The Here And There Of Hanukkah
Menorahs, dreidels and mom's homecooking make the Jewish holiday special.
Thursday, December 21, 2000
Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish holiday that begins on Dec. 21, commemorates the survival of the Jewish faith. During the second pre-Christian century, the Syrian-Greek emperor Antiochus IV forced his subjects in Judea (the southern part of modern day Israel) to worship Zeus.
The Jewish leader Judah Maccabee and his small group of followers rebelled and took to the hills. They waged a successful guerrilla campaign of David and Goliath proportions and routed the Syrian Army.
The Maccabees reclaimed the Temple in Jerusalem and set about rededicating it. According to Jewish legend, while the men were cleaning the Temple, they found but one jar of holy oil--only enough to keep the Eternal Light before the Holy Ark burning for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, giving Hanukkah its nickname, "Festival of Lights."
The eight-branched Menorah, with a central candle to light the others, symbolizes this miracle. A home-centered celebration, Hanukkah begins with traditional blessings. On the first night, one candle is lit and completely burns down. On the second night, the second candle is lit, and, then, the first one. This lighting pattern continues throughout the eight days. Blue and white candles alternate reflecting the colors of the Israeli flag.
Double Your Pleasure
Rena Feuerstein of Monterey graciously invited the Weekly into her home to answer questions about Hanukkah, as well as sample holiday foods. Feuerstein says that adults traditionally gave children a candy called gelt and coins as part of the holiday celebration.
However, Christmas gift-giving has influenced the holiday. Feuerstein stressed that children may get one or two nice presents during Hanukkah, but says the more typical scenario is that "on one night, the children get a box of crayons and, on the following night, they get a coloring book."
The traditional foods of Hanukkah are always fried in oil to recall the miracle in the Temple. The foods prepared vary between the two main Jewish communities, the Sephardim and the Ashkezim. Sephardim refers to the Jews of Spain and Portugal who were obliged to settle around the Mediterranean in predominantly Muslim countries. Jews in Morocco, for example, will deep fry their chicken for couscous instead of simmering it to honor Hanukkah.
Feuerstein--whose ancestors came from Hungary, Austria and Poland--is an Ashkenazic Jew. The Ashkenazim, who settled in Central and Eastern Europe, make up the largest contingent of Jewish immigrants to the U.S. The Ashkenazim eat latkes during Hanukkah.
Recipe for Success
Latkes contain grated potatoes and onion, flour, eggs, salt and a little baking powder. They appear to be a cinch to make. Think again. Most of us are masters, it seems, of making mushy potato pancakes.
Feuerstein shared her recipe and secret for constructing firm yet moist latkes. Here''s the trick: After you grate your potatoes, let them stand for ten minutes so that the liquid rises to the top. Remove the liquid, add your eggs and then the dry ingredients.
Apple sauce and sour cream traditionally accompany latkes. But Feuerstein ate grape jelly filled donuts as a child on Hanukkah, as they do now in Israel. She also played games with a four-faced, spinning top called a dreidel in her childhood.
On each face of the dreidel is inscribed the Hebrew letter that corresponds to each word in the phrase "A great miracle happened." Outside Israel, Jews finish the phrase with "there." In Israel, celebrants conclude with "here."
The true miracle of Hanukkah, the Hebrew word for "dedication," is that a minority people can survive in and contribute to the more populous culture that surrounds it by adhering to their faith and their recipes.