Each year around this time I make a pilgrimage to the sleepy little Mexican village of Yelapa. Yelapa is a town of under 1,200 and accessible only by water taxi from Puerto Vallarta. This delightful, traditional Mexican village is comprised of a church, two or three small grocery stores, about a half dozen restaurants, 50 burros, a handful of ATVs and intermittent high-speed Internet. A lovely beach receives daily visits by excursion boats from Puerto Vallarta loaded with lily-white tourists frantically waving their free cerveza tickets at a half dozen beach wranglers, all competing to cut their share of them from the herd.
A couple of years ago my visit coincided with Hanukkah. I decided it might be an interesting experience to introduce Yelapa to the holiday. My good friend Dave Billman is not Jewish, but in a moment of ecumenical zeal he agreed, and we went about planning a Hanukkah fiesta, complete with candle lighting and potato latkes.
I downloaded a template of a Hanukkah invitation and printed off two dozen invitations in both English and Spanish, then disseminated them to people we knew either from previous visits or the folks we’d met in town. It came as a great surprise that we encountered at least two other people who claimed to be Jewish and asked to be included. Sure, we said. The more the merrier!
Being a small town, word quickly spread we were planning a fiesta with free food and beer. The Mexicans were confused right from the start by the invitation with all the candles on it and assumed it was a birthday party. I had to keep telling them presents were optional.
We of course wanted to include our traditional Hanukkah foods. Making potato latkes at home isn’t too difficult — if you have a food processor. Unfortunately, we didn’t have one and had to revert to grating the potatoes and onions by hand — a somewhat labor-intensive and dangerous activity, as Dave can attest, given the number of Band-Aids he sported by the end of the grating process.
We weren’t sure how many people might show up. so we decided to make a hundred latkes, which led to the now-infamous Yelapa Potato Famine, as we virtually emptied the town of spuds.
For three days Dave and I sweated over oil-spitting frying pans, manufacturing latkes in 85-degree heat and 90 percent humidity. At some point a thought occured to us: What if the whole town shows up? Immediate plans were implemented to augment our supply of latkes in case they proved inadequate. We strong-armed our neighbors to contribute to the cause: A gallon of ceviche from one, a tub of guacamole from another, a foot-high stack of tortillas — and a five-gallon jug of a local fruit drink for the children and non-alcoholic drinkers.
Dave and I had been fishing a few days earlier and caught a sailfish and several Mahi-Mahi. We decided to contribute those to the fiesta as well. We employed a burro to pull cases of beer and bushels of ice up the hill.
Finally, the big night arrived. Dave and I anxiously awaited the arrival of our guests… and waited… and waited….
Eventually about a dozen or so wandered in. It appears there was a fair amount of competition in Yelapa that evening: The opening of the Yelapa Yacht Club — which has neither members nor yachts — a baby shower, a wedding, and a boxing match on TV. Hanukkah was definitely a low-priority event in Yelapa — even with free beer and latkes.
Still, I explained the significance of the festival: How 2,500 years ago the Syrians captured the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and desecrated it. And then a few years later a rebellion under Judah Maccabee recaptured the temple, but the sacred olive oil they needed to rededicate it was only enough to last for one day — but by some miracle the oil lasted for eight until a resupply arrived. I explained the traditional of saying short prayers as we light the candles. My Mexican guests nodded and broke into a spirited Spanish version of “Happy Birthday.”
Accompanied by the Barenaked Ladies, who just happened to be in Yelapa on my iPod, we quickly dispensed with the blessings and I sent Dave down to our suite to bring up the latkes. Given the massive amount we had made, I figured if each of the assembled guests eats 17 of them we’d be okay.
The latkes and Dave arrived amid a cacophony of barking dogs that had just flushed out a skunk from under the stairs that immediately made his presence known to all far and wide — and that put a quick end to the first Yelapa Hanukkah party. As one of our guests said as he left, “That Judah hombre should have just sent a skunk into the Temple — that would have cleared out those Syrians in no time.”
I had no rebuttal.
Dave and decided not to plan a second party, so now the question was: What to do with 60 surplus latkes?
Happy Hanukkah from Yelapa.