“Frying by the heat of our pans” proclaimed the matching t-shirts of the New Paltz Jewish Congregation’s “famous Latketeers.” The aphorism was apt, as the team of seven men — head Latketeer Jeff Goldman along with Alan Kraus, Jerry Teters, Arthur Raphael, David Cohen, Spenser Rohrlick and Steve Greenfield — had just spent all afternoon in a labor of love over hot stoves in the Jewish Community Center’s kitchen on North Chestnut Street preparing hundreds of latkes for the annual Hanukkah celebration held there Sunday, December 13.
The crispy potato treats traditional to the holiday took pride of place on the buffet table, served up with sour cream or applesauce as toppings alongside numerous vegetarian dishes brought to share by members of Kehillat Ahavat Achim, the Jewish Congregation of New Paltz. The gathering was convivial, a lively buzz of conversations between those who knew each other well and also some newcomers. “I’ve been coming to this for years now,” said Betty Marton, “and it’s always a great time, but it’s wonderful to see so many new faces here today.”
Rebecca Stacy was the organizer of the event with assistance from Donna Greenfield. “One of the things I like best about this event is that it’s open to the community at large every year,” Stacy said. “Everyone is welcome.”
The highlight of the Hanukkah celebration was held at sunset when a community candle lighting of menorahs took place. Each family present brought at least one menorah from home to light ceremonially at the same time, with a large silver menorah lit on behalf of the entire community. The menorahs were of many styles, from streamlined and elegant to a witty compilation of musicians made from nuts and bolts. Rabbi Bill Strongin blessed the proceedings and led members of the congregation in hearty song, which ranged from the spiritual to a rendition of “The Twelve Days of Hanukkah.” (Strongin confided he’d heard that the song had been adapted along the way by some other holiday, but he couldn’t confirm that.)
A Judaica shop was open in the lobby for gift purchasing and kids found lots of activities to keep them busy, from dreidl spinning and a “toss” game featuring Hershey kisses to the craft table where some very pretty rhinestone-augmented pins were produced under the direction of Vanessa Saft. Benjamin Hollman, age 12, held down the other end of the craft table helping fellow kids make dreidl-shaped decorations.
But about those latkes.
Was there a secret ingredient? Jeff Goldman said that making hundreds of latkes for the celebration involved the Latketeers shredding at least 20 pounds of russet potatoes, rinsing and draining them, squeezing every bit of water out before mixing in ten pounds of diced onion. A little salt and pepper, some garlic powder and matzo meal to give them body… oh, and don’t forget five dozen eggs. (Cook them in corn oil for the best taste, he added.)
The Hanukkah celebration in New Paltz fell during the last evening of the eight-day Festival of Lights this year. Always held at the community center in the late afternoon so the candles can be lit at dusk, the gathering provides a beautiful moment when the glow of candlelight is reflected on every face in the room. And if the point of the community menorah lighting is “to create as much light as we can,” as one congregant said, it seems an appropriate analogy for living in our times in general; maybe the best way to counteract the darkness is by shedding a little more light.