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Latke Blues

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Latke Blues

Chanukah thoughts on the lowly, yet seasonal, spud December 26, 2019
Arts and Culture

I’ll probably be sick of potato pancakes by the fourth night of Chanukah. I’m in a klezmer band, Yiddishe Cup, and we do a fair number of synagogue parties, and the occasional Unitarian church gig. Everybody loves a crispy potato pancake (“latke” in Yiddish). My old synagogue, Congregation Beth Am in Cleveland Heights, had a social hall with stained drop-ceiling tiles caked with decades of latke grease. That room reeked year-round.

Every year, my band plays a Chanukah luncheon in Cleveland for Holocaust survivors—plus friends of survivors and children of survivors. We of course play “Hava Nagila” and some Yiddish tunes, and we add an American tune for the baby boomers, maybe “Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead. Lately it occurs to me what a long strange trip it’s been.

The band’s most recent road trip was to Fort Wayne, Indiana. Not to brag, but we’ve played 19 states and abroad (the Windsor, Ontario JCC). On road trips, we sometimes brake for Bob Evans, a midwestern chain known for its down-home cooking. Bob Evans should sponsor our band, but the restaurant’s signature dish is sausage, which probably isn’t a good look for a klezmer band. I once met Bob Evans at his farm in Rio Grande, Ohio. He was standing on his front lawn watching bicycles go by. (I was part of the group ride known as the Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure.) Bob Evans’s hash browns are worth a visit to his restaurants. Another good potato (and latke substitute) is the hash brown patty at McDonald’s.

A few months ago, Yiddishe Cup played a fundraiser at the Czech Sokol (gymnasium) in Slavic Village. At the food stations throughout the gym, potato pierogis reigned supreme. The gig was reminiscent of Fiddler on the Roof, with Slavs and Jews and our rendition of the Yiddish song “Bulbes” (“Potatoes”): “Sunday, potatoes. Monday, potatoes. Tuesday and Wednesday, potatoes. Thursday, potatoes. But on Shabbes something special—a potato kugel!”

Even in my day job as a landlord, I’m potato-centric. My company’s rental addendum reads: “Don’t use your sink, toilet, or bathtub to throw out garbage. We’ve found nylon stockings in the bathtub drains and potatoes in toilet drains. The plumber charges money to snake that stuff out.”

I hired a flooring guy who said to me one December, “It’s Chanukah time. We’re best buds. Can you pay me up front?” He told me Scrooge was Jewish. No, I said, Scrooge wasn’t Jewish. He said I was a “reformed Jew” who didn’t know what I was talking about. I asked him to stop talking about Jews, but he couldn’t help himself. He said his mother was Jewish. I said, “Your Jewish mother who lives in Parma?” Parma is a Polish and Ukrainian stronghold.

Benny, an Italian-American building manager, once told me that I should put a cold potato on my head for headaches. He said, “Put the potato in a refrigerator, cut the potato into pieces, and put them in a cloth around your head. It sucks the swelling right out.” My landlord job, at least at the beginning, gave me headaches. I went to the JCC for a massage and tried the whirlpool. Then my father, who had started the family business, died of leukemia. My then five-year-old son said, “You won’t see Grandpa again. Never! He’s dead.” My headache went away, and I developed another headache—running the family business. That’s when I started the klezmer band. More than 30 years ago.

Music is a cheerful counterbalance to the real-world business of real estate. Music is usually fulfilling, and always filling. You want sour cream or apple sauce on that latke?  Happy Chanukah.

Photo: jerrydeutsch/iStock

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