Summit County residents ready for Hanukkah amid the pandemic
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Robyn Goldstein’s name.
When Nate Shiffman moved to Summit County four years ago, he felt like he had a perfect place to live but wasn’t sure if he’d be able to stay. That changed for him when he discovered Backcountry Bayit, an online Jewish community centered in Summit County.
For him, finding the bayit, a Hebrew word that means house or home, was “the last piece of the puzzle where I really felt at home.”
“I’m so glad I’ve found this place and can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Shiffman said.
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, the Backcountry Bayit not only engaged with members online, but also hosted Shabbat, or Sabbath, dinners for locals and visitors at a local home Friday nights. The dinners have been put on hold indefinitely, but they have still found ways to keep together.
“We’re ski bums who are Jewish, and we love to play outside,” said Shiffman, who said the group gathered outdoors for a few meals during the summer and several local members have been outside skiing recently.
Normally, the start of Hanukkah at sundown on Thursday, Dec. 10, would be accompanied with a sizable gathering for friends and family to enjoy a good meal full of oil-cooked foods to remind them of the miracle that occurred when a one-day supply of lamp oil was said to burn for eight days at the temple in Jerusalem during a time of war around 150 B.C.
For many Jewish people, the eight-day festival involves enjoying meals at different homes as they gather with friends and family to honor the holiday and light another candle in the chanukkiyah, or menorah, each night.
As with other celebrations, this year’s Hanukkah festivities will be largely enjoyed via remote gatherings and more intimate feasts. The Synagogue of the Summit is having a different congregation member lead the candle lighting each night from their home, which congregation member Shari Goldstein said will “bring a different kind of flavor.”
On Sunday night, the fourth evening of Hanukkah, Goldstein will be hosting the online candle lighting and sharing how to make sufganiyot, a type of jelly doughnut that is a popular dish for the holiday.
“This is a festival that, more than anything, people celebrate with food,” said Goldstein, who also will be making fried potato pancakes called latkes, falafel and hummus for her family’s celebration.
Phyl Rubinstein helped organize some of this year’s celebrations, and will be leading the second night’s candle lighting and assisting with the Shabbat service. Her Hanukkah meals will include latkes (she makes them with sweet potatoes and other vegetables because of a potato allergy), filled pancakes called blintzes, sufganiyot and rugelach — a crescent-shaped cookie wrapped around a sweet filling.
Rubinstein said Hanukkah is probably one of the more minor Jewish holidays. It’s not mentioned in the Torah and has been celebrated only for a little over 2,000 years, which in the Jewish tradition actually makes it one of the newer holidays when compared with Passover, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
She added that the holiday’s proximity to Christmas has led to it taking greater prominence outside of the Jewish community and, similar to Christmas, becoming more commercialized with the introduction of more presents, decorations and larger gatherings. She tends to keep things traditional with smaller gatherings and smaller, more practical presents.
For Rubinstein, connecting with the tradition and “the roots of where I come from” is one of the most important aspects of observing the holiday, especially during trying times.
While they do exchange some small gifts, Goldstein said her family tries to keep the holiday centered on gathering together to celebrate.
“In our family, we don’t give big gifts …” she said. “We try to do for each other.”
One tradition her family enjoys is driving around the neighborhood looking for lit candles in windows, where the menorahs are traditionally placed. She said it’s not that uncommon of a sight in Summit County.
“The Jewish community within Summit County is a great, strong community,” Goldstein said.
While the pandemic has impacted how they practice their faith, Jewish residents say the community remains strong and active in Summit County.
Robyn Goldstein, Shari’s daughter, is also a member of the Backcountry Bayit and said the group has helped to organize “food rescues,” where they save food that would otherwise be thrown out and provide it to needy members in the community.
“It goes to people in need and also raises awareness of how much waste there is,” said Omer Davidian, another bayit member.
Shari Goldstein said Synagogue of the Summit members are still helping to serve community meals at the Elks Lodge in Silverthorne and are planning on assisting with the Christmas meal that will be served there, as well.
Shiffman said he and a small group of locals were able to join together outside and participate in a virtual Yom Kippur observation with a bayit member in Chicago in September, which was particularly special for him.
“That was a really special day,” he said. “We knew we were here for each other, and it was really nice.”
On Rosh Hashana, Rubinstein was able to virtually attend four services and reconnect with people in communities that her family had lived in before they came to Summit County, including connecting with more traditional congregations that wouldn’t normally allow computer usage during the holiday.
While the lack of in-person interactions during the pandemic has been tough, Shiffman said it’s also encouraged him to connect with people who he might not have reached out to normally.
“We were able to connect differently,” he said. “There’s always a missed aspect of being in person, but it was also special to be able to connect through other ways that we didn’t have before.”
• 2 large Russet potatoes (about 1 pound), scrubbed and cut lengthwise into quarters
• 1 large onion (8 ounces), peeled and cut into quarters
• 2 large eggs
• 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
• 2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
• Fresh ground black pepper to taste
• Canola oil for frying
Using a food processor with a coarse grating disc, grate the potatoes and onion. Transfer the mixture to a clean dish towel and squeeze and wring out as much of the liquid as possible.
Working quickly, transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Add the eggs, flour, salt, baking powder and pepper, and mix until the flour is absorbed.
In a medium heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat, pour in about 1/4 inch of oil. Once the oil is hot (a drop of batter placed in the pan should sizzle), use a heaping tablespoon to drop the batter into the hot pan, cooking in batches. Use a spatula to flatten and shape the drops into discs. Flip when the edges of the latkes are brown and crispy, about 5 minutes. Cook until the second side is deeply browned, about another 5 minutes.
Transfer the latkes to a paper towel-lined plate to drain, and sprinkle with salt while still warm. Repeat with the remaining batter.
Serving suggestions: applesauce, cranberry sauce, hummus, smoked salmon and poached eggs.
Recipe from Shari Goldstein.
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