judgmental car.
It took closer to an hour each way and I was happy to have Daniel in the car since he was such a joyful little kid. A bit rambunctious but I chalked it up to being all boy. I hoped the bochurim were resting so I could finish my preparations without comment since I only had about half an hour left before folks started arriving. I could hear the commotion before even opening the door. I took Daniel’s hand and went in.
And wished I hadn’t.
How Many Did He Say Were Coming?
I could hear the commotion before I opened the front door. I tracked it to the kitchen and my eyes bulged. Was I seeing double? No because that would have only been 8 and there were more than 8 men crowding my kitchen. It looked like a bomb had gone off.
I tried to use my inside voice. “Somebody want to explain what happened here?”
As I looked around to see dirty dishes everywhere and what looked like the remains of my dinner scattered over every surface and the floor.
“When I left here there were four of you. Who are the rest?”
“The Rabbi said he’d made arrangements with you,” one of the new ones said, having the decency to look chagrined.
“He said four maybe five,” I mumbled in shock. I looked around trying to take stock. It appeared that the cheese and everything that went along with it was completely gone, likewise the salads and Ratatouille. The cake and baklava had been reduced to a pile of crumbs.
It seemed like the bachurim had taken a bite out of each of the sweet potato pancakes and left the rest behind. I didn’t see the vegetable ones so I supposed they liked them better. Then I spotted them, untasted in the garbage. “
“We didn’t want to say anything, but I think they were bad,” Reuven spoke up. “They looked a little green. Do you think you’ll wait for the others to get here before making more? You know, the real ones?”
I closed my eyes and prayed for strength. “Those were the real ones. The sweet potato ones were are obviously now wasted. The other ones were slightly green because they had perfectly good zucchini in them. I will not be making more of anything because there is nothing left to use and the kosher grocery store is closed anyway. So, there isn’t one morsel of food left for this dinner tonight, is that correct?”
Levi looked sheepish and said, “There’s one other problem. We were playing baseball in the other room. . . “
No one had ever taught them not to play ball in the house? Then it hit me and I went running for the den, skidding to a stop. There were hues of reds and pinks splashed all over the floor and some of my furniture. Evidently, they’d knocked the crate with the wine and beer off of the table where I’d left it. It was overturned on its side on the floor and I could see not one bottle remained.
Two weeks of planning, several hundred dollars of wine and food, days of cooking and
preparing, and in under two, they’d laid waste to it all. Now. what was I supposed to do? I moaned and slid down the wall to a loose-limbed seated position and put my head in my hands and moaned again.
Daniel took my hand. “I think you should go lay down. You’re as green as those potato latkes.” God, I loved this kid.
The World Turned Upside Down
I don’t know how long I slept. I came back to consciousness slowly, hearing the buzz of conversation in the other room. When I went out in my socks, I saw all my friends had arrived. There wasn’t a bachur in sight and the place looked cleaned up.
“I guess you heard there’s no dinner left,” I said softly.
Kaitlyn, Daniel’s mom, got up from the couch and came over to hug me. “It’s the company that matters, not the food.”
“Though I could definitely use a beer right now,” said David, Kaitlyn’s husband. She looked daggers at him.
Those boys seemed like they felt terrible. They said they would see what they could find for our Channukah feast. We said we’d stay behind and clean up. Now come sit down and talk, or don’t. Whatever you feel like.
We’d been talking and laughing so long, I’m ashamed to say I forgot all about the Yeshivah boys. Then we heard voices and the door opened. The bachurim were back with packages. I don’t know what they managed to find but just hoped it was edible. We filed into the kitchen and saw Rueven unpacking a bag. First, he pulled out packages of frozen latkes. Box after box. This was followed by frozen jelly donuts. There were even more of those
Then over the top of one of the bags. I spotted it. Noooooo! They couldn’t have! But as they started pulling the bottles out of the bag, I saw they had. Manischewitz
Reuven must have seen my expression. “Don’t worry. We got a good variety.” He unpacked not just the concord grape, but also blackberry, elderberry, and heaven help me, cherry.
“And for the white crowd,” he proudly pulled out a bottle of Cream White Concord Grape.
The boys announced they should light their menorahs. We all watched as one then the other lit the first oil cup, said the blessings then sat and watched their light burn for a while.
We fried up the frozen latkes, sipped from glasses filled with Manischewitz, and bit into partially thawed jelly donuts. The bachurim told Chanukah stories that had us not just fascinated and moved but also laughing until our eyes ran. They sang niggunim, Chassidic melodies without words believed to take you to a more spiritual level since music transcends language.
When my friend's dog stole the bag of chocolate gelt (coins) that were for the kids and sunk them in a neighbors pool before we could rescue it, one of the bachurim ran to the car and grabbed the chocolate gelt he’d just brought back special from Israel and happily gave it out to the delighted cheers of the children. They played dreidel with the kids, keeping them happy and occupied, then carried them into my guest room when they couldn’t keep their eyes open any longer and sang them to sleep.
And through it all, I came to realize something. I had forgotten what Channukah was all about. Had the bachurim not come and turned everything on its ear, then saved the night, I wondered if I would have remembered that night. Of if any of my friends would have. It was not about cheese boards, pricey wines. or the perfect upscale menu. It was about a miracle that had happened when oil that should have lasted just one day lasted eight.
So, then what is my perfect pairing? Simple - Manischewitz wine paired with latkes made from ordinary potatoes topped with sour cream and apple sauce. The simplicity of perfect faith paired with the confidence to share it with others. Or maybe it was Chassidic bachurim paired with Channukah as they spread the light of the holiday to dispel the darkness that seems to have taken hold of our world. One thing is for certain though, no matter how you looked at it, it was a night none of us will ever forget.
. . .
If you enjoyed reading this article, leave a comment, share this on your page, or consider leaving a tip. Thank you for reading and for your support!