When asked by me some years ago why our nutty nuclear family always celebrated Christmas, my mother gave the usual explanation for her and my late dad’s often bizarre parenting decisions: “Well dear, we did it for you,” meaning me and my two younger brothers Eric and Jonny.
The reason I call this bizarre is that both my parents are Jewish. My mother Ruth Schachter is a holocaust refugee whose oil tycoon father Aaron Nisse led the family’s escape from Riga, Latvia, when she was 16 years old in the fall of 1939. A year later, she, her sister Dita and my grandparents finally settled in Montreal after taking the trans-Siberian railway through Russia, crossing the Pacific on a Japanese liner, being sprung from jail in Seattle for not having the right papers and then living in New York for six months. Quite a story and more of it when I eventually write my memoir.
My dad Mel was one of those feisty, working-class immigrant Jews who grew up in the St. Urbain St. ghetto of Montreal – the likes of Mordecai Richler, Simon Reisman, Ted Allen and Irving Layton all of whom, like my doctor/medical researcher dad, attended Fairmont and Baron Byng schools, then when on to be high achievers. He and my mum met at McGill “over a dissected frog.”
My mum told me some years ago that the high holidays were celebrated by her openly Jewish but somewhat assimilated wealthy, refined family in Riga when she was growing up. We’re talking Passover, Chanukah and Rosh Hoshanah. These celebrations were gatherings for her large extended family, all of whom were murdered soon after the Nazis invaded Latvia.
My dad grew up in a semi-kosher household as part of the local Jewish community – bar mitzvahs, synagogue etc. He succinctly referred to all this as “mumbo-jumbo.” With the name “Schachter,” there was no doubt about his origins. It refers to the job of schoichet, those who slaughter animals by the kosher method. He had no use for anyone who changed his or her name and once replied, when I asked why I couldn’t go to Sunday school with my Gentile pals: “You’re nothing but, if you were anything, you’d be Jewish.”
Growing up in a white-collar, white-bread suburb in post-war London, England, I found this all very confusing. So was celebrating Christmas – on Christmas Eve. The latter was my mother’s decision because she was European and this is when Europeans celebrate that holiday.
All that said, I have had enough of Christmas and have, in recent years, ditched it in favour of Chanukah, a low-key holiday with a few small gifts that, like most things Jewish, is all about the food – in this case, latkes.
As anyone who isn’t living under a rock can attest, Christmas is completely out of control. Just walk around a department store or mall during mid-December and the stress of all that shopping is palpable.
In addition, I am a free spirit who doesn’t like being told when to celebrate, especially when to give people presents. I enjoy both of those activities – when the spirit moves me and when it moves others to do likewise.
And so I now do Chanukah, in a very small way. I light the menorah, when I remember, during those designated eight days. But more important, I make latkes.
This year, dinner was at the new Toronto home I share with Ross. It’s on the edge of Kensington Market and is smaller than any place I’ve owned for the past few decades. However, the chandelier-studded living/dining room that a friend recently described as “very New Orleans” holds seven people comfortably. So a week ago, our compact gathering enjoyed a lavish Chanukah repast – with a new twist.
Ross’s son Jason is a vegan so no meat or dairy for him. And thus, except for roast chicken as protein for the meat-eaters, it was a vegan meal.
Also in attendance was my vegetarian friend Polly who brought a deliciously spicy groundnut soup as first course. My buddy Visnja came with a tasty brown/wehani rice dish inundated with mushrooms and nuts. My daughter Ruthie and her girlfriend Usha fried the eggless latkes. I made a sort of Persian dish of mixed beans in a vinaigrette laced with cumin and cinnamon, then tossed with chopped fresh mint and parsley – yum. A huge salad was my pretty darn good attempt to replicate the one savoured at Ruby Watchco: mixed greens, toasted pumpkin seeds, grape tomatoes, chopped endive, mixed baby greens and little wedges of blanched brussels sprouts, all in a slightly sweet, tangy olive oil dressing.
Then came the piece de resistance: a divine vegan chocolate cake I picked up from LPK’s Culinary Groove, a nifty bakery specializing in organic and vegan baked goods.(a tip from my wonderful vegan friend Adrienne) located on Queen St. E. just east of Broadview and a few doors away from Ruby Watchco. Wow, that moist, dense delectably dark and deeply chocolatey confection was a taste sensation, especially when eaten with my port-laced fresh and dried fruit compote. It got raves all round.
As I said to Jason that happy night – and I think he took it the right way: “I was mad at having to run around for all this vegan stuff but it’s all been worth it.” Yes, you can make superb vegan latkes by simply omitting the eggs and chocolate cake does not need dairy. Live and learn!