Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Hanukkah Guests: A Lovely Story to End the Holiday

This blog comes to us from Samira, our Manager of Strategic Initiatives, who recently had an unexpectedly lovely Hanukkah moment while at the Association for Jewish Studies meeting.

On the first night of Hanukkah, I found myself in Baltimore, having dinner with the Paula E. Hyman Mentoring Program. It was the last night of what had been, for many of us, a busy conference.
We gathered in the back room of the Black Olive, a charming Greek fish restaurant owned by the Spiliadises, an elderly couple who greeted us as guests at their home. 

Anne Lapidus Lerner, the director of the program, had called ahead to make sure we could light a menorah all together.  When we arrived, we found that our hosts had arranged for us to have a table with a piece of tin foil laid out, ready to protect the table cloth from falling wax, and a box of matches.  One of the participants, Vanessa Ochs, lit the menorah and discussed the ritual, and we all chanted the blessings then sang “Maoz Tzur.” At some point, I realized that we had an audience. Mr. and Mrs. Spiliadis and several of their wait staff were standing in the doorway in reverence.

When we were done, as they brought the appetizers than Anne had ordered ahead of time, Mr. Spiliadis excitedly announced that in honor of the first night of Hanukkah and our presence in the restaurant, his wife had made a “special, Greek latke” to replace the restaurant’s normal side dishes. Mrs. Spiliadis had spent time researching recipes online and lovingly doing prep work in order to present us with a thick sweet potato pancake, full of Greek spices, and served with a side of Greek yogurt.  The proud and delighted hospitality made that potato pancake one of the best I have ever eaten.

As we left, Mr. Spiliadis stood in the hallway shaking our hands and marveling, “A Jewish festival holiday! In my restaurant! My Greek restaurant! This is what makes America great.” As he shook our hands, he told us that we had honored him, his wife, and their restaurant by coming to celebrate with them.  

I never knew the late Paula Hyman, for whom the mentoring program is named, but she was one of the best scholars of American Judaism of her generation. When I posted an abbreviated version of this story to Facebook, her students and her daughter told me how much she would have loved the encounter.

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