While I don’t relish offering up my age, let’s just say that this past week commemorates the 45th time that I have celebrated the Festival of Lights. I have witnessed the glow of the Hanukkah menorah on precisely 357 sunsets. I have played dreidel using coins, Jolly Ranchers, and alcohol. As for latkes, I have cooked many variations including zucchini, sweet potato, and carrot, and have done my share of sweet and sour, savory, and cranberry briskets. One year, I made Hanukkah wrapping paper, and another I iced blue and white cut-out cookies. You get the point. At this stage in my life, I had been quite certain that I had exhausted most of the options for putting a new spin on Hanukkah.
While they say “you can’t teach and old dog, new tricks”, I have just learned that this cliché is patently untrue. Two years ago, I joined Jewish Women’s Circle (JWC), a program sponsored by Chabad of Shadyside to bring women together to study and learn in the context of a “girl’s night out” replete with great food, drinks, and lively discussion. Rivkee Rudolph, along with her husband Rabbi Mordi Rudolph, run Chabad of Shadyside. Rivkee is our hostess and comes up with interesting and fun ideas for programming each time we convene.
Last Tuesday we got together to celebrate and learn about Hanukkah. I had glossed over the evite to know that the night’s program had something to do with oil. I assumed we would be learning about the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks, and how at the rededication of the Temple the oil that was found lasted for eight nights instead of one night as expected. While it’s a captivating story full of triumphs and miracles, I can recite it in my sleep. It’s the one story I remember in all of its glory from my Sunday school days.
Once at JWC, I discovered that our lesson regarding oil was that we were about to learn how to make herb-infused olive oil! While Rivkee wove into her cooking demonstration the significance of oil in the story of Hanukkah, as well as the how this holiday symbolizes the triumph of the Jewish soul, she instructed us on how to blend flavorful, fresh herbs and spices into olive oil to create a gourmet delight.
Displayed on Rivkee’s kitchen counter were plates of leafy, fresh herbs ranging from sweet, tender basil, to woodier herbs like oregano and rosemary. There was fresh garlic, black peppercorns, onion flakes, and cracked red pepper. After we chose the greens and spices to our liking to place in our own olive oil carafe, we filled the remaining space with oil that Rivkee had previously cooked on her stove. We each took home our signature olive oils that were equally beautiful and delicious.
For me, this was a novel and fun experience centered around a holiday full of ritual and tradition. Every night, my family has found a new use for this oil. We have used it as a dip for French bread, drizzled it over homemade pizzas, and even used it instead of cooking spray when making scrambled eggs. It has added a zest and richness to our food.
The great surprise of the story of Hanukkah is that the oil lasted much longer than expected. A night at JWC is no different. While the food we share nourishes the body, the camaraderie and connections we make nourish the soul for many nights to come.