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What is a latke? All my preconceptions of latkes have been proven wrong – as it turns out that the first latke was actually made of cheese. I ponder this question while listening to Debbie Friedman’s (1951-2011) musical children’s classic, “I am a Latke,” which takes us from the vat of batter to allusions to the crackly fulfillment of a potato’s oil splattering fate, helping us to envision how its death by a thousand sizzles leads to a miraculous rebirth on the plate. A lonely potato, united with onions, flour, oil and, if it is lucky, a pinch of cinnamon (my mother’s recipe) is transformed into a golden brown swan, delightfully crunchy and delicious.
Is the latke hopeful and triumphant, or is it the loneliest spud on earth?
Fyodor Dostoyevsky begins his classic novella, “Notes from the Underground,” with the protagonist’s plea, “I am a sick man . . . I am a wicked man.” This cry of despair introduces us to one of the most alienated, indecisive and lonely figures in all of literature.
My suspicion is that Debbie Friedman’s latke really wants to be this Dostoyevsky antihero. It strains through the strainer to emerge cynical, watery and dank, to see the world as a haven of brutishness, darkness and unmitigated evil.
How does this slab of batter, battered by life since its origins in the potato fields of Mother Russia, suddenly jump from the pan, tanned and tasty in full Hollywood splendor, as a Debbie Friedman ditty?
Debbie’s songs lifted the spirit. As she put it:
My music has become the vehicle by which I am able to create a sense of a safe and loving space. It is a space in which hands and arms and souls touch in gentle song.
That’s where her latke ends up. Actually, the latke ends up in my stomach, but metaphysically, it ends up in a nirvana-state on a plate, with children smiling and clapping at its entry into the room. There is no space more safe and warm than a dining room with the smell of fresh-cooked latkes.
But that moment is actually not Debbie’s focus in the song. The song takes place in the blender, at the moment of the unformed latke’s greatest pain and uncertainty, an existential crucible that slices and dices – and all for $19.95 if you order now – and grates and grates and grates. Or at the hands of grandma, who grates by hand, so that parts of grandma’s knuckle end up in the mix, giving rise to diabolical anti-Semitic canard that Jews consume their grandmothers for Hanukkah.
The song takes place where Dostoevsky – not Debbie – lives, where there is no tenderness, no interaction, no ability to mix with the onions and the flour – and not even the possibility that the flour might be something more blessed, like matzo meal.
Friedman’s lyrics begin with our protagonist in an existential stupor, acutely aware of his lot:
I am so mixed up that I cannot tell you,
I’m sitting in this blender turning brown.
But all too quickly, the spud-mix is much too amenable to forging friendships:
I’ve made friends with the onions & the flour,
& the cook is scouting oil in the town.
The batter desires to be cooked but is dependent on an accomplice, which is perhaps its greatest weakness. No one will help him. He is always alone, unattractive and despised. All hope seems to be lost.
I sit here wondering what will come of me,
I can’t be eaten looking as I do. I need someone to take me out & cook me,
Or I’ll really end up in a royal stew.
And finally, this despair leads to messianic anticipation – something that the Underground Latke would never have entertained.
I am a latke, I am a latke
& I am waiting for Chanukah to come
That salvation does come for most latkes in that post-fry rebirth, crispy on the plate, with the kids licking their fingers. But that happy ending is not found in the Friedman song. Instead, the uncooked latke muses on the foods of other Jewish holidays and the need to perform acts of kindness for others.
Acts of kindness? What planet does this starch-o-phile live on? Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man asks plaintively, “Which is better—cheap happiness, or exalted sufferings?”
Well, which is better? In the frying pan, there is no cheap happiness – nor is there in life. He argues that even a toothache is enjoyable, anything that makes us more aware of pain; for pain promotes consciousness. He adds that it is especially enjoyable to make others suffer with us. Where in such a world is there room for acts of kindness? In the cafeteria of Goldman Sachs there are paninis, sushi, grilled options, and a hot buffet with rotating themes…but there are no latkes.
We must remember those who have so little,
We must help them, we must be the ones to feed
The true Underground Latke fries alone, but that sizzling sound that we hear is actually his giggling at the prospect of others that will fry after him, or even alongside.
The Underground Latke is the perfect latke for 2016.
But Debbie Friedman never lived to see 2016. Her optimism and cheerfulness gives us a smidgen of hope that maybe, just maybe, this latke swimming in my stomach will have the audacity to give me indigestion for eight full nights!
That little oil-soaked spud can last a long, long time, just long enough for the days to get longer, the evenings warmer and the morning sun to peer over the horizon, and for Debbie Friedman’s “safe and loving space in which hands and arms and souls touch in gentle song” to become the space that we all inhabit.
What a miracle that will be!