Tag Archives: Hannukah

The Secret History of Hanukkah

By Gabriel Weinstein

Students in Hebrew schools and Jewish day schools learn that Hanukkah is the celebration of the Maccabees’ improbable military triumph and the miraculous burning of the Beit Hamikdash’s (Holy Temple’s) Menorah for eight days, a holiday for crooning festive tunes and wagering intense games of dreidel. But Hanukkah’s origins in the Nayrot festival are usually never mentioned during classroom discussions or a meal over latkes.

Nayrot (light) was an ancient winter holiday celebrating the increased daylight promised by the winter solstice, and was observed in a way similar to Hanukkah. Nayrot had similar qualities and occurred around the same time as the Greek-Syrian holiday celebrating sun god Kronos-Helios’s birthday, which was observed by Jews and non-Jews in Israel and Greek occupied territories. Households kindled eight flames on a fireboard in their house each night of the eight-day festival. Some added a flame each night while others reduced the number of lit flames. Lighting fires was done to mimic the earth’s natural cycles and believed to persuade nature to elongate daylight. Light’s association with life and darkness’s symbolism of death imbued Nayrot with rejuvenation and optimism.  Nayrot was eight days to mirror the length of Passover and Sukkot, the other holidays associated with seasonal changes.

Nayrot seemed primed to establish itself as the third major Jewish seasonal holiday. But religious authorities during the reign of King Hezekiah, whose reign occurred during a period known as the priestly era, scoffed at the idea of Nayrot becoming a major celebration endorsed by the Torah. Nayrot was rejected because it had no explicit divine connections, nor was it associated with the Exodus from Egypt. Nayrot was relegated as a folk festival until the Maccabees seized power and changed the holiday’s meaning to fulfill their personal ambitions.

When the Maccabees defeated the Greek ruler Antochius IV’s regime in 165 BCE they were eager to restore the defiled Beit HaMikdash. Some believe the Maccabees defeated the Greeks in October but waited until the winter to begin their restoration so it corresponded with Nayrot. Judah Maccabee, the military leader of the Maccabees, renamed Nayrot Hanukkah (dedication), and intended it to mark the rededication of the Beit HaMikdash to God.  The transition wasn’t too difficult; both holidays celebrate similar human triumphs. According to Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine, founder of the Humanistic Judaism, Nayrot celebrated humans’ ability to produce fire. The ability to produce fire was a crucial step in the development of human self-confidence and essential to societal advancement, says Wine. Though Judah Maccabee most likely did not intend to perpetuate the values of Nayrot, Hanukkah’s emphasis on the Beit HaMikdash’s renewal and personal spiritual rejuvenation seamlessly mesh with the themes of the holiday.

The Book of Hasmoneans implies Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days because the Maccabees had forgotten to observe the eight days of Sukkot while immersed in battle. The Maccabees wanted Hanukkah to become a flagship holiday, but religious authorities cringed. They resented Hanukkah because they believed the Maccabees had unfairly assumed power over the Judean kingdom. When the Rabbinical establishment regained power under Roman rule, Hanukkah was deemed a minor holiday like its predecessor Nayrot.

Though Rabbinic authorities sought to expunge Nayrot and Hanukkah from the canon of Jewish holidays, aspects of the two festivals–some manufactured, others stemming from the original  holiday celebrations–have become vital parts of the modern Hanukkah celebration. In the centuries following Hanukkah’s establishment, its religious aspects have been amplified. Many scholars believe rabbis created the idea of the Hanukkah miracle to draw attention away from Hanukkah’s glorification of the Maccabees’ military might. This was an expression of the rabbinical authorities’ frustration that the Maccabees asserted intellectual authority over divine dictums and claimed royal authority though they were not descendants of King David.

Although religious authorities sought to hide Hanukkah’s origins as a folk festival, the spirit and practices of Nayrot lives on.  The “Hovevi Zion” Zionist movement of the late 1800’s adopted Hanukkah as their major holiday. They viewed the story of Hanukkah as a metaphor mirroring the Zionist struggle to fortify Jewish identity.  Today the city of Haifa uses Hanukkah as a catalyst to promote interfaith solidarity through their annual “Holiday of Holidays” festival celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas and Ramadan. The transformation of Hanukkah from a folk holiday celebrating fire to a festival celebrating divine miracles, military victories and Jewish identity is the ultimate example of the fluidity of Jewish tradition and the effect of cultural impacts that will continue to be a hallmark of ever-evolving Jewish history.

Rededicating Hanukkah Foods

By Merav Levkowitz

For those of us with food allergies and intolerances, social events tend to be awkward and isolating. So many Jewish events revolve around food and involve eating in social settings or at the houses of others. Though many Jews are used to  accommodating kashrut, vegetarianism, and lactose intolerance, which is common among Jews (but irrelevant during a kosher meat meal!), it can be uncomfortable to ask even the most accommodating host to modify his/her menu or recipes and cook differently, especially when old family recipes are at hand. Celiac disease is one such dietary restriction that requires extra attention and is rising in the prevalence in general and especially among Jews.

Celiac disease is, in a nutshell, an autoimmune digestive disease in which the body is unable to tolerate gluten, the protein in wheat, barley, rye, and oats. The exact cause of Celiac disease remains unknown, but it is genetic and often triggered by environmental factors or intense physical event like illness, pregnancy or severe stress. In response to the offensive gluten, the immune system attacks and destroys the villi, the finger-like projections that line the inside of the small intestine and absorb nutrients into the bloodstream. Celiac disease that goes undiagnosed can manifest itself in a wide range of deceptive symptoms, including digestive issues, fatigue, infertility and seizures, among others, and can ultimately result in malnutrition and elevated risks for many illnesses and infections. Once diagnosed, the only way to treat it is to maintain a diet that is strictly free of gluten, which, in addition to being found in the primary grains mentioned above and their products, hides in many other products, like sauces, dressings, food fillers, lip gloss, and envelope adhesive.

In the Jewish world, a gluten-free diet means no challah, matzoh balls, sufganiyot (doughnuts), or even latkes (potato pancakes). Even with the increased awareness and greater supply of specialized products available in stores, maintaining a gluten-free diet often gives the impression of perpetual Passover. We Jewish Celiacs get used to reading labels and asking questions religiously, hosting, testing gluten-free recipes, cooking for ourselves and knowing that we will have to satisfy ourselves solely with the aroma of most challot. Although we cannot eat matzoh, during Passover we bask in the joy of knowing that for eight days our friends and family may get a small taste of what we experience year-round. Still, there is a feeling of loss that comes with not being able to participate in many Jewish rituals, mitzvot, and family traditions.

But with Hanukkah approaching, there is hope for Celiacs and our friends to reclaim the holiday this year and make it safe and enjoyable for all! Try out these flourless potato latkes and gluten-free sufganiyot, and check out this line-up of other gluten-free Hanukkah recipes. Hanukkah is, after all, about rededication and miracles and what better way to celebrate this than by sharing doughnuts that are safe for everyone?!  Happy cooking, and happy Hanukkah!

Recipe: Bumuelos In Red Wine Sauce

Here’s another great Hanukkah recipe.  Jews of Spanish origin developed bumuelos or buñuelos—fritters or pancakes fried in olive oil and dipped in honey or sugar syrup or sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar—as sweet Hanukkah treats.  Here’s a modern take on the Sephardi classic!  Read more on the history of Hanukkah foods in Moment‘s latest “Talk of the Table” here!

BUMUELOS IN RED WINE  SAUCE

Makes about 14-15 (Serve 2-3 per portion)

For the Bumuelos:

  • 1 cup water
  • ½ cup butter
  • Pinch salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 ½ cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 4 eggs
  • Canola oil for frying

For the Red Wine Sauce:

  • 2 cups sugar
  • ⅔ cup dry red wine
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 4 whole cloves

Prepare the Red Wine sauce first: Mix the ingredients together in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the syrup thickens to the consistency of honey. Keep warm. (Overcooking the sauce will make it harden). Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, bring the water, butter, sugar and salt to a boil and set aside. Place the flour in the bowl of a mixer. Turn the mixer on low speed and add the boiling liquid mixture. Continue mixing on low speed until a soft dough is formed that leaves the side of the bowl. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition.

Heat 1½” canola oil in a wide pan. Line a plate with paper towels. Using a medium ice cream scoop or two tablespoons, form a ball of the mixture and slip into the hot oil. If the ball is difficult to form, beat in an additional tablespoon or two of flour. Fry 4-5 balls at a time on medium-high heat till golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on the paper toweling to remove excess oil. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Reheat the wine sauce over low heat until very warm.  Pour 3 tablespoons of sauce on each serving plate. Set 2-3 bumuelos on top and serve.

“Adapted from The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking, by Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer (Harper-Collins 2004).”

Recipe: Sweet Potato Latkes with Spiced Maple Syrup

With Hanukkah approaching fast, people everywhere are getting excited to dine on treats such as latkes and Sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts).  But after eight days, those delicious dishes can get tiresome.  This year, why not try out a little variation? According to Phyllis Glazer, modern takes on traditional foods are becoming all the rage in Israel (check out her article on the history of latkes in the current issue of Moment here!).  Here is one of our favorites:

Sweet Potato Latkes with Spiced Maple Syrup

Makes 10-12  (4-6 servings)

For the Latkes:

  • 1 pound sweet potatoes
  • 2 eggs
  • ½  teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼  cup matzah meal
  • Pinch salt
  • Pinch white pepper
  • 2-4 tablespoons light olive oil for frying

For the sauce:

  • 1 cup real maple syrup
  • ½  teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • ¼  teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Pinch of ground cloves
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Chopped fresh coriander or mint leaves to garnish

Directions:

Scrub the sweet potatoes, peel and shred them on the fine side of a grater or in the food processor. Transfer to a wire-mesh strainer and squeeze to remove moisture. Let stand in the strainer or a colander placed over a bowl for 5 minutes.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with a fork and add the matzah meal, sweet potato, salt and pepper. Let stand an additional 5-10 minutes.

In the meantime, prepare the sauce: In a small pan combine the ingredients for the sauce, heat over low heat and keep warm.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet and add a small ladleful of the batter. Flatten gently and fry on both sides till golden-brown.

Add more oil to the pan as necessary, and fry the remaining latkes.

Place the latkes on a paper towel-lined plate to absorb excess oil. Pour some of the heated sauce on individual plates and arrange three latkes on top per serving, or use a serving platter and pass the sauce separately. Garnish with fresh coriander or mint.  Serve with sour cream or plain yogurt if desired.

“Adapted from The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking, by Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer (Harper-Collins 2004).”

White House Hannukah party- are you invited?

By Caroline Kessler

The onset of December must mean only one thing for Jews in the Capitol, at least according to the Washington Post’s article on the annual White House Hanukkah Party. Faulting the recession, the Obama administration announced that the guest list would shrink by about half, to 400 people. This comes as quite the contrast to the Bush administration’s lavish 800-person gatherings, which has caused some Washington Jews to wrinkle their noses and question Obama’s affection for members of the tribe. Continue reading