Setting the table for Hanukkah: latkes and a 'little bit of light'

This story is part of an Edmonton AM series showcasing the holiday traditions of four Edmonton families. 

For Debby Waldman, Hanukkah is the flickering glow of candlelight from the menorah and the smell of latkes sizzling on the stove.

When Waldman moved from Utica, NY, to Edmonton more than 30 years ago, she brought her family traditions with her, along with a treasured family recipe for the traditional potato pancakes.

"I am 59 years old and this goes back as far as I remember," Waldman said, as she fried latkes from the stove of her oil-splattered kitchen.

"My earliest memories of this come from when I was four or five years old. You can call them latkes or you can call them pancakes, as long as they taste good.

"And at this time of year when it's so dark and often so cold, this is great. Fried onion and potatoes, it's comfort food." 

Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Hanukkah — also known as the festival of lights — commemorates the Jewish uprising in the second century BC against the Greek-Syrian kingdom, which had tried to impose its culture on Jews and adorn the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem with statues of Greek gods.  

Each night from Dec. 22 to Dec. 30, families eat meals cooked with oil and exchange presents. In Waldman's childhood home, the celebration was a time for tiny gifts and big gatherings.

"We always had presents to open every night of the holiday," said Waldman, a professional writer and a member of Temple Beth Ora, located in north Edmonton's Oliver neighbourhood. 

"A lot of people, their parents would give them one big gift to open, but my dad was the rabbi so people would always give us gifts.

"And every year my mother would have a Hanukkah party because we had a lot of friends who weren't Jewish and they loved latkes because what's not to love."

'A little bit of light' 

The holiday lasts eight days because, according to tradition, when the Jews rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem, a single vial of oil, enough for one day, burned miraculously for eight.     

Each night at sundown during the celebration, family and friends gather to light another candle on the menorah. 

Waldman, having passed the tradition on to her two grown children, has come to love the nightly ceremony more each year. 

"It brings me back to my childhood. I think of my family. It was always a really fun time and I've come to appreciate the lights way more than I used to when I was kid. Maybe because I live here and it's so much darker.

"When I was a kid, we lit one menorah every night and since I moved here to Edmonton, now we have three and we light them all and it's just so beautiful. 

"Hanukkah is a little bit of light in a time of darkness and a whole lot of carbohydrates at a time when I should not be eating them."