Turkey and latkes for Thanksgivukkah

At the Weiss house after the lighting of the menorah. The combined holiday is "to give thanks for what we have, and also celebrate the life and death cycle," Jennifer Weiss says.
At the Weiss house after the lighting of the menorah. The combined holiday is "to give thanks for what we have, and also celebrate the life and death cycle," Jennifer Weiss says. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 30, 2013

The island counter in Jennifer Weiss' kitchen was covered with food Thursday.

There was the traditional Thanksgiving fare of turkey, sweet potatoes, and a side dish of stuffing, but also plates with the Jewish holiday staples of latkes and kugel. Thursday's convergence of traditions called Thanksgivukkah, where Thanksgiving and Hanukkah fell on the same day, was no ordinary occurrence and not likely to happen again for 70,000 years.

And for the large extended clan at the Weiss home in Voorhees, Thanksgivukkah held extra-special meaning.

Weiss' 16-year-old daughter, Ilana, was born on Hanukkah in 1997, two weeks before Weiss' mother, Ellen, died on the same floor at what was then Pennsylvania Hospital, at Eighth and Spruce Streets.

The combined holiday is "to give thanks for what we have, and also celebrate the life and death cycle," said Weiss, 44, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey.

Nearly two dozen members from seven blended families - the Weisses, Dubrows, Morrises, Smiths, Greislers, Matusows, and Gelmans came to her table for dinner from both sides of the Delaware River, about half from the Philadelphia suburbs.

"Look at them. They're all circling like sharks," joked Weiss, who found herself perpetually moving trays of hot food from the oven to the serving area.

Not far from everyone's mind was Weiss' 92-year-old grandfather, Herb Behrmann of Jenkintown, who will soon die from prostate cancer.

"He might make it to Friday, but I said my good-byes on Monday, just in case," Weiss said. "I had a great conversation with him on Wednesday. He is hanging in there."

Her grandfather's failing health represented death and darkness, she said, but Weiss' 5-year-old twin nieces, Zack and Erin; and her daughters, Ilana, and 13-year-old Emma, were there - and they symbolized life and light to her.

"For me, it's just this awesome time of giving thanks and celebrating that we're here, and having Hanukkah and giving to others and celebrating miracles.

"When you see the little kids lighting the candles, it brings back memories," she said. "We used to do that as children. It was something we did every Hanukkah."

Just after 5:30 p.m., moments before the feast was to begin, everyone gathered around the kitchen island for the lighting of the menorah and to sing songs to mark the holiday.

Emma Weiss, standing next to her mother, lit two candles on the menorah to commemorate the second night of Hanukkah.

The Jewish celebration commemorates the second-century rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean revolt against their Greek-Syrian oppressors. After the Temple was cleansed, the Jews had only enough olive oil to keep the eternal light burning for one day and realized it would take eight days to make more. Then, a miracle occurred, and the oil burned for all eight days and nights.

These days, the holiday, often called the Festival of Lights, lasts eight days, with a new candle lit each evening at sundown.

Having Hanukkah overlap with Thanksgiving was "an anomaly," said Leonard Saxe, director of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.

"The convergence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving is an opportunity to draw new meaning from the multiple strands of our heritage," Saxe said. "As an American Jew and student of the social and religious identity, I am reminded of the parallel narratives of the Jewish and American experience.

"The Pilgrims believed that they, in escaping from England, were modern-day Israelites. The king was their pharaoh, the Atlantic Ocean their desert, and the New World their promised land," he said.

"Thanksgivukkah is a moment to reflect on what our freedom has enabled us to accomplish and to think about how - with our families, friends, communities, and societies - we can work together to preserve and dignify the human experience," Saxe said.

To honor both holidays at the Weiss dinner table, the latkes - potato pancakes - were served with cranberry and applesauce instead of only the traditional applesauce.

"Thanksgiving always gives you hope," Weiss said. "You're thankful for who you have and what you have, and Hanukkah is really about the kids and seeing them grow up."

It all circles back to the food.

Weiss' sister Rachel Smith, 41, also of Voorhees, said she celebrates her late mother by making her recipes. She made the sweet potatoes just like mom made and brought them along with Aunt Lois' kugel. Lois Gelman died seven years ago from heart complications.

"The kids and I spent the day cooking and baking," Smith said, all the while remembering her mother and aunt "by cooking their recipes and by being together."

Weiss and Smith also cook their turkey just like mom did - one hour upside down and one hour right side up at 450 degrees.

"I'm thankful that I had her, my mother," Weiss said. "That in my greatest darkness in her death was the birth of my child and the light that she brought into our lives."

Stacey Gelman, 54, of Blue Bell, is married to Jon Gelman, 56, who is Jennifer Weiss' cousin.

"Basically, each holiday is about family, tradition, and food," Stacey Gelman said. "So having the two holidays overlap is a once-in-a-lifetime for me."

Jonathan Dubrow, 24, of Fishtown, was just 8 when the family grieved Ellen Dubrow's death. She was his aunt.

"It's great to be able to share her life and memories of her to future generations," Dubrow said. "We miss her very much."

As three tables filled and dinner began in earnest, Rande Dubrow, 62, who married Weiss' widowed father, Ron Dubrow, in 2002, joked that overindulgence would not be a problem.

"It's Thanksgivukkah," she said after filling her plate. "There's no calories. It's a very special holiday."


sparmley@phillynews.com

856-779-3928

@SuzParmley

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