I bet you didn’t know Lemony Snicket, author of A Series of Unfortunate Events, is Jewish. Well, I’m not sure he is, but he wrote a book called ‘The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story’, and he really seems to know a lot about Channuka, which I think can be taken as an indicator that he is one of the circumcised.
The premise of the story (which is very short, and worth reading, I think) is that a latke, newly formed, is tossed into some burning oil and begins to scream, presumably from the pain. The little potato pancake runs out into the street, and outside he meets many features of Christmas, which is also being celebrated at this time.
One of his little meetings (in between screaming, which continues for most of the short story) is with some Christmas lights. Since this is a whimsical Christmas story, all of the inanimate objects can speak, and the latke explains a bit about himself to the lights, specifically why he was thrown into oil:
“Because I’m a latke,” said the latke. “The olive oil reminds us of the oil used to rededicate the temple following the defeat of Antiochus at the hands of the Maccabees. The oil was only supposed to last for one night but there was a miracle and it lasted for eight. Plus, frying makes my skin crispy and brown.”
“So you’re basically hash browns,” said the flashing colored lights. “Maybe you can be served alongside a Christmas ham.”
“I’m not hash browns!” cried the latke. “I’m something completely different!”
The latke’s little protest really resonates with me, not only in regards to what he chooses to protest, but also to how he chooses to do it.
First of all, what really is the difference between a latke and hash brown? I don’t know, but I’ve only had hash browns once, and it kind of seemed the same to me. (I don’t particularly love latkes, so you can imagine my disappointment when I tasted hash browns, a sort of classic pop culture food, for the first time…Why are you giving me a latke on any day that isn’t Channuka?)
But the latke is right. He is endowed with a different meaning, and can never just be a potato pancake. This is more than saying the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Here the perspective and the history are just completely different, so that there’s nothing in common between the latke and the hash brown! Ham and a latke? You must be joking!
The latke reserves the right to define itself, or perhaps more exactly, to let itself be defined by the Jewish perspective, which is what I think we are supposed to do. If a Christian converts to Judaism, I do not suppose that person simply takes the Bible and says “Oh yes. That’s the same Abraham.” It’s a totally different Abraham, actually! And you can’t just read a midrash and think you know who he is, you have to be immersed in Jewish tradition to feel that he is your forefather, and that there’s a personal element to this!
But it isn’t simply that the latke reserves the right to define itself. It is the argument he chooses to propose. “It’s completely different.”
Well, what a stupid argument! You can’t just say that and pretend it’s true! If it’s different, then explain it! If it’s not, then don’t!
But this again, refers back to the latke’s experience, and the role this plays in his self definition. The latke doesn’t simply examine the world and plug in numbers, definitions, and assumptions so that he can solve the equation for “Self”. We’re not separated from our experiences so that we should be able to simply do that.
Now, that’s not to say we shouldn’t do our best to rationally observe and weigh our experiences, traditions, and thoughts. I personally am uncomfortable simply saying “it’s completely different” without justifying this point, unless someone really just wants to know my feelings on a certain matter.
In an honest conversation we can shed our subjective outlooks, at least for a time, and conduct a conversation that is objective and adheres to shared rules. But when it comes to making a judgment call for myself or about myself, I simply cannot take out the personal element that is so important to who I am.
I think the latke believes this as well. That is one inspiring latke.