Hanukkah, Hanakah, Chanukah — however you spell it, it’s a wonderful holiday, full of history, traditions, celebrations and memories.
The basic story is that Hanukkah celebrates the Jewish people’s victory over the Syrian-Greek superpower in the second century BCE, during the time of the Second Holy Temple. It also celebrates the miracle of a small amount of oil that lasted eight days after the Jews went to clean the Holy Temple, and there was only enough oil to light the holy menorah for one day.
It also is known as the Festival of Lights. It is observed for eight days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev, according to the Hebrew calendar. In 2020, Hanukkah begins the evening of Dec. 10 and ends Dec. 18. On each of these eight evenings, we light a menorah to commemorate the miraculous Jewish victory 2,000 years ago. Some common practices are singing holiday songs, eating oily foods, and playing dreidel.
This holiday always evokes wonderful memories from my childhood. We decorated the house with the Star of David and dreidels, and made lots of latkes, or potato pancakes, sugar cookies in Hanukkah shapes, and many other traditional foods. We waited in anticipation of lighting our menorah, and, if we were lucky, opening a gift each night. We would play the dreidel game, sing songs, and retell the story of the miracle of Hanukkah. We had a huge blue star in our window, built by my father, and we set out our menorah, to let everyone know how proud we were of our heritage.
We raised our three sons with these same traditions, making sure they knew the importance of celebrating them and carrying them on. Today, my husband and I are blessed with 10 grandchildren, to whom we also make sure to pass on the importance of this holiday, to be proud to be Jewish, and to carry these traditions forward to their own families someday.
The kids come over before the holiday to bake Hanukkah cookies in the shapes of stars, dreidels, menorahs, candles and even a Maccabee, reminiscent of the brave soldiers who defeated their evil foes. We typically eat a huge meal of latkes, sometimes brisket, other times bagels and lox, and plenty of dessert. And, of course, just like when I was little, the favorite part of the night is lighting the menorah, and opening gifts. The biggest gift of the holiday is being together!
Traditional Hanukkah Recipes
Karen shared with us some of her family’s favorite Hanukkah dishes and treats. Whether you celebrate Hanukkah or not, we hope you enjoy these delicious recipes.
Sufganiyot (Israeli Doughnuts)
• 1 packet dry active yeast (2¼ teaspoons)
• 1 cup warm water
• 3 tablespoons sugar
• 1 tablespoon brandy or cognac or vanilla
• Zest of 1 lemon
• 1½ tablespoons oil (will need additional oil for frying)
• 1 egg
• 3 cups all-purpose flour
• ½ teaspoon salt
• 2 cups strawberry jelly
In a gallon-sized plastic bag, add the yeast, warm water, sugar, brandy, lemon zest, oil, egg, flour and salt. Close bag and mix ingredients well. Place bag in a bowl of very warm water for 1 hour. Remove dough from bag onto a floured surface. The dough should be sticky, which makes great sufganiyot! Roll out the dough to ½-inch thickness. Make sure both sides of the dough are floured, so it doesn’t stick to the surface. With a cookie cutter or drinking glass, cut 2-inch circles out of the dough. When you are left with scraps of dough, roll it out again and cut more circles. Cover with a towel for 30 minutes. Fill a pan with 2 inches of oil. Heat oil to 350 degrees. Depending on your stove, the correct temperature will be around medium. You will know if it’s correct when you add the sufganiyot. The oil should bubble around the sufganiyot, but not a ton of bubbles. Fry the doughnuts for about 1 minute on each side. Remove and place on a cooling rack or plate, with paper towels. With a squeeze tube or piping bag, add your favorite jelly or jam to the doughnuts. Just make sure the jelly/jam isn’t too chunky to squeeze through whatever you’re using.
• 4-5 medium to large Yukon Gold or russet potatoes
• 1 large onion, shredded
• 2 eggs
• 1½ tablespoons flour or matzo meal
• ½ teaspoon salt
• ¼ teaspoon black pepper
• oil for frying (don’t use olive oil)
Shred the potatoes, using a grater or food processor. Set aside in a colander to drain excess liquid. Grate onion, and squeeze out excess liquid. Mix together potato, onion, eggs and remainder of dry ingredients. Place oil in a pan about ¼ to ½ inch deep. Heat oil until hot. Drop about a ¼ cup of latke mixture (about 3-inch patty) carefully into the frying pan. Cook on medium to medium-high heat for about 5 minutes on one side, and then turn over with spatula and cook about 3-4 more minutes, or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Serve with applesauce and/or sour cream.
Chocolate Marshmallow Dreidels
• 1 bag of large marshmallows
• 1 bag of pretzel sticks
• ready-to-spread vanilla or chocolate frosting
• 1 bag of Hershey’s chocolate kisses
• edible-ink marker
Decorate outside of marshmallow with dreidel letters — Nun, Gimel, Hay and Shin — using an edible-ink marker, in blue or other color. Let dry. Place a pretzel stick into the top of marshmallow, pressing toward the bottom. Be careful not to go through the other side. Spread ½ teaspoon frosting on the flat side of the chocolate kiss. Press onto the bottom flat side of marshmallow. Repeat with the rest of marshmallows. Have fun!
• 5 packages of dried yeast (or 3¾ tablespoons)
• 4 cups of lukewarm water
• 1 tablespoon sugar
• 5-pound bag of flour minus 2 cups (about 14 cups)
• 2 cups white sugar
• 1½ tablespoons salt
• 4 eggs, save 1 for egg wash
• 1½ cups corn oil
• Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, or honey for topping
In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar in 4 cups of lukewarm water. Set aside. Wait several minutes until bubbles appear. Mix dry ingredients in a separate bowl — flour, sugar and salt. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add three eggs, oil (I mix the eggs and oil together and beat a little), and yeast mixture. Mix with spoon until well blended. Knead mixture by hand until it has a stiff, but smooth, consistency, about 10 minutes. Add a little more flour if it gets sticky. Knead in bowl, on counter or in hands.
Make dough into a ball and rub some oil on both sides. Set in a large bowl. Make sure the bowl is big enough for the dough to double in size. Cover dough with plastic wrap and place bowl in a warm spot to rise. Allow dough to rise until it has doubled, about 1½ to 2 hours. Determine what shape you want to make, and separate the dough accordingly. Shape into loaves (braided, round, etc.). Spray pans/cookie sheets with Pam or use parchment paper. Place challahs on cookie sheets, with plenty of room in between loaves. If it is a large loaf, do it on its own cookie sheet. Let rise another 45 minutes-1 hour, depending on how high you like them. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Glaze challah with beaten egg. Add honey, if you want a sweeter glaze. Sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds, if desired. Bake for 20 minutes, turn the pan around, and then bake for another 10-20 minutes. Do not under- or over-bake. Test with a toothpick.
Minor Holiday Attains Major Status
Hanukkah, which is a holiday that can be spelled any number of ways (none of them more correct than any other), means “dedicated on 25th” day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. It commemorates the Hasmoneans, also called the Maccabees, and their successful war for religious freedom, in which they succeeded in banishing the Greeks from their occupation of Jerusalem and its Holy Temple.
Many ritually observant Jews deem Hanukkah to be a minor holiday. This is not due to its lack of adherents, but because the story of Hanukkah occurred too late chronologically to make it into the Hebrew Bible. As a result, while the holiday is celebrated widely, traditional Jewish restrictions that take place on holidays like Rosh Hashanah or Passover (cessation from labor, large festival meals, etc.), do not apply to Hanukkah.
Further contributing to its minor status is that our rabbis grew troubled that the holiday overemphasized the Maccabees’ military prowess at the expense of God’s role in the story. It largely was out of these concerns that our sages in the Talmud fabricated the now popular story about the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days and nights. Given its widespread use today, it’s safe to argue that they succeeded in adding an important spiritual dimension to the holiday.
Ironically, for its emphasis on our freedom to practice as Jews, Hanukkah’s traditional timing opposite Christmas in December sometimes can create a great deal of ambivalence for Jewish families about how best to observe the holiday.
Like all American holidays, Hanukkah now has grown very commercial. Walking through stores and seeing a Hanukkah display opposite the Christmas one is terrific, in that my own children feel validated in their religious practice. However, it also begs the question: To what extent, have we allowed a holiday that celebrates the uniqueness of Judaism to become like everything else?
American Jewish families observe Hanukkah with traditional Jewish rituals, like lighting candles and playing dreidel (a spinning top). However, they also may choose to give their children presents on Hanukkah or seasonally decorate their homes. The Elf on the Shelf has made room for the wildly adorable Mensch on the Bench. I’ve heard of some families going so far to put up a “Hanukkah bush.”
Hanukkah may be a minor holiday for ritually observant Jews, but there is little question that, given its popularity in our country, it has attained a major status. For Americans, its powerful theme of celebrating religious freedom and observance is one that continues to resonate with all of us. The question that none of us may yet answer is what that observance will look like generations into the future.
– Rabbi Dan Dorsch serves Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and holds a master’s degree in synagogue education.