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The Lethal Latkes

Mark BinderBy Mark Binder

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The villagers of Chelm dreaded Chanukah. It wasn’t the holiday itself. They loved lighting the candles, spinning the dreidel, and retelling the stories of the Maccabees and the miracle of the lights. All in all, Chanukah was a wonderful festival, except for one thing Mrs. Chaipul’s latkes, which were served in great abundance at the annual Chanukah party.

Mrs. Chaipul’s latkes were not good. They were really not good. It wasn’t that they were too greasy (which they were), or that they were burned (which they sometimes were), or even that they were too heavy (which they always were), it was the smell. There was something slightly sickening about the smell of Mrs. Chaipul’s potato pancakes. Not repulsive like a dirty cow barn, or a fish that’s been left out too long. The scent was more nauseating and unsettling, as if something was forgotten in the cellar long ago, and you still can’t quite put your finger on what it was and where it is to clean it up.

Unfortunately, since Mrs. Chaipul was the caterer and owned the only kosher restaurant in Chelm, no one dared bring up the subject. You didn’t want to get on her bad side. Once, a traveler from Smyrna had mentioned that the noodle kugel was a bit dry, and he had been chased from the restaurant with a frying pan.

But now that Mrs. Chaipul had married Rabbi Kibbitz, (she kept her own name, but that’s another story) some of the villagers decided that perhaps it was time to broach the subject.

It was a week before Chanukah when the rabbi heard a knock on the door of his study. He looked up from his reading and saw four of Chelm’s finest citizens, standing nervously with their hats in their hands. There was Reb Gold, the cobbler, Reb Kimmelman, the world traveler, Reb Cantor, the merchant, and Reb Stein, the baker.

Rabbi Kibbitz welcomed them in.

In a matter of minutes, the story was presented. As much as they loved Mrs. Chaipul, Reb Cantor said, her latkes made everyone sick. Even though her famous matzoh balls were as heavy as lead, they were still delicious, but no one looked forward to nibbling on her latkes.

“And worst of all,” added Reb Stein, “she always piles the plate so high! You don’t want to offend her by not eating them all, but for the next three days… nothing tastes good.”

The rabbi nodded his head wisely. He knew exactly what they were talking about. Over the years he had developed a trick of hiding several of the latkes in his pockets and then slipping out the back door to feed them to a goat. But he shrugged, “What do you suggest?”

“Well,” said Reb Kimmelman, “you’re married to her. You could bring it up.”

“Tactfully,” said Reb Gold, “of course.”

“You’re right,” the rabbi agreed, shaking their hands. “There is nothing that a husband and wife should not be able to talk about.”

He was wrong.

That evening, Rabbi Kibbitz brought up the subject, and his wife slammed the door in his face. Literally. She locked him out of the bedroom, and he had to spend the night curled up underneath the kitchen table, shivering with cold.

“What have I done?” the rabbi moaned that night, and for the next seven evenings. “Is my marriage ruined? Who can the rabbi talk to when he has problems?”

The night of the Chanukah party arrived. Rabbi Kibbitz, stiff and exhausted, was not at all interested in attending. After the evening prayers, he went for a long walk. He was seriously considering skipping the whole affair and crawling into bed for a nap before his wife came home and kicked him out. Still, he was the village rabbi, and his place was with his congregation.

So, he stood in front of the doors to the social hall, and steeled himself for the ordeal that was to come. You see, the rabbi especially did not like the smell of his wife’s latkes. They always reminded him of the embarrassing odors that wafted from his aunts when he was a child. Finally, he opened the door, stepped in, and held his breath for as long as possible.

At last, gasping and feeling faint, he was forced to inhale.

What was this? He didn’t feel sick. He breathed again, deeply this time. His nose twitched like a bunny’s. He sniffed the air. Something actually smelled good. Not revolting and disgusting, but rich and delicious. He turned to the stove in the kitchen, and much to his surprise saw Mrs. Rosen, the washerwoman, and her daughters, laughing and frying latkes as if they had done so forever. There was a line for the latkes, and the rabbi noticed that as soon as the villagers got their plates filled, they scurried to the back of the line, and ate standing up while they waited for more.

“Good job!” said Reb Gold, patting the rabbi on the back.

“Best latkes ever,” agreed Reb Stein.

“Come,” said Reb Kimmelman and Reb Cantor, taking the rabbi by the arms and leading him to the front of the line. “You deserve to eat some of these.”

The Rosens piled the rabbi’s plate high with the most perfect golden brown latkes he had ever seen. They were thin and crisp and delicate, with just a light sheen of oil.

Everyone watched as he cut into one, and lifted the fork toward his mouth. From this close, they smelled even better

Just as Rabbi Kibbitz was about to close his mouth, he saw his wife watching him from across the room. Her face was frozen, expressionless.

The rabbi bit in. The latke melted in his mouth. He chewed it slowly and thoughtfully. At last he swallowed, sipped some water, and spoke.

“Very good.” He smiled. Mrs. Rosen hugged her daughters. “Still,” he continued, “I like my wife’s latkes better.”

There was a moment of astonished silence, and then all at once the social hall filled with laughter at the rabbi’s wonderful joke.

No one noticed when Rabbi Kibbitz set his plate down unfinished and sneaked out, back to his house, where he crawled into bed for a nap.

He awoke when he heard the front door shut. Grumbling, the rabbi began to get himself ready to sleep under the kitchen table.

“Stay,” said Mrs. Chaipul putting a hand on her husband’s arm. “Mrs. Rosen’s latkes are better than mine. I asked her for the recipe, and tomorrow she’s going to show me. Still, it was sweet of you to say that you liked mine best.” Then she kissed her husband on the cheek.

“But I do,” said the rabbi.

Mrs. Chaipul laughed and closed her eyes.

The funny thing was, Rabbi Kibbitz thought, he really did like his wife’s latkes better. True, they tasted awful and smelled worse, but they had always been made with love. Her love. And for him that was the most delicious flavor in the world.

Contributor Mark Binder is an author, award-winning storyteller, and founder of the American Story Theater. He lives in Providence, RI, and is available for workshops and performances. Find out more about his new hard-bound edition of A Hanukkah Present, a collection of 12 stories and a novella.

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