Hanukkah traditions rooted in the miraculous

From left: Linda Seligson, JoAnn Graham and Esfir Kaganovsky joke around while eating potato and sweet potato latkes. (Photo by Jason Plotkin)

for Smart

Often referred to as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. This year, Hanukkah will begin at sunset on Dec. 8 and continue through Dec. 16.

Hanukkah is the Jewish festival of re-dedication, and is also known as Chanukah, the Hebrew word for dedication.

“Those not familiar with the Jewish faith sometimes refer to Hanukkah as ‘the Jewish Christmas’ because it is celebrated around the same time of year. It is not,” explained Linda Seligson, adult cultural and contemporary director at the York Jewish Community Center.

The holiday commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek armies in 165 B.C.E., and the subsequent liberation and re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Maccabees cleaned the Temple and re-lit the menorah that furnished the Temple’s Eternal Light. But there was only enough oil to last for one day. Exceeding all expectations, that oil burned for the eight days it took to replenish it.

“It is important to note that the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory, as Jews do not glorify war,” Seligson said.

In Jewish homes throughout the world, families gather to light a candelabrum called a hanukkiyah — which is commonly, although incorrectly, called a menorah. The hanukkiyah holds nine candles, one for each night, plus a shamash (servant candle) at a different height.

On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shamash candle is lit and three blessings are recited (there are two blessings on each subsequent night). The first candle is then lit using the shamash candle, and the shamash candle is placed in its holder. The candles are allowed to burn out on their own after a
minimum of 30 minutes.

Each night, another candle is added from right to left (the same way Hebrew is read). Candles are lit from left to right, because honor is paid to the newest thing first.

Seligson, said the only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. Hanukkah is not even mentioned in Jewish scripture.

Over the years, Hanukkah has also become a time for gift-giving and decoration. The custom in many Jewish homes is to give children one gift each night when the candles are lit. But this is a fairly modern
accommodation to the excitement surrounding Christmas.

Other Hanukkah traditions include playing the dreidel game — a top that is spun to reveal winners and losers. Players are rewarded with gelt, foil-covered chocolate candy coins, and food fried in oil.

Potato latkes are favored in the U.S. and donuts (soofganiot) are traditional in Israel.

“Dreidels and gelt are common gifts that children give or get during Hanukkah,” said Deena Gross of Springettsbury Township. “Some families give small presents all eight nights, while others donate to charity instead of giving gifts.”

Corn and Red Pepper Latkes

Yield: 8 servings.
2 roasted red bell peppers
1/2 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 green onion, finely chopped
Olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup whipping cream
1½ cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup milk
3 eggs, separated
2 tablespoons minced chives

Chop one bell pepper into small dice. Set aside. Cut remaining bell pepper in half. Cut one half into very thin strips. Mince other half almost to consistency of puree, and set aside.

Saute corn, diced bell pepper, bell pepper strips and green onion in 1 tablespoon olive oil and butter 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and stir in whipping cream. Simmer over medium-low heat 15 minutes. Set aside.

Sift flour, baking powder and 1 teaspoon salt into bowl. Stir in milk and egg yolks. Beat egg whites until they form soft peaks, then fold into egg yolk mixture. Fold in reserved minced peppers.

Lightly brush skillet with olive oil and heat over medium heat until drop of water sizzles. Spoon or pour 3-inch latkes into skillet and cook over medium heat, 2 to 3 minutes per side.

To serve, place warm pepper-and-corn sauce on each plate and top with 2 latkes.

— Source: “Master Chefs Cook Kosher” edited by Judy Ziedler

Potato Latkes

Yield: 20 latkes
6 large potatoes
1 large onion
1 lemon
3 eggs
2 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup matzo meal
1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup canola oil

Wash and peel potatoes. Grate potatoes in food processor. Finely grate onion. Squeeze lemon and add the juice to the grated potatoes.

Add eggs, baking powder, salt, pepper and one tablespoon oil. Mix well.

In a deep skillet, heat remaining oil over low heat. With spoon, drop batter into pan, creating pancakes about 1½ inches in diameter.

Be careful not to crowd them. Fry until underside is a deep golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes. Turn and fry for 1 to 2 minutes more.

Drain latkes on a paper towel-lined cookie sheet. Repeat with remaining batter. Serve with applesauce or sour cream.

This recipe is from “Recipes to Remember: Kay’s Favorites”, a cookbook created by Temple Beth Israel Sisterhood in memory of a former board member, Kay Kranich.

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