Scrumptious foods are a central part of favorite family holidays, whether they have religious significance or not. Hanukkah is no exception.
Hanukkah is the eight-day Jewish holiday that begins on the eve of the 25th day of the Jewish month Kislev — December 16 this year — celebrated to commemorate the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the second century B.C.E. Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, is often called the Festival of Lights, because the holiday is celebrated with the lighting of the menorah (a nine-branched candelabra, with room for one candle for each day, plus a candle with which to light the others).
The events that inspired Hanukkah occurred at a time of oppression of the Jewish people by Syrian-Greeks who ruled the Holy Land. Eventually, a small band of militant Jewish dissidents, called the Maccabees, were able to expel the Greeks and reclaim the Holy Temple. When the victors sought to light the Temple’s menorah, there was only a single cruse of olive oil, enough for one day. Miraculously, though, it burned for eight days until new oil could be prepared and purified.
To memorialize the miracle, the Jewish sages began the festival of Hanukkah. At the heart of the festival is the nightly menorah lighting, beginning with a single flame on the first night and ending eight nights later with all the lights lit.
The culinary traditions associated with Hanukkah actually do have meaning rooted in religious observance — the fritters, the cheese-filled pastries, and even those delectable chocolate coins. Many of those yummy eats that we love have complex and interesting histories of their own.
Like many other holidays across the globe, Hanukkah is a family affair. It’s a time to come together, share food, and celebrate blessings, while passing on and creating new traditions. Communal meals during the eight days of Hanukkah are an important custom and friends who quarreled during the year are meant to reconcile at these meals. Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, a testament to the long-lasting light that came from that small amount of oil. Foods fit for the holiday are cooked in oil to celebrate the miracle that took place during the rededication of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. Bring on the apple fritters, vegetable pancakes, and sweet doughnuts.
What’s a holiday without delicious food? And it’s definitely a plus when that holiday calls for fried food and cheese. Really, who could resist cheese-filled doughnuts?
According to legend, Judith, a pious widow, played an integral role in the liberation of the Jews. In pretending to surrender to her captors, she met Holofernes, the governor of Syrians. Attracted by her beauty, he invited her to his tent. There, she offered him cheese to make him thirsty and wine to appease his thirst. But the wine induced drowsiness, and while he slept, Judith beheaded him, which weakened the enemy and led to the historic victory of the Jews. Essentially, it was cheese that led to the downfall of the Syrian-Greeks. Cheesecake, blintzes, and other cheese-centric dishes have made their way to many Hanukkah celebrations as a result.
You can play dreidel for them, or eat them straight out of the bag; those gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins are yet another delicious Hanukkah treat. The roots of gelt, Yiddish for “money,” are in the first coins minted by the Jews after the Maccabees gained independence. These first coins were stamped with an image of a menorah, perhaps to signify the miracle at the rededication. In the eighteenth century, it was customary to show religious teachers appreciation with a monetary token around Hanukkah. However, by the nineteenth century, the traditional recipients had shifted from teachers to children. Now savings bonds, checks, and chocolate coins are manifestations of Hanukkah gelt.