Aren’t We All Just Screaming Latkes?

Lemony Snicket's "The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming" expresses my pent-up rage at being so deeply misunderstood by the Christmas season.

Perhaps you saw it making the rounds on Twitter not so long ago. A mug, stamped with a trio of blue-patterned Hanukkah… gnomes? The three are depicted carrying a menorah, a dreidel and Magen David between curly text proclaiming, “Deck The Halls With Matzo Balls!”

Perhaps you were charmed but wondered… how does one deck the halls with matzah balls? Does one hang a garland of them on their mantel so that they may stain the walls with drippy broth? Perhaps you looked at those darling gnomes and wondered, “Wait, since when were there Hanukkah gnomes? Did I miss something? Are those supposed to be… oh, dear… dwarves? Goblins? Jews?!?”

Or maybe it was the Happy Challah-days tea towel, or a Hanukkah ornament, or yet another promised Hallmark “Hanukkah” movie that seems to be not really for Jews. If you too find yourself repeatedly struck by the sensation that attempts to assimilate Hanukkah into the Christmas season have yielded strange, nonsensical and rather distressing results, then do I have a book for you.

“The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story” is a 2007 picture book by Lemony Snicket, the pen name of Jewish author Daniel Handler. Snicket is best known for “The Series of Unfortunate Events,” a middle grade series about three prodigious and tragically orphaned siblings who bounce from one comically horrific foster situation to the next, while running from a devious actor hell-bent on stealing their fortune. Of late, Handler is also known as yet another formerly beloved children’s book author who has proved to be subsequently disappointing, as the subject of multiple controversies, including allegations that he made lewd and sexually explicit remarks toward women.

Snicket’s work left an undeniable impression on me as a reader and writer. His books were a fun, comforting confirmation that the world is just as dark as you think it is. The things I loved about the series — Snicket’s sense of humor, precocious vocabulary and deeply Jewish sensibilities — are on full display in this picture book, which is why I find myself returning to it year after year.

“The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming” is about, well, what it sounds like it’s about. A latke, born in a frying pan, runs screaming through a sleepy and snow-covered town around Christmas time. He encounters, along the way, numerous Christmas symbols: a string of house lights, a candy cane and a Christmas tree. Each time, he breathlessly tries to explain who he is, only for the symbols of Christmas to utterly fail at understanding him. For instance, upon meeting Christmas lights, the following exchange occurs:

“I’m a latke,” said the latke, “the olive oil reminds us of the oil we used to rededicate the temple following the defeat of Antiochus at the hands of the Maccabees. The oil was only supposed to last for one night but there was a miracle and it lasted for eight! Plus, frying makes my skin crispy and brown.”

“So you’re basically hash browns?” said the flashing colored lights. “Maybe you can be served alongside a Christmas Ham.”

“I am not hash browns!” cried the latke. “I am something completely different. “AAAHHHHHHHH….” 

And so on. Eventually, the exhausted latke passes out beneath the tree, where he is found by a Jewish family who admires him for who he is: a perfect — if, at this point, damp and ice cold —  latke. The latke is taken home, warmed up and eaten (yes, there is more screaming). It is a happy ending, in a Snicket sense. The latke may have been devoured, but he has found his people who understand him for who he is.

And the feeling the latke expresses, the pent-up rage at being so deeply misunderstood by the Christmas season, is one I recognized at once. This time of year always does manage to be alienating. Whether it’s being forced to sing carols in elementary school music class, watch the endless stream of Christmas specials or listen to the umpteenth round of the Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” blasting through the mall loudspeakers, the holiday season has a way of demanding our participation.

And in a world that wants us to be hash browns, we’re often taught to play nice and accommodate. We’re taught to lie to our classmates about Santa, so as not to spoil the Christmas magic. We’re cautioned that wishing someone a “Happy Holidays” instead of a “Merry Christmas” is the moral equivalent of guillotining Santa Claus or melting down the North Pole with our space lasers. We’re taught that this is a time of year full of joy and that if you have a problem with it, you’re just a Grinch.

It’s a message we, to varying degrees, internalize. After all, sometimes it’s easier to give in than to be that person. The person who makes classmates cry and gets kicked out of the Secret Santa pool. Sometimes, we really do just want to join in with the festivities. We want to feel part of the season, especially because everyone and everything seems to be telling us we should. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, after all… isn’t it?

But if you’re the sort who feels left out in the snow, cold and damp and misunderstood, this book is a reminder that you’re not alone. Nor are you a mere side dish to someone else’s holiday meal. You are a perfect latke just the way you are, “something completely different.”  Moreover, you do not have to take part in Christmas if that’s not who you are and where you fit. You are meaningful and festive enough on your own terms.

Sometimes, it’s OK to just be a latke. Sometimes, it’s OK to just keep screaming.

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Late Take is a series on Alma where we revisit Jewish pop culture of the past for no reason, other than the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it?? If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail  with “Late Take” in the subject line.

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