It’s December now and Chanukah is upon us! Now that I have my own child, I am very excited to start revisiting childhood holiday fun and establishing my own family traditions. Chanukah is another one of those holidays that is very centered around children, and we’ve been doing more this year to celebrate than I have done in many years.
Since I had so much fun exploring the roots of Halloween, I thought I’d take a quick look at Chanukah too, which is in fact a strange holiday in the Jewish tradition. Its current form, as a Winter holiday full of presents and cookies, is clearly a result of contact with contemporary Christmas traditions. It is of course a very different holiday from Christmas. In addition to being a religious holiday, it has long been one that celebrated the Jewish people as a nation. As the story goes, in the 2nd century BC, the tyrannical Greek ruler Antiochus IV began persecuting Jews in the Land of Israel, desecrating the Temple, and forcing them to Hellenize. The Jews gathered in revolt and took back their seized Temple, only to find the oil supply for the holy Menorah plundered. While the oil should have only lasted one day, it miraculously lasted 8, giving them time to renew their stores of oil while keeping the menorah lit. Chanukah thus commemorates both the triumph of the Jewish nation through the many trials of history and the miracle of the oil.
Of course, the historical record is far more complicated. Assimilation to Hellenic culture had already been in process for quite some time when Antiochus came to power. There was a growing divide between on one hand various groups of traditionalists who zealously held to Jewish belief and practice, and the other those who were modernizing, assimilating, and adapting to the Greek Macedonian power structure. This new persecution put even Hellenized, urban Jews in conflict with the ruling class. The Maccabees, who were among the extreme traditionalists, gathered a revolt and ultimately led Palestine to Jewish rule… which naturally in turn became intolerant of non-Jews. Oy! Of course, this was before Judaism took on its current form, including its modern ethos of non-evangelizing.
In any case, the modern celebration of Chanukah is about celebrating the fortitude of the Jewish people and the blessings bestowed upon them by the Almighty. As a way of honoring the miracle of the oil, fried foods are eaten and beautiful candles are lit in the window. While children have a role to play in many home-based rituals of Judaism, Chanukah seems especially concerned with bringing joy to children. Children were traditionally given a break from their usual tasks (although the prohibition of work does not apply on this holiday) and got small gifts and coins. My brother and I got a good laugh the other day thinking about how no other religion would have a holiday where the time-honored traditions are gambling (dreidel) and giving children fake money (gelt)!
While most of the traditions that Americans are familiar with are Ashkenazi ones, I would like to share a taste of North African Chanukah with you today. Like European Jews, North African Jews light candles and eat fried foods. The styles are just a bit different. In my opinion, menorahs (or chanukiahs) are the most interesting and beautiful part of the Chanukah tradition, and one finds a vast diversity of menorahs across the Jewish world. Some are truly magnificent. Here is a Moroccan menorah from the 19th century, displayed in the Musée d’art et d’histoire du judaïsme in Paris:
As far as foods, donuts called sfenj as well as zalabia, which are like funnel cakes soaked in sugar syrup, are eaten. I am actually not a huge fan of home frying. Aside from it being relatively unhealthy, it scares me, stinks up the house, and never tastes as good as it does in a restaurant or bakery. The one thing that I have fried that was truly worth it was a recipe for Mardi Gras beignets from Lyon, which I will share with you at another time. But I decided to go for it anyway, and it actually wasn’t too bad. I absolutely love the floral sweetness of North African and Middle Eastern pastries, and so I put a little extra orange flower in my syrup. If you’ve never had orange flower, it is worth trying. The first time I ever tasted it was at the home of a Tunisian Jewish woman who happens to also be a chef. It was a bit of a shock but also a revelation that food could be so divinely perfumed. You can buy orange flower water in Middle Eastern markets and perhaps in Indian markets.
I started with a recipe for zalabia, which I found to be a disappointment, so I won’t post it. Before giving up, however, I tried another recipe, from a book of Moroccan recipes. It’s special because it eliminates yeast and thus all the waiting. While it might not be the traditional Chanukah sfenj, it is a similar donut soaked in sweet, flowery syrup, and very satisfying if you want a sweet morsel that is reminiscent of North Africa.
Here is the recipe:
Fried Honey Cakes
- 3 eggs
- 3 tbsp orange juice
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 tbsp orange zest
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 1/2 cups flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- vegetable oil for frying
For the cakes: Mix together eggs, orange juice and oil in a large bowl. Add orange zest and sugar and whisk some more. Sift in the flour and baking powder and mix everything with a wooden spoon. Cover and let rest.
Meanwhile make syrup:
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 1/4 cups sugar
- 1/3 cup honey
- 1 1/4 cups water
- 1 tbsp orange flower water
Mix sugar, water, and lemon juice and boil for 5 minutes. Add honey and simmer another 5 minutes. At the end, add the orange flower water.
Sprinkle the extra flour onto the dough and transfer to a lightly floured surface. Knead until dough stops sticking to your hands. Add more flour if necessary. Flatten the dough into thickness of 1/4 inch and cut out round cakes about 2 inches across.
Heat between 1-2 inches oil in a large deep-sided frying pan (I recommend using a cast iron pan) until a small piece of dough dropped into oil foams up and browns in 20 seconds. Fry 3 or 4 cakes at a time on both sides until they’re golden brown. Remove with tongs and let dry on a paper towel.
Soak each cake in a warm syrup and pour the rest of the syrup on top of all of them.
The thing I remember most from childhood Chanukah celebrations is admiring the lit up candelabra in a darkened room, and singing the festive songs. Tradition says that, like Shabbat candles, they should burn all the way down until the flame dies out. Even if you don’t celebrate Chanukah, lighting candles and singing holiday songs is something everyone can enjoy! And who doesn’t like donuts??
I’ll conclude with a prayer called the Hanerot Halalu, which is traditionally sung at Chanukah:
We light these lights
For the miracles and the wonders,
For the redemption and the battles
That you made for our forefathers
In those days at this season,
Through your holy priests.
During all eight days of Chanukah
These lights are sacred
And we are not permitted to make
Ordinary use of them,
But only to look at them;
In order to express thanks
And praise to Your great Name
For your miracles, Your wonders
And your salvations.