The Roots of Hanukkah Food Traditions

Rabbi Choni Marozov lights the menorah at the celebration outside Valencia Town Center. People from SCV’s three major Jewish congregations attended the event. Ryan Painter/The Signal.
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By Lucie Winborne
Signal Contributing Writer

A vital part of holiday celebrations is, of course, the variety of delicious food associated with them.

Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew and celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees in 165 BC, is no exception.

Until the 14th century, however, there were no records of the traditional foods we now associate with the day. Then two types emerged — fried and dairy. And as with other holidays, seasonal fare became traditional Hanukkah food.

For example, geese were the primary fowl of western Ashkenazi families, with the flesh typically eaten only on special occasions. In Eastern Europe, cattle took their place on the table, but since pretty much all but brisket was unaffordable for most Ashkenazis, that became the traditional Sabbath Hanukkah food. Later, Americans put their own spin on brisket with variations that included pineapple, cranberries, onion soup mix and even cola.

Latkes (fried potato pancakes) are probably the best-known example of Hanukkah cuisine. Yet they didn’t always consist of potatoes. For that we can thank mid-19th century crop failures in Ukraine and Poland that resulted in large potato harvests. Spuds were cheaper than the wheat flour and cheese previously used to prepare latkes, and eventually this modified version made its way to the U.S. with German immigrants.

Then there are the jelly doughnuts known as sufganiyot. An old Israeli folktale has it that God tried to cheer Adam and Eve after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden by giving them this sweet treat, but most scholars are pretty sure the actual origins are more prosaic! Variations around the world include debla, dough rolled to resemble a rose then deep-fried and dipped in sugar or honey, which is popular in Algeria and Tunisia, and gulab jamun, a milk-based fried pastry from India. Oil used to fry food during the holiday represents that used to light the menorah.

And what child (or adult, for that matter) doesn’t enjoy shiny foil-wrapped chocolate coins? The tradition of gelt may have sprung from a number of sources, including an 18th-century Eastern European tradition in which rabbis went to villages giving Hebrew school-style lessons, for which they were gifted with things such as whiskey, grain, vegetables or honey. Additionally, in Yemen, Jewish moms gave their kids small coins on each day of Hanukkah, with which they could purchase sugar powder and red coloring for mixing into “Hanukkah wine.”

What treats and traditions will your household enjoy this season?

© 2018 King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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