The last month and a half of 2020 were an order of magnitude more horrible for me than the entire already horrible year. Husband in hospital with increasingly difficult events, currently in nursing home where he is supposed to be getting rehab (but isn’t) and me alone here in the house rattling around with the two cats who don’t understand why their complement of humans has just been halved.
The shining light in this shadowed time has been a neighbor of mine, an older Jewish lady of Russian emigre Jewish background, a Julliard trained pianist and something of a prodigy who played with Leonard Bernstein and the Philharmonic when she wasn’t yet sixteen years old. She is elderly now, and suffering from a particularly nasty genetic disease which is eating at her lungs – and she’s also – related to this – had a number of strokes, at least one of which left her without feeling in her fingertips which (in a concert pianist) is an absolute tragedy because of course she can no longer “feel” and therefore play her piano. But in the plague year I baked a lot of bread, and some of it was challah bread, and I took challah loaves to this lady adn passed them over at a safe social distance – it gave us both pleasure, me to offer, her to receive, and we bonded over challah.
In return, she decided, this Hanukkah, to make me latkes.
She had the recipe off of a very famous source and swears she will never share it with anyone – but it’s a labor-intensive thing, and it takes time, and effort, and, now, hand and finger dexterity she no longer really has.
She handed over a large pile of latkes (yes, I have eaten them ALL. why do you ask?) and they were exquisite – but she said to me, “these are the last I will make. I will never make latkes again. It takes too much out of me.”
I feel humbled, in a way. A huge and terrible honor has been bestowed upon me. The last latkes this grand old Jewish lady swears she has made… were not made for her children. They were made for me, for a stranger, for a stranger who brought challah loaves to her own door but still a stranger.
We have shared food with one another. I think we are family now, of sorts.
And I will never eat latkes again, if I ever do, without thinking of her, and of how very very good these last latkes were, made with ailing hands and a great heart. They tasted of love and of gratitude and of humanity.
I will never forget them,