In my first year out of college, I was living alone and working as a reporter in Saratoga Springs, New York, a small town known mostly for its summer horseracing meet and the high-profile blue bloods who frequented it. I, thoroughly urban and thoroughly Jewish, sometimes felt a bit like the television character Joel Fleishman on "Northern Exposure," the New York doctor transplanted to a tiny hamlet in Alaska.
Before I moved to Saratoga, I imagined a vast Judaic wasteland, a place with neither a vibrant synagogue nor a decent bagel shop. I ended up being right on the latter, but very wrong on the former, though I had no way of knowing that when I first traveled to Saratoga for an interview. At that time, Barbara, the newspaper's managing editor, picked me up at the train station, and she immediately made me feel comfortable by announcing she would show me where I could buy kosher food if I moved there.
Shocked that she even knew I was Jewish, she explained that she saw on my resume that I graduated from a Jewish high school--one, no less, near where she grew up, in a heavily Jewish area of Brooklyn. She assured me that I would, indeed, find Jewish life in Saratoga. She, Jewish but not very active, occasionally attended synagogue herself.
Saratoga, to my surprise, had three synagogues: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. I chose to affiliate with the Orthodox one, a tiny shul that met in a converted second-floor apartment above a brunch restaurant, from which the wonderful smell of frying bacon would waft up on Saturday mornings, putting nonkosher thoughts into my head as I tried to pray.
As Hanukkah fell that first year, I lit my menorah at home alone, singing the blessings and the usual Hanukkah songs out loud each night, even though there was no one there to hear or join in. I eagerly made my first-ever batch of latkes-the tradition Hanukkah potato pancakes-with some trepidation and a lot of advice from my mother. And as long as I was standing over the frying pan and had a whole bag of potatoes, I figured I would give my co-workers a different sort of lesson in Judaism. They were always bringing food in to share at the office, and I did the same with my latkes.
My co-workers' reactions ranged from mild indifference to slight curiosity. Some were mysteriously turned off by the pile of oil-oozing potato patties I presented. But Barbara was ecstatic. She talked about the latkes all day and asked repeatedly for the recipe, which I duly recited. I don't think she intended to ever make them; she just liked hearing me rattle it off: Grate the potatoes and some onion, mix with eggs and matzah meal (a breadcrumb-like substance made from Passover matzah), and fry.
"The secret must be the matzah meal," she said confidently. "Most people don't use that."
That was Year One in Saratoga. Twelve months later, Hanukkah seemed to sneak up on me, coming earlier in the year, not long after Thanksgiving. With Hanukkah starting the next day, I hadn't given it much thought, except to pull my menorah out and buy new candles.
At work that day, Barbara summoned me into her office. Thinking I must have screwed up an article, I entered her office solemnly and closed the door. Instead of the upbraiding I expected, she pulled out a wrapped present and wished me a happy Hanukkah. Touched, I opened it to find a box of fancy chocolates. Then she presented her second gift, and her motives became clear. She dropped a one-pound bag of potatoes onto her desk with a thud. "Thought you might want these," she said with a giddy smile. "Thought you could make your latkes again. I can have chocolates any day. But I have been waiting for your latkes since last year"
And I did, happily, this time with direct help from my parents, who had come for a visit. We over-salted them by a lot, but Barbara didn't seem to care. It was Brooklyn-style Hanukkah in the newsroom once again.