Fried Foods and Other Hanukkah Traditions
The story behind Hanukkah - also known as The Festival of Lights - is a serious one, dating back thousands of years and honoring the Jewish fight for religious freedom. Its celebration, however, is full of fun and festive eating. Read on to learn about some of them!
Sufganiyot - Pronounced soof-gah-nee-yote, this word refers to the soft, jelly-filled doughnuts that are popular on Hanukkah. Originally called ponchik by the Polish immigrants who brought them to Israel, the name was changed to align with a talmudic word meaning "spongy dough." Sufganiyot are deep fried, and their connection to Hanukkah is through the folklore of the miracle of the oil. In this story, whose veracity has been debated by some scholars, the Jews found only enough holy oil to burn for one day when they were rededicating their destroyed temple but miraculously it lasted for eight. This gave the Jews enough time to extract and purify more olive oil. Whether or not that really happened in quite that way is inconsequential; the result is the same - Hanukkah is tied to delicious foods fried in oil and nobody can debate that.
If you're looking for some local, fresh sufganiyot, Clifton's own Sugamama makes decadent ones with homemade jam!
Latkes - pronounced laht-kuhs, these are fried potato pancakes, often made with onion and like sufganiyot, their preparation in oil is what connects them to Hanukkah. However, their origin story is actually a bit complicated and involves a real badass woman from biblical times. Potato latkes evolved from their original incarnation as fried ricotta, a popular dish among Jewish Italians in the 14th century. For Eastern European Jews, potatoes were a much more plentiful and cheaper ingredient to get, however...thus the latke's transformation to being potato based. Eating cheese is still a popular Hanukkah tradition, though not everyone knows why.
Cheese - Enter Judith. Some say she was the sister of Judah, who was the hero of the Hanukkah story. Some texts separate the two by hundreds of years and so her connection to Hanukkah is unclear. But like many ancient stories, the truth is often difficult to parse and sometimes, the spirit of the story is the most important part. Judith is said to have single-handedly saved her village from an invading army. She seduced their general, Holofernes, and fed him wine and cheese until he passed out in a cheese-and-alcohol stupor. While he was in his cheese coma, Judith used a sword (possibly his own) to hack off his head, carried it back to her village, and mounted it as a warning to Holofernes' army. The soldiers wisely retreated. It is in Judith's honor that cheese, sometimes fried inside the potato latke, is specifically consumed on Hanukkah. Here's a recipe for cheese latkes, no potatoes involved.
Dreidel - dray-del is actually a Yiddish word meaning "spinning top," but is probably the term you're most familiar with. In Hebrew this toy is called a s'vivon (si-vee-vone). It has four sides, each with a Hebrew letter. Those letters are the initial ones in a four-word phrase meaning "[A] Great Miracle Happened There." (In Israel, the last letter is a different one and the phrase is "[A] Great Miracle Happened HERE.")
Here's the really cool history behind this popular Hanukkah toy: thousands of years ago, when the Jews were fighting for the right just to be Jewish, their small army had to rely on clever tricks since they had neither the numbers nor the weaponry to be a fair match to the much larger Syrian-Greek army. One such ploy involved the spinning top. Jews would sneak off to study Torah in secret but kept dreidels with them as cover. If a Greek official happened upon their hiding spot, they would claim to just be playing a gambling game to avoid persecution. It worked! Today, playing dreidel is a fun activity for children and families. You can play for coins, candies, nuts, or any small object. Want to play? Here are the rules.
Lighting the candles - This is the most important part of Hanukkah, as it's all about bringing more light into the world, both literally and figuratively. The hanukkiah, a nine-branched menorah that we use specifically for Hanukkah, should be lit each night and placed somewhere where others can see and share in its glow. The shamash, the "helper" candle, is always lit first. On the first night we light one other candle, on the second night, two, etc. In this way, the gift of light is increased with each of the eight nights of Hanukkah.
From Rabbis Dara Frimmer and Mike Moskowitz, writing for the Jewish Journal, "The annual Hanukkah experience, at its core, is an opportunity to receive new insight, empowerment and opportunity to overcome the forces that oppress, debase and deny our most essential identities. Had the few Maccabees not searched to provide that light for the many, none of us would have a miracle to celebrate today. Even though we are privileged to be able to publicly observe our traditions, Hanukkah reminds us that our work is not complete until everyone can safely and freely express their identities."
To all who are celebrating this Festival of Lights, Hanukkah Sameach (Happy Hanukkah)! For everyone, whatever you celebrate and if you celebrate...may we all help the world to shine a little brighter in our own ways...this season and always.