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The Little Latke   That Could

12/21/2021 04:07:33 PM


Guest Blogger: Gaylon Finklea Hecker

 A firebombing at the synagogue’s front door couldn’t do it. Even a worldwide pandemic couldn’t do it. But a shortage of the lowly, frozen, shredded potato almost brought down the Congregation Beth Israel (CBI) Brotherhood’s much-anticipated, long-awaited annual latke-brisket Chanukkah dinner this year. 

Don’t worry kids. Don’t panic grownups. This story has a happy ending. The 74 online orders for to-go latke dinners on the last night of Chanukkah were delivered on time, as promised, and picked up curbside at CBI. The families enjoying Brotherhood latkes that night did so clueless as to how that holiday tradition almost didn’t happen this year. This behind-the-scenes story ends well. But the drama and determination leading up to the ending is worth acknowledging.

Here’s how it went. First, some background.

In 2020 when what some in the Jewish community called the 11th plague -- known in the broader world as Covid-19 -- shut down all social gatherings for the protection and safety of partygoers, Brotherhood president Marvin Hecker had a Plan B. “We’ll have a drive-by pickup of our latke-brisket dinners,” he said. “We can’t do our traditionally well-attended, full of fun-and-food party inside Smith Auditorium, but we can still provide our families and friends with the latkes they look forward to every year at this season.”

And so it was last December. Masked, socially distanced temple volunteers gathered in the big kitchen to cook hundreds of latkes, clean up the greasy mess, and happily deliver bags of latke-brisket dinners at curbside. Oh, yes, and sell Brotherhood T-shirts proclaiming, “We Love You A Latke.” And little gift bags of dreidels and chocolate gelt.

Fast forward to 2021.

Ah, a new year, an anticipated return to CBI’s Chanukkah tradition held inside the big auditorium like normal. Normal? No, not normal. On Halloween, an 18-year-old started a fire at the synagogue’s front door, causing fire and smoke damage inside the sanctuary and further down the hall. Thank G-d, the Torah scrolls were saved before the smoke got to them, but the sanctuary requires extensive remediation.  

After holding Shabbat services the next Friday in the temple’s parking lot, because such catastrophes don’t stop Jewish tradition, Smith Auditorium was reconfigured as a sanctuary for an unknown number of months. The consequence: No room inside for a latke dinner. Hecker said, “Not to worry. We did a great curbside last year. We’ll just do it again.”

So the planning began. Volunteers volunteered. Online orders were ordered, remarkably almost exactly the same number as last year. No lack of enthusiasm from the community. On the appointed day, Hecker and faithful volunteers Jean and Richard Hughes, shopping list in hand, met at Restaurant Depot for the traditional, annual Chanukkah party mega-shopping day to supplement smaller shopping trips earlier in the week.

  • 6 gallons of Canola oil. Enough to float a small battleship or keep a chanukkiah burning for 8 times 8 months. Check.
  • 40-plus pounds of fresh onions requiring grating. Check.
  • 7 5-pound containers of sour cream. Check. (One can never have enough sour cream.)
  • 6 giant cans of apple sauce. Check.
  • 1 Dead Sea-sized box of kosher salt. Check.
  • 3 gallons of barbecue sauce for the brisket, 120 pounds of it smoked by volunteer Ben Kravetz. Check.
  • 228 ounces of Egg Beaters. Check.
  • 100+ clamshells for packaging, as well as sacks with handles. Check.
  • 514 condiment containers and lids to be labeled to exactly match each individual order
  • 120 pounds shredded, frozen potatoes.

“What? Say that again, slower, please? You got no potatoes?” the almost speechless volunteers asked the restaurant supply guy. “Nope. We’ve been out of potatoes for days. Truck’s on its way, but we can’t guarantee it will arrive in time for thawing and cooking. We’ll put your request at the top of our list, but there’s no guarantee when the potatoes will get here.” That was Wednesday. Latke drive-by pickup to begin at 3 p.m. Sunday.

What was the Plan B now? Cell phones rang and rang, calling friends in the food business, Restaurant Deport in San Antonio, Costcos, Sysco Foods, any store that might sell shredded, frozen potatoes. Incredibly, no shredded, frozen potatoes to be found.

For one panicky moment, a volunteer fleetingly suggested that 120 pounds of fresh potatoes could be peeled and shredded. But because this is 2021, not 1921, and this isn’t your bubbe’s home-centric Chanukkah party, there was no chance of that happening.

Would the Chanukkah dinner for more than a hundred hungry people have to be canceled at the last minute? Would CBI’s families have to do without their tradition? Naw. Wasn’t gonna happen. In one day, the intrepid volunteers went store to store, to WalMarts and HEBs buying up small packages of much-more-expensive frozen, shredded potatoes, taking a big bite out of the local supply, and by Thursday night, they had accumulated 120 pounds. Whew! Potato predicament evaded. Now there was work to do.

Volunteers then proceeded filling 514 tiny containers with sour cream, apple sauce and barbeque sauce, each with a label corresponding to an order. On Saturday evening they chopped and shredded the onions. Starting at 7 a.m. on Sunday, masked volunteers trickled in, as expected. They formed bowl after bowl of the mushy recipe into balls, others fried those latke balls in skillets so big they could feed Judah Maccabee’s army, sliced all those delicious-smelling briskets, filled orders and delivered them to the grateful, party-ready families waiting in their cars at the curb. Not one of those families knew how close they came to missing out on the Brotherhood’s yummy Chanukkah tradition.

When the delivery deadline of 6 p.m. came around, 619 latkes had been distributed, along with 427 2-ounce slices of brisket, 14 “We Love You a Latke” t-shirts and 62 goodie bags of dreidels and chocolate gelt for the kids. Now, all of you dear readers know the rest of CBI’s Chanukkah story.

A big thank you goes to volunteers Marvin Hecker, Jean and Richard Hughes, Phil Baum, Rob Rosner, Charles Mandelbaum, Syd Popinsky, Gary O’Brien, Tamara Klindt, Shari Nichols, Doug Baron, Burton Richards, Ben Kravetz and Sue Bilich. They know how to make miracles happen even in our day.

--- Gaylon Finklea Hecker, Brotherhood volunteer. For full disclosure, dozens of details, sighs and shrugged shoulders were left out of this story for brevity’s sake. Have you ever planned and given a latke party for dozens of families? Next year, maybe you’ll volunteer.

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784