Shalom Y’ all and Happy Hanukkah!
Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar.
Although I love to point out similarities among holidays around the world, Hanukkah is kind of unique. The Jewish religion is one centered around the historic defining moments of the culture. It contains little transcendence and lots of militarism, rebellion and resistance. The Jewish religion also stems from a far more ancient concept that came about under the Akhenaten, also known as Amenhotep IV, in Egypt. That of a single, personal god. It’s been argued, by more than a few people, including Freud, that the roots of Judeo-christian belief in one god was born on the banks of the Nile and that the Jewish religion is the continuation of that Ancient Egyptian religion. Prior to Akhenaten, although unity was understood, the concept of one god was not really considered.
We might say that this minor pharaoh changed the course of world history and created the world as we know it today. It leaves me to wonder, what would our world be like if there had never been an Akhenaten, if there was never an inspiration for the Jewish religion. Would we still have latkes?
There is a custom of eating foods fried or baked in oil (preferably olive oil) to commemorate the miracle of a small flask of oil keeping the flame in the Temple alight for eight days. Traditional foods include potato pancakes, known as latkes in Yiddish, especially among Ashkenazi families. Sephardi, Polish and Israeli families eat jam-filled doughnuts (Yiddish: פאנטשקעס pontshkes), bimuelos (fritters) and sufganiyot which are deep-fried in oil. Bakeries in Israel have popularized many new types of fillings for sufganiyot besides the traditional strawberry jelly filling, including chocolate cream, vanilla cream, caramel, cappucino and others. In recent years, downsized, “mini” sufganiyot containing half the calories of the regular, 400-to-600-calorie version have become popular. There is also a tradition of eating cheese products on Hanukkah recorded in rabbinic literature.
The eating of dairy foods, especially cheese, on Hanukkah is a minor custom that has its roots in the story of Judith. An Assyrian general, had surrounded the village of Bethulia as part of his campaign to conquer Judea. After intense fighting, the water supply of the Jews is cut off and the situation became desperate. Judith, a pious widow, told the city leaders that she had a plan to save the city. Judith went to the Assyrian camps and pretended to surrender. She met Holofernes, who was smitten by her beauty. She went back to his tent with him, where she plied him with cheese and wine. When he fell into a drunken sleep, Judith beheaded him and escaped from the camp, taking the severed head with her (the beheading of Holofernes by Judith has historically been a popular theme in art). When Holofernes’ soldiers found his corpse, they were overcome with fear; the Jews, on the other hand, were emboldened, and launched a successful counterattack. The town was saved, and the Assyrians defeated.
Well, in my book it’s hard to argue with a religion that celebrates kick-ass women, cheese and wine. As an extra bonus (as if that weren’t already enough) at some point, someone thought it would be a good idea to throw in some fried foods as well. Good choice.
It seems to me that for most holidays, there is no real “true spirit” of the season. They are all celebrations of life’s lessons and the one that speaks to you the most at that moment is perhaps the one you should observe. This Hanukkah I’m going to celebrate next weekend by closing it out with a trip to see the remains of Akhenaten’s son, Tutankhamen. What speaks to me in this Hanukkah is how we conceive of ourselves, our relationships to unity and multiplicity, and the deep historical world-view we all carry within us that shapes our everyday lives….and jam-filled doughnuts.
25 grams (1 ounce) yeast
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. water
1 Tbsp. flour
3 cups flour
50 grams (1/4 cup) margarine, melted
dash of salt
3 Tablespoons sugar
2 egg yolks
1 1/4 cups water (room temperature)
jelly (strawberry is recommended)
oil for frying (canola is recommended)
1. To make the dough: Combine the first four ingredients in a bowl. Mix well, cover, and wait until it rises. In another bowl, mix 3 cups of flour with the melted margarine, salt, sugar and egg yolks. Combine the yeast mixture with the flour mixture. Slowly add water while stirring. When batter is smooth, cover the bowl with a towel and let it sit and rise.
2. To make the doughnuts: After the batter has risen, pour it onto a floured surface and roll it out. Use a glass with a small opening to cut out circles of the dough. Place a drop of jelly in the middle of each circle, and then cover with another circle of dough. Make sure that 2 circles attach well to form a closed ball with jelly in the middle. Cover the doughnuts with a towel and let rise.
3. To fry the doughnuts: Heat oil in a deep pot until very hot. Drop the doughnuts into the oil and fry on both sides until brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and sprinkle with powdered sugar.
TIP: These sufganiot are only good fresh. After you make the dough, only fry a few at a time. Store the rest of the dough in the refrigerator.