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Rabbi, latke brigade kick off first night of Hanukkah

December 7, 2018

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Mann toach, Gott lauch.

Man thinks, God laughs.

That Yiddish proverb carries lots of weight at Morgantown’s Tree of Life Congregation.

It means some things in life are just going to take their own divine direction, no matter what.

Which is how Rabbi Joe Hample and Rich Cohen wound up at the tiny synagogue on South University Avenue, and Ed Gerson (also a member) lived to tell about Vietnam.

No small potatoes there.

Potatoes, in fact, also weigh heavily in this story.

Sunday at sundown marked the start of Hanukkah, the eight-day Festival of Lights, which celebrates victory over religious oppression.

It goes back to ancient Greece, where Jews where oppressed under the reign of Antiochus, IV Epiphanes, a Greco-Syrian king in Jerusalem who outlawed their faith and desecrated their temple.

Worse still, the ruler also made Jews sacrifice pigs, which are non-kosher animals, on the altar.

A small group known as the Maccabees rose up to defeat the king.

Victory was celebrated with the menorah was relit in the temple, which was taken back from the Greeks.

There was only enough oil to keep the menorah going for one day — but, miraculously, the menorah’s flames flickered for eight days.

Now, oil is a sacred ingredient in Hanukkah cooking, which is why doughnuts are a holiday delicacy and the potato pancake known as a latke is the main staple of the eight-day dish.

Sunday at Tree of Life, Cohen and a group of other men who are key members of the synagogue’s famed “Latke Brigade” gathered in a shoulder-to-shoulder kitchen with peelers at the ready.

They were readying to drop in oil 55 pounds of potatoes, which comes out to some 1,000 latkes, for Tree of Life’s annual Hanukkah party that evening.

Grated onion, eggs, flour, salt and peanut oil go into the mix, Cohen said.

Family tree

“You gotta have good potatoes,” Cohen said. “And the latkes have to be made with love.”

Love of the land is what brought Cohen, a Brooklyn native, to the Mountain State nearly 40 years ago.

He gave up a law practice in Manhattan. He and a group of family members went in on 79 acres of land in Wetzel County and turned it into a working farm, for a time.

When his wife became pregnant and the farm got to be too much, they had to give it up. They didn’t give up on West Virginia, though. They moved to Morgantown, where Cohen went back to law.

Gerson’s skills as a professional photographer brought him to Morgantown.

He grew up Jewish in Jackson, Tenn., which is right down the road from Memphis, where barbecue and the backbeat of rockabilly — but not necessarily bar mitzvahs — are part of the proceedings.

In 1967 and ’68, he was a combat medic in Vietnam. After one particularly brutal firefight, he was crawling, belly and elbows, trying to get to a wounded buddy.

A sniper was also trying to get to him. While shrapnel seared the skin on Gerson’s back and neck, a bullet miraculously pinged off his helmet.

The sniper couldn’t draw a fatal bead, however, because a tree branch — a literal tree of life — kept blocking his aim.

As a Latke Brigade member, Gerson these days wields a camera and a potato peeler.

“I like the camaraderie,” he said Sunday.

“You’re getting together and hanging out, but you’re hanging out with a purpose.”

To life

Rabbi Joe Hample, meanwhile, is a Harvard-educated Russian scholar-turned Wells Fargo computer analyst who didn’t decide to become a rabbi until he was 40.

His growing-up years in Larchmont, N.Y., weren’t even particularly religious, he said.

At Tree of Life, he can be as serious and reverent as a rabbinical scholar and as gloriously goofy as a Klezmer clarinet solo.

He’s known for his song parodies at Tree of Life’s Hanukkah parties, and Sunday night, he took on Dean Martin — with “That’s Menorah” (sung to the tune of Martin’s “That’s Amore”).

A sendoff for member Steve Markwell was also on the menu.

Markwell, a cancer researcher, just earned a Ph.D. from WVU. He and his wife are headed for post-doctorate work in Chicago.

In a politically divisive country where the Jewish community is still reeling over October’s synagogue murders in Pittsburgh, the rabbi said he appreciates Hanukkah and Tree of Life even more.

“You get together, and you have some fun,” Hample said.

“That’s Hanukkah, and that’s the thing: We’re still together.”

Togetherness was the order at the Latke Brigade meanwhile. As part of the tradition, the cooks enjoy a shot of imported plum brandy, or slivovitz, between each batch.

Cohen led the first toast.

L’Chaim.

___

Information from: The Dominion Post, http://www.dominionpost.com

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