You Don't Have to Be Jewish to Love Jewish Food

A Korean-American connects beyond the menorah.

By: Irene Yoo

Irene Yoo

I am a Korean-American, and I love Hanukkah.

When my family settled in California after seven years of slow migration around the country (I was born in Detroit, my sister in Alabama), we landed near a relatively new and upcoming community called Calabasas, where I attended school. Now infamous as the home to many Kardashians, back in the early 90s it was a semi-rural desert land populated largely by Jewish families. This made for quite the culture shock for a young, immigrant Asian family: There were three synagogues within walking distance of our house in West Hills, and we were given every Jewish holiday off from school.

I learned a lot about the Jewish faith and culture from my friends, from their mothers and bubbes, and from the 13 bar mitzvahs I attended in eighth grade.

The days leading up to Hanukkah were by far the best days. In elementary school, our teachers would bring a tray of homemade latkes and a jar of Mott’s applesauce for a special snack time on the first day of Hanukkah. They would tell us the old story – how after the Jews drove out the Greeks from the Holy Land they found only one night’s worth of oil to light the temple’s menorah, but were able to make it last eight.

Our teachers would light the first candle while we munched on the crispy potato pancakes.

I was never a fan of the saccharin cookies or hard-as-rocks gingerbread associated with Christmas. But with Hanukkah, the fact that there was such a delicious savory treat associated with the holiday, coupled with a story about perseverance, made the whole thing that much more magical in my eyes.

Irene's kimchi latkes

Irene's kimchi latkes

Latkes were an edible symbol of the resourcefulness and tenacity of the Jewish people, which was similar to what I saw every day with my Korean-immigrant family.

Even when they were slightly stale and room temperature, they were still crunchy on the outside and so tender on the inside, similar to the Korean pajeon pancakes my mother and grandmother would make at home.

Is it possible for someone who lays no familial claim to a cultural holiday to be a die-hard fan?

As the conversation on cultural appropriation develops, it’s important to be extra-respectful of other traditions and their histories. Hanukkah is a time for us to come together and honor what we have after a long, hard year, and I think Jews and non-Jews alike can agree that food is one of the best ways to share this with others.

So tonight, as people around the world light the eighth candle on their menorahs in honor of the final night of Hanukkah, I’ll be celebrating by making my own latkes (with kimchi and scallions in honor of my family!) to share with the loved ones around me.

Irene Yoo runs Yooeating?!, a Korean-American food pop-up in Brooklyn. Her most recent event celebrated "Korean-Hanukkah" with kimchi latkes and matzo ball dumplings.

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