About 15 men shouted over each other in a crowded kitchen at Congregation Kol Ami on Sunday morning, arguing about how to best prepare latkes for the night’s potluck that marked the final night of Hanukkah.
Despite the disagreements, the organized chaos appeared to be working, and an estimated 100 potato pancakes had been grilled by 11 a.m. The group, all members of the congregation’s men’s club, said that total would triple by the time they were finished.
The latkes were eaten, along with main and side dishes prepared by congregants, for Latke Fest, the annual holiday gathering at Kol Ami, Clark County’s reform Jewish group.
The event fits into a cycle of additional celebrations organized by the synagogue — Southwest Washington’s first such place of worship that sits on an 8-acre parcel at 7800 N.E. 119th St., Vancouver — throughout the year, said Michael Kriss, who managed the kitchen.
“As we say with many things, it’s a tradition,” Kriss said, sitting in the empty social hall where about 80 families were expected to gather later Sunday.
For several members of the men’s club, the potluck carries on the traditions of their faith, but most importantly, it strengthens a sense of community at the synagogue.
Joel Rubin moved to Clark County from Newark, N.J. Jews coming from larger cities like New York City and Chicago miss their communities, where they could walk to the corner store and run into people they know, he said.
“You create that community, you seek it out. One reason I picked Vancouver for retirement is because it had a functioning synagogue I could be a part of and participate in. I still feel like the new kid on the block, but if you want to get to know people, you show up and help out,” said Rubin, a congregant of 3 1/2 years.
Kol Ami, which means “voice of my people,” includes about 150 local families. It’s added about two dozen families to its congregation in the past five years or so, according to Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker.
It started out in 1989 as the Jewish Community Association of Southwest Washington, meeting in private homes and borrowed spaces. Its official home was a Salmon Creek business park — until Aug. 19, 2012, when a ceremonial procession of approximately 100 members walked the group’s Torah scrolls 4.9 miles, through the streets of the county, to the new synagogue in the Glenwood area.
Even when the congregation was meeting in people’s living rooms, its members were cooking and eating latkes to celebrate Hanukkah, Dunsker said.
“The Latke Fest may be our oldest tradition within the congregation,” Dunsker said. “But beyond just us, it goes back much further than (our potluck). For Ashkenazi Jews, who are generally from eastern Europe, latkes have been a traditional food for Hanukkah to celebrate one of its miracles.”
The Jewish Festival of Lights is an eight-day commemoration of the rededication of the sacred Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees, after their victory over the Syrians. Dunsker said that victory, the liberation of Israel from Hellenic dominance, is the greater of two miracles celebrated during the holiday.
Today, Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah in their homes by lighting the menorah and adding one new light with each of the eight passing days. This ritual commemorates the second, smaller Hanukkah miracle — the miracle of oil, Dunsker said.
When the Maccabees retook the Temple, they could find only a single cruse (an earthenware pot or jar) of oil to light the ancient menorah. The oil was enough to last for one night. It lasted eight nights, the story goes.
“So in honor of the miracle of oil, one of our traditions is to eat foods fried in oil,” Dunsker said. “Any good Hanukkah party has latkes.”
The rabbi said the potluck is mainly for eating and socializing; it serves as a communal gathering for what’s recognized as a minor Jewish holiday. It’s held on the final Sunday of Hanukkah, so families can bring their menorahs and light them together, she said.
Kriss surmised that Hanukkah may have become more important due to its proximity to Christmas. Parents feel pressured to deliver a similar level of holiday spirit to their children, he said.
“If you have two Jews, you’ll have three opinions,” said Rubin, before heading back into the kitchen.
Inside, Rubin stood over a large metal bowl, cracking and stirring eggs. Elsewhere in the cramped space, a man sliced potatoes into quarter pieces, which were handed off to another man operating a food processor. Shredded potatoes, chopped onions and scrambled eggs were mashed together with spices and matzah flour in a second large bowl before heading outside to a grill.
Two dozen latkes at various stages in the cooking process sizzled on the grill. The pancakes were monitored by Perry Hooyen, a congregant of 19 years who joked that he always gets stuck grilling.
“I enjoy this,” he said. When asked if he enjoys the taste of latkes, Hooyen responded, “Oh yeah!” Then, five guys chimed in with what condiment pairs best with the food. Gravy, apple sauce, sour cream and ketchup were among their choices.