Oh Hanukah, oh Hanukah, Let’s Light the Menorah

It’s winter and time for the great winter holidays celebrated across many cultures. And it’s time for another segment of Jewish food, history, and more.

Hanukah (also spelled Hanukkah, Chanukah, etc.) is in fact a minor holiday in the annual Jewish calendar. Along with Purim, it’s a post-Biblical festival. On the Jewish lunar calendar, Hanukah is celebrated on the 25th of Kislev (see Sept. 20 post about the Jewish calendar), sometime in December.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, Hanukah is one of the more publicly known holidays. It recalls two events. First is the historical one that took place some two thousand years ago. The Syrian-Greeks who ruled in Ancient Palestine were defeated by the armies of Judah Maccabee in 165 B.C.E. But Hanukah did not get this association until the Middle Ages.

Second is the legend, the so-called miracle of the oil. Following the recovery and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem according to the Talmud one day’s worth of oil lasted for eight days . A nine-branched hanukiah or menorah is the central focus of the celebration. Traditionally, it is displayed in a window or at the entrance of the home opposite the mezuzah so that the lights should be seen by all. Because of the miracle, Hanukah is known as the Festival of Lights.

Today, family-centered Hanukah is primarily celebrated for children with eight days of foods and fun. Traditions associated with the festival, of course, include special traditions.

Gelt, symbolic coins minted by the Hashmonians after their victory, are given to children. Today’s gelt is foil-covered chocolate coins. In the Ottoman world, gifts of money were distributed to children on the last day of the holiday. Dutch Jews, however, might have learned this custom from their Christian neighbors where candy coins were among the treats Dutch children found stuffed in their wooden shoes each December 8, St. Nicholas Day. Spoiler alert: unlike Ann Landers misguided information a month or so ago, not all children receive a gift each day of Hanukah! (For more, see https://www.uexpress.com/dearabby/2019/11/15/2/hanukkah-celebration-is-meant-to-teach )


The foods of Hanukah derive from legend and custom. Several traditional foods are enjoyed during the holiday, especially fried foods, food with honey, and dairy specialties. In Judeo-Spanish Hanukah is called: “el Buen dia de la tripa,” “a good day for the stomach!”

Fried foods. Fried Hanukah foods commemorate the legend of the miracle of the oil.

“If latkes you would make,

Salt & water & flour take.

Eat with jest and song and rhyme,

At the festive Chanukah time.”

Latkes, fried potato pancakes, only gained popularity in Eastern Europe during the mid-1800′s after a series of crop failures in Poland and the Ukraine led to mass planting of potatoes. The name of this Ashkenazi specialty is probably derived from the Greek for oil “elion.”

Hanukah latkes are also made with other ingredients. Buckwheat flour was used in some places. Apple latkes or fritters are another tradition. Today, designer latkes are made with grated zucchini, sweet potato, carrots, and more.

Fried dough in the Sephardic world include bimuelos (roughly translated as “lumps”) that came from medieval Spain and spread with the exiled Sephardim. Before the expulsions, Christians considered bimuelos to be a sign of Jewish and Moorish cooking. Many Converso families passed down the tradition of preparing them each December, often without even being aware of their Jewish roots.


Jewish Hanukah fried dough elsewhere has other names. Romaniote Jews (whose ancestors lived in Greece when the Sephardim arrived after 1492) call them zvingous. My grandfather (Joseph Bacola) made fried wholewheat pancakes, tiganites. Moroccan Jews call fried dough sfenj, Arabic for sponge for their soft, spongy interior and crispy exterior and sprinkle then with sugar or drizzle them with warm honey.

Italian frittelle di Chanukah are also known as ciccitielli or pignolata. They sometimes include dried fruit and pine nuts and are cut into diamond shapes. Because many Italian homes (and in other Mediterranean countries) did not have ovens, frying with oil was a primary method of cooking. Italian Jews also have a Hanukah version of the Christmas fried dough confection struffoli or la cicerchiata. They call it precipizi.

Note: Dough fritters are made by many people around the world, not only Jews. There is a version recorded by a Roman from around 160 BCE! Have you eaten funnel cakes at the county fair and other variants at ethnic street fairs?

Filled doughnuts, sufganiyot, are associated with Israel. Their history is interesting. They might have been first introduced in Germany. In Poland, they are called pączki. Jews fried them in oil for Hanukah; Catholics fried them in lard for Fat Tuesday. In the early 20th century, pączki were adopted in Israel and replaced latkes as the favorite Hanukah treat.

Image result for sufganiyot recipe

According to Gil Marks, an Israel labor federation promoted sufganiyot for the holiday and made jobs “making, delivering, and selling the doughnuts.” Perhaps a much earlier reference to them is found in the 12th century writings of R. Maimon ben Yoseph (father of Maimonides), who lived in Spain and Egypt who wrote:

“Anyone for whom it is appropriate … is required to make a feast with merriment and food, to publicize the miracle that God did for us in those days. It is a popular custom to make “suphḡanin”, in Arabic “assfinj”, covered in honey, and in Aramaic, “isqeriṭaṿan.”

Other fried foods were also associated with Hanukah. Italians ate deep fried chicken pieces rather than boiled chicken. Pumpkin fritters were another Italian Hanukah delicacy.

Honey. Hanukah sweets or served with honey prepared with honey in the Ashkenazi world and served with honey include: honey cake (lekach), also a New Year treat; honey-nut candy (noent); a dairy version of rugelach.

Dairy foods. The custom of eating dairy at Hanukah dates to the Middle Ages when the Book of Judith played an important role in the Hanukah narrative. The story cobmines a brave and beautiful heroine, an evil villain, wine, and cheese.

Holofernes was a general under the king of Assyria who was sent to conquer Judea. His army laid siege to a town outside of Jerusalem. Judith was a beautiful, young widow who Holofernes sent for; she went to save her town. She fed him salty and wine which sent him into a thirsty sleep. And Judith beheaded him with his own sword. The Assyrian army fled without their leader. And so, dairy foods are eaten during Hanukah to commemorate and honor Judith just as Hanukah recalls the bravery of the Maccabees.

Cristofano Allori 
Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1613)

Note: In some Sephardic communities, especially Algeria and Tunisia, the 7th night of Hanukah is dedicated in remembrance of heroic women in Jewish history such as Judith.

Dairy foods. Both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews prepared fried cheese pancakes using fresh as cottage, pot, or ricotta cheese, sprinkled with sugar or olive oil. Perhaps latkes came from Italian pancakes made with ricotta cheese (cassola).

The first connection between Hanukah and pancakes probably came from Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus (c. 1286-1328) in Italy. He included pancakes “in a list of dishes … [in] a poem about Hanukkah. After the Spanish expelled the Jews from Sicily in 1492, the exiles introduced their ricotta cheese pancakes … to the Jews of northern Italy. … cheese pancakes, because they combined the two traditional types of foods–fried and dairy–became a natural Hanukkah dish,” according to Gil Marks.

Other cheese holiday foods include cheese blintzes, served with sour cream, noodle pudding (kugel) in the Ashkenazi world, Sephardic cheese bimuelos, and couscous au beurre in Morocco.

That’s not all, here’s a sampling of other specialties prepared for the Festival of Lights:

North Africa – couscous, steamed semolina with chick peas, raisins and vegetables.

Holland – a special hutspot or stew, of Spanish, but not Sephardic origin. The Spanish expanded their territory to Leiden (16th century) and laid siege to the town. The Dutch armies put the Spaniards to flight at dinnertime when their stew was simmering on the fire … The “spot of hot” is a dash of cayenne added to a vegetable and meat stew.

Alsace – goose was the main course, a custom probably adopted from their Christian neighbors’ Christmas dinner.

My goose looked nothing like this, what did I do wrong?

Eastern Europe – katowes cake, a cake with 44 ingredients, the total number of candles burned during Hanukah, was baked and a game of riddles and puzzles each with the answer 44 had been played in the past. Count the ingredients in this recipe –

16 tablespoons cake flour; 1 teaspoon baking powder; 3 eggs; 16 tablespoons sugar;
2 teaspoons lemon juice; 6 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice – http://www.holidaycrafter.com/article1076.html.

Russia – “flaming tea” is a full ceremony. A lump of sugar is placed in a spoon. Brandy is poured over it and set alight. Then all are dropped into a glass of tea.

India – fried samosaspakoras and piaju are reminders of the miracle of the oil. Also enjoyed are fancy confections made from milk, sugar, and nuts.

And dishes made with radishes (legendarily the favorite food of the Maccabees).

Hanukah has fallen prey to the marketers as much as Christmas. Food manufacturers have tons of items that add to the holiday treats. The Mazola Oil Company promised Jewish housewives they no longer need cook a chicken as the its fat drippings were no longer needed: “End Your Slavery to a Cup of Schmaltz.”

Vintage Barton’s Hanukkah Candy tin. (etsy)

Candy companies like Barton’s sold hard candy in tins decorated with symbols of the holiday. Another company turned Maccabee soldiers into a Hanukkah version of Christmas tin soldiers, appealing in the form of translucent and shiny made barley sugar lollipops in a rainbow of bright colors.

Loft’s Candies were first the first to offer milk chocolate disks wrapped in gold-colored foil, as the familiar gold “gelt.”

And songs … Lots of songs –


Dak il tas, toma’l tas (2)Beat the plate, take the plate
Las muchachas meten basThe little girls play
En shabat de HanukáOn the Shabbat of Hanukkah
Ocho dias de HanukáEight days of Hanukkah,
Lehadlik ner shel Hanuká. Light a Hanukkah candle.

Quita’l Tas (Remove the Tray) is based on a melody from Adrianopolis that was noted down at the turn of the XX century in Turkey.

Quita’l tas, mete’l tas, Bring out the plate, set down the food.
Las muchachas meten bas, The girls set the table
en el mez de Hanuká, in the month of Hanukkah.
Suríaremos l’asefá. Let’s meet again.
Quita la gallina de la cucina, Bring the chicken from the kitchen,
Dale’l caldo a la vezina, Give the soup to the neighbour
Que la sea melecina so that the month of Hanukkah
En el mez de Hanuká, will be sweet for her.
Suríaremos l’asefá Let’s meet again.
La una quita l’alzeite One takes the oil
de un teneque hasta diez; from the can, ten measures;
La otra quita la harina The other takes the flour
de un saco hasta diez from the sack, ten measures;
Para hazer los burmuelos To make the burmuelos
En los dias de Hanuká. in the days of Hanukkah.
Suríaremos l’asefá. Let’s meet again.

Ocho kandelikas [Eight candles], a very popular song by Flory Jagoda, includes mention of pastelikos filled with almonds and honey. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=0fHPK6CEN1k

Sunday afternoon I’ll cook my latkes. I’ll write more then.

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