Friday, December 25, 2020

Christmas Without . . .

 I first wrote the post below six years ago, but it still resonates within me more strongly than anything I have written since. Evidently it resonates with readers, too, since I've been getting messages asking for a re-run. So, for those readers, and for those whose friendships I have made in the past year, here's what's in my heart this Christmas  season.

This has been a difficult month for me. I expected that. It's been almost six years since Floyd died, and between Thanksgiving and January come too many special occasions to count -- memories of trips taken and planned, his birthday, our wedding anniversary, holidays, the "heart attack" day, the hospital stays, the hopes built up, and the hopes dashed and trampled into dust. I'm trying to survive each day, one at a time. Christmas is about over, although there's not much here to remind me except for the wreath on the door and a few fake candles on the mantle. Still, I awoke this morning with a dozen memories struggling for recognition -- each one from a "Christmas Without . . ."

1958 -- the first Christmas after my father died. I'm home from college; my mother is barely speaking to me because I dared to pay my own way to go back to my campus dorm instead of staying home to mourn with her, and the empty, undecorated house is a stark reminder that she feels she has been left with nothing.

1962 -- Christmas far from home. I'm married now, and my new Air Force Second Lieutenant husband has just been assigned to his first posting, a radar installation in Moses Lake, Washington. We are living in a single room in the BOQ on base, waiting for housing to open up. No tree, no gifts, no family, not even a cat.

 1963-- Housing  taken care of,  I have a teaching job, but Floyd has been whisked off to a remote site  in Alaska for a year, leaving me alone here in the middle of the desert.  My mother is unsympathetic. "You chose to get married," she writes.

1969 -- I'm in Panama City, Florida; Floyd is in Pleiku, Vietnam. My mother tries to be more sympathetic since its wartime, so she has arrived to celebrate the holidays with me. I've put up an artificial tree and tied Christmas bows around the cats' necks, but we spend most of the time watching TV reruns while I wait for the phone to ring and pray it doesn't..

1977 -- The first Christmas since my mother died -- still trying to explain to my six-year-old why Grandma Peggy is not around anymore (and why it matters that we keep remembering her.)

1980 -- I'm in Colorado Springs; Floyd is in King Salmon, Alaska. He's the base commander now, and I'm finishing up a master's degree, but the sense of "Christmas without . . ." is no less sharp. I'm trying to assemble a cat climbing post that uses a tension pole to hold it upright. Next door is a shiny new bike waiting for me to assemble without help, once Doug is asleep.

1982 -- The first Christmas without Grandpa Schriber, who died on my birthday last spring. We go back to Cleveland for Christmas, but my mother-in-law is in no mood to celebrate anything. (Now I know why.)

1985 -- The first Christmas without Grandma Schriber. Doug asks, "We don't have to go back there again, do we?" and is relieved to be told that there is no longer any "there" to be returned to. I feel oddly bereft -- Floyd and I both orphans now, both only children, so adrift without family.

2000 -- The first Christmas since Doug's shocking death from cancer. We can't bear to be home, so we fly to London for the holidays. We're in a cold hotel room, huddled around a little space heater,  a spindly poinsettia on the end table and a packet of mince pies for our Christmas. But outside there are the makings of beautiful memories: carolers in Trafalgar Square, "The Messiah" at St. Martin's in the Fields, midnight services on Christmas Eve in Westminster Abbey, and Christmas snow falling on Old Ben and the Houses of Parliament.

2015  -- And now Christmas without Floyd. The first of however many I have left, and I pause to wonder what the last half century has taught me. What I see this morning, as I look backward, is that I have few memories of the carefree years, the holidays full of decorations and cookies and fruitcakes, Christmas cards and Secret Santa packages, parties and turkey dinners. They were happy times, I know, but I let them pass without fully savoring the moments. And those memories fade from lack of notice. It's the "Christmases Without . . ." that fill my mind and my heart.

2018 -- Another un-Christmasy Christmas. No tree this year because youngest cat tried sampling plastic pine needles and spend three days being very ill.  Since I've already lost two other cats this year--RIP, Nutmeg and Miz-Miz--I won't risk another such loss right now. I didn't get any cookies baked this year, either, thanks to an oven fire that put it out of commission for almost three weeks. No antlers on the car. I've been waylaid with a bad back and have hardly left the garage. I do have a hunk of fruitcake, however, and some chicken and dressing to remind me of happier times.

2020 — Who would have guessed that this would be the Christmas Without . . . Everything? No schoolrooms decorated with paper chains, no midnight candle-lit church services, no Messiah concerts, no theaters, no office parties, no family gatherings, no road trips, no restaurants, no gyms, no sporting events with cheering throngs, no neighborhood caroling, no shopping trips, no hugs. Worst of all are the missing familiar faces; they have become part of the millions lost forever to the ravages of COVID-19. 

Pundits remind us to "count our blessings," and I'm totally in favor of that, but it doesn’t go far enough. We also need to stay aware of our losses. The losses . . . the Christmases Without . . . the things we grieve for . . . these may be the most important moments of our lives. There's no hiding from them. They are part of our core. And they teach us an important lesson — that we often fail to appreciate the abundance in our lives until something takes it away. So I'll count my losses once again  and be grateful that I've known them.


Thursday, December 17, 2020

One Last Sweet Surprise for the Holiday

For the last dinner of Hanukkah, I recommend a cakey surprise—good in itself but over the top in showmanship.  Here’s how to pull it off.  The kind of cake is entirely up to you—chocolate or white, packaged mix or inherited family recipe.  The only requirement is that you make enough for four nice 8- or 9-inch round layers, of a sponge with a nice crumb, and plentiful buttercream frosting to hold it all together.

Start by centering an intact layer on your serving plate. (You’re not going to want to move it to another plate after it is assembled.) Top with layer of frosting.

For the next two layers, cut the centers out, leaving at least a 2-inch wide ring of cake. (Save the cut-out centers to make cake pops later!) Stack the two layers with frosting between them on top of the solid bottom layer. You should now have something that looks rather like a bowl.  And don’t worry if your rings break when you lift them Just paste them back together in place

. That’s what frosting is for.

Fill that hole in the middle with gold-foil-wrapped chocolate coins. You can find them, usually in a mesh bag, in any good candy shop this time of year. And you will be surprised at how many of those coins will fit into the center of your cake.

Now you top the whole with another intact layer, and cover the whole cake—top and sides—with frosting and whatever decorations you prefer.  

Bring it to the table, and do the cutting of the first wedge yourself—because you will be the only one who knows what is about to happen. 

When you slide a cake knife under the wedge and pull it out of the cake, those coins will spill out like a little waterfall. You’ll want to make sure everyone gets a coin along with a slice of cake.


Wednesday, December 16, 2020

What Is It? And What Do You Do with It?

 After watching “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix, I’ve decided I’ll never understand the game of chess, but Hanukkah offers a simpler way to scratch that competitive itch. 

Dreidels require only a flat surface (any floor except carpet will do) and a single small piece of wood. A dreidel is a spinning top with four sides, each inscribed with a Hebrew letter that describes your movement. Any number of players can join the game, which may last for only a few seconds or continue throughout the day. The only limitation to the game is that its season lasts for only 8 days and only comes around once a year. 

Here’s how you play:

Each player puts one marker into the “pot.” Those markers can be anything that’s handy—pennies, beans, buttons, raisins, paper clips. (I don’t recommend using M&Ms because of the danger that someone may come by and eat the pot!).

Players take turns spinning the dreidel and acting according to which side comes  up.

nun = nothing.  And that’s what you get. It’s the equivalent of losing your turn.

gimel = whole; entire. You win! Take the whole pot. Then start a new game.

hei = half. You take half the pot, but if it contains an odd number of pieces, you are not allowed to round up. (If it has 7, you take 3, not 4).

shin = put it in or give it up. You must contribute one marker to the pot.

That’s it. Those are the only rules. What does it have to do with Hanukkah? Well, those four letters can stand for a Hebrew sentence that says: “A great miracle happened there (or here, if you happen to be in Jerusalem!).”

Happy Spinning!

Monday, December 14, 2020

How To Make Potato Latkes


Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the oil, when the Hebrews were saved because their one-day supply of oil lasted for eight full days. The lighting of the menorah, of course, is a re-creation of that miracle, but Hanukkah foods echo it as well by being rich in oil. (This is not a holiday to watch your cholesterol!) Frying these little potato cakes in oil and schmaltz (chicken fat) gives them a crunchy goodness that no oven-crisp recipe can hope to match. This basic recipe appears in What Grows in Your Garden.

Grate 2-3 pounds russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, using large holes of a box grater. Place in bowl and cover with cold water.
Grate one large onion using small holes. Drain potatoes in colander; then add shredded onion. Wrap tightly in cheesecloth and squeeze dry. Place in dry bowl and toss to distribute onion.
Stir in 1 cup matzo meal, flour, or breadcrumbs; two large eggs, well-beaten; and salt and pepper to taste, mixing well’
Heat 1⁄4 inch of oil in cast iron skillet. Add small amount of schmaltz (chicken fat) for a more authentic taste. Hold temperature to 365 degrees. 
Shape 1⁄4 cup or less of potato mixture and pat into tight disk. Fry 2 or 3 minutes per side and drain on wire rack over paper towels. 
Serve with applesauce or sour cream. 

Note: You can make your own schmaltz by chopping up the skin and visible fat from a package of chicken thighs, but rendering the oil takes a delicate touch. You might have better luck checking with a local kosher butcher shop.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Symbolism behind Jewish Foods

 Do you know why we eat cranberries with turkey? Or what mincemeat pies have to do with Christmas? I don't know, either. But I do recognize that in Jewish households, the food on the table usually has a specific connection to the holiday on which it is served. Here's a typical festive dinner for Hanukkah. Can you guess the reasons behind the choices?

  • Roasted beet salad with mixed greens--Roasting makes beets release their sugar
  • Braided challah--a symbol of the intertwined relationships in the Hebrew tradition
  • Whole baked fish (flounder or salmon) and whole beef brisket--both speak of abundance
  • Potato latkes with homemade applesauce--fried in hot oil, a reminder of the miracle of the oil
  • Cheese blintzes with sour cream--a reference to the story of Judith, who saved her people by over-feeding the enemy leader with cheese and then cutting off his head.
  • Roasted carrots--these, too, become very sweet when roasted
  • Tiny green beans with fried onions--more items fried in hot oil
  • Sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts)--a triple threat: sweet, fried in oil, and filled with jelly surprise.
  • Rugelach--another pastry filled with sweetness.
Besides having a delicious meal, the diners also absorb the messages of Hanukkah. The hot oil never runs out. The world is full of surprises. And the holiday is filled with love and sweetness.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

A Taste of Hanukkah

 A fuller description of Hanukkah appears in What Grows in Your Garden, when Sarah arrives at her parents’ home after her first semester of college teaching.

“Fresh applesauce bubbled on the stove, and chocolate cake layers were cooling and waiting for someone to assemble them into the Hanukkah surprise cake*, which would contain foil-wrapped chocolate coins. The kitchen air smelled of bubbling yeast, hot oil, and grated onions. And in the window, the menorah waited for its daily ration of Hanukkah candles.
“Leah Chomsky had been looking forward to her daughter’s arrival, but once Sarah was in the house and Leah had hugged her, kissed her, and bedecked her with an apron, she handed her a grater. “Potatoes, Sarah. Grating the potatoes for tonight’s latkes* is your job.” Sarah was home, and all the worries about her new job faded away.
“During the eight days of celebration, family members and friends drifted in and out of the house in a blur of greetings and well-wishes. Children littered the floors with their games of dreidel,* and the teenagers devoured the sufganiyot* faster than anyone could fry them. Love and joy were the rules of the day, and the evenings resonated with prayers of gratitude for the miracles of the lights.”
* Recipes and directions to follow next week.
Robin D. Owens

Friday, December 11, 2020

The Dates of Hanukkah

Those raised in a Christian tradition know that Christmas comes on the same date every year, but Hanukkah is more of a moving target. It can happen anytime between late November and late December. In the Hebrew calendar, Hanukkah occurs on the 25th day of the month of Kislev. However, that Hebrew calendar is based on a lunisolar cycle so that instead of the same number of days in every year, a Hebrew year can have anywhere from 353 to 385 days. The holidays and months move accordingly. Confused, yet?

For Sarah, whose teaching schedule did not take the Hebrew calendar under consideration, Hanukkah celebrations changed from year to year. In her first year at Smoky Mountain, Hanukkah and Christmas vacation coincided, so she was able to visit her parents in New York. But in her second year, Hanukkah came during final exams and the deadline for submitting final grades. She would be staying in Birch Falls and celebrating with her boyfriend's family. One of her colleagues asked how she was going to manage the celebration of Hanukkah in the midst of grading chaos. She explained:

“The religious requirements come every day at sundown, when we light one more candle on our menorah, read the story of the miracle of the oil, and recite the ritual prayers. That only takes about half an hour, but then everyone gathers for a festive dinner each night. The children receive small token gifts, and much visiting goes on from house to house. My days will be my own, but unless I stay home to light my solitary menorah, the evenings will be hectic.” "What Marks Your Path?", p. 173.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

The Story Behind Hanukkah

My new "cozy mystery" series--Smoky Mountain Mysteries--has as its heroine a young Jewish woman who is just beginning her career as a college history professor. Because holidays play a major role in her story, I'll be highlighting some of the ways in which she and her friends and family celebrate. I'm starting with what is perhaps the best-known, but least understood, of the Jewish holidays. Here's the historical background:

Sundown on Thursday, December 10, 2020, marked the start of the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. It recalls the events of 167 BC, during which the Greek/Syrian king Antiochus IV tried to wipe out the Hebrew religion and practices of the Jews. His soldiers’ tactics involved much cruelty, the destruction of their holy books and artifacts, and extended to the defiling of the Temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing a pig on the altar.

A rebellion led by Judas Maccabeus eventually frustrated their efforts, as the rebels recaptured their holy sites and rededicated the temple. The necessary ceremonies required the temple’s Menorah candles to burn for eight days, but the priests could find only one tiny vial of holy oil to fuel them. In what came to be known as the “Miracle of the Oil,” the vial kept replenishing itself so that the lights burned for the entire eight-day period. The celebration of Hanukkah commemorates the event over an eight-day period, the highlight of which is the lighting of the menorah.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020



by Carolyn P. Schriber


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