My goyishe potato pancakes: A Jewish-Christian/Quaker Tale

Dear Friends,

Happy holidays! 

At our last Book Club of the year, I was chatting with one of my friends. She was talking about the Italian Christmas she grew up with. Christmas Eve for her was a bigger holiday than Christmas itself, with numerous relatives, and the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a multi-course meal ending with fabulous desserts and an all-important “cookie course.”

Christmas in Dyker Heights, an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn

Not really what he was expecting…

For those of you who don’t know me IRL, I’m in an interfaith marriage, having married a Jewish guy 30 years ago. You can read more about it here. When Mr. Brooklyn (as he’s known on social media) met me, he’d grown up not celebrating Christmas at his house, but spending Christmas Eve with his Italian friend down the street, experiencing the above. When I met him, he asked me what I did on Christmas Eve with my family. “Um…we usually eat quiche and then go to a low-key Episcopal Church service.” Not really what he was expecting….

Christmas at Woodford Mansion


I listened to a TED talk this summer from Brene Brown on the recommendation of another Book Club friend. Brown describes nostalgia and longing for a feeling (of childhood or times past) as not missing actual things: the Christmas tree, a present, a food, a particular person, or even that time of life, but the FEELING we had at that time. While my humble Christmas Eve might sound uninspiring (and perhaps sprung from my mother’s Quaker roots), it always seemed magical to me: the anticipation of Christmas, Christmas music, waiting for Santa (when I was young), waiting to see if the animals spoke (if I were watching the Waltons). In the same way, the Christmas Eve of my husband’s youth sounds amazing even though it was totally removed from his culture.

Christmas at Betsy Ross’s house with some greenery for decoration. Christmas trees weren’t a thing until the mid 1800’s.

Do Quakers Celebrate Christmas?

For this question, I defer to who can explain things better than I ever could! It is my understanding that Christmas for Quakers is not really a Feast of the Seven Fishes kind of holiday. There is some celebration of Christmas in contemporary times, despite the lingering Quaker belief that “all days are holy days.”

Whose Culture is Better?

One thing I learned from speaking with many interfaith families is that it is never a great idea to talk about whose culture is better. By “culture,” I mean anything from what you have for dessert on Christmas Eve to whether you’d favor silence over music in a church service. By the way, those who are interested in the intersection of Quaker heritage and contemporary culture should drop everything and read Albion’s Seed immediately! As a distant Quaker cousin says, “this book explains everything–why I act a particular way, why I like a particular kind of custard!”

In a partnership, it’s better to focus on what you can’t possibly give up for another person. Many times, this comes down to things that don’t make logical sense (you want to have that pudding, or this particular kind of lox, or a tree, or a creche, or a menorah. These pieces of your culture may seem more important to you than any theological disagreement because they’re tied to those nostalgic feelings.

Lox for breakfast––or Reality is a Social Construct!

On Christmas morning, our family always has bagels and lox. Why? Because when my husband spent Christmas with me and my parents years ago, they served him bagels and lox Christmas morning because they thought he might really like them. And so he’s always thought it’s a Christian tradition, much like the Feast of the Seven Fishes, rather than something we did one time for him.

In my writing…

I haven’t written any Christmas scenes into my novels because…well, Quakers! But I do have Eben buying a book of Latin poetry for Elizabeth for Christmas, and then hiding it away. I also have a tendency to write snow scenes, having grown up in some of the snowiest parts of the U.S., but then I realize I’m writing about England…or Philadelphia.

Oh, my latkes!

I did mention them, didn’t I? My husband and I celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah now, and I’ve developed a feeling for Hanukkah not borne of childhood memories but celebrating with my own children. As for Jewish cooking…let’s just say I dabble and then sometimes add more non-Jewish elements. A rabbi at a Hanukkah party examining my crumbling sweet potato and pepper latkes remarked, with the solemnity of a brain surgeon, “I think it’s an issue with the starch.”

Whatever you’re celebrating…

I hope the December holidays bring you peace, the joy of nostalgia, the discovery of new traditions and maybe even an appreciation of silence (in between the endless soundtrack of Christmas songs.)

Happy holidays, Kate

P.S. Still querying. The word on the street from agents about my Revolution-era novel: “this is a hard time period to sell!”

P.P.S. Still amazed…This blog from 2020 continues to draw thousands of views from all over the world.

P.P.P.S. Still working…if you didn’t catch my story in Friends Journal last month, take a look. I’m now drafting a novel and the story is one chapter within it.

Published by katehornstein

Writing about young Quakers, religion, and romance over 350 years in England and America

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