Understanding Hanukkah

Growing up, Laura Flacks-Narrol remembers the way the menorah’s candle flames filled the room with dancing lights on the evenings of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival. Every year, the Flacks children would begin Hanukkah mornings with an elaborate scavenger hunt dreamed up by their parents and end them with the lighting of the candles in the menorah, an eight-stemmed candelabra. She and her siblings looked forward to the occasion with all of the wonder and boisterousness of youth.

Now Flacks-Narrol and her husband, Todd Narrol, have children of their own, a 6-year-old and a 2-year-old, and together they carry on the traditions of their heritage.

The Narrols are among the estimated 145 Jewish families in mid-Missouri who celebrate Hanukkah, the symbol-rich Festival of Lights.

A Bit About Hanukkah

Hanukkah usually falls sometime between late November and late December. From a Gregorian standpoint, the dates seem to change every year, but they are always the same on the Jewish calendar, which dictates that the holiday begins on the 25th day of the month Kislev.

Though it is one of the best-known Jewish festivities, Hanukkah is actually a non-Biblical holiday. According to Rabbi Yossi Feintuch, religious leader of the synagogue Congregation Beth Shalom, observance of Hanukkah stems from two different accounts of an event in oppressive Greek-occupied Israel: one in the apocryphal books of Maccabees and the other in the Talmud, the Jewish collection of laws and philosophy.

The story in Maccabees recounts the tale of a small group of Jews who refused to assimilate to Hellenistic culture during Greek-Syrian rule. This band overthrew the Greeks and took back their Temple in Jerusalem, celebrating its rededication on the 25th day of Kislev. Thus the holiday Hanukkah (which means “dedication” in Hebrew) was born.

The Talmud’s version of events was recorded centuries later, yet it offers a more detailed narrative of the Temple’s rededication. Its volumes tell of a small cruse of oil found in the Temple — only enough to light the grand menorah for one night.

“It would take another seven days to get more oil,” says Feintuch, explaining that the creation of lamp oil from olive oil was a time-consuming, weeklong process.

Without lamp oil, the sanctuary would be plunged into darkness, making the proper rededication of the Temple impossible. But instead, a miracle transpired. Rather than lasting only one night, the lamp oil burned for eight nights, by which time more oil was ready for use in the menorah.

“It’s a beautiful legend,” Feintuch says. “Its anti-assimilation message is clear, and one we can all relate to, whether elderly or child.”

Flacks-Narrol agrees. “It’s the moral issue of perseverance,” she says, “and the survival of a small group standing up for what’s right.”

The rededication of the Temple in 165 B.C. is still celebrated within Jewish homes today.

“The observance is very light; there are very few requirements,” Feintuch says. “Hanukkah is really a home-based festival” filled with joyful candlelight, sweet and savory foods, games for children and sometimes even presents.

The Menorah

According to Feintuch, the Jerusalem Temple was once lit by an impressive, seven-stemmed golden menorah.

Jewish families across the globe continue to display menorahs each Hanukkah “to represent the lamp stand in the Temple,” says Feintuch. One candle is lit for each night of the holiday until the menorah is fully lighted on the last night, creating a cheerful and celebratory atmosphere within the home. The candlelighting is accompanied by some very brief prayers.

Today’s families, however, “do not imitate the rituals of the Temple by lighting a seven-stemmed menorah, especially when we have reason to celebrate for eight days,” Feintuch says. Instead, menorahs are eight-stemmed in remembrance of the eight miraculous nights in the Temple and to recall the ancient candelabra without recreating it. Menorahs also have an extra ninth candle called the shammash, which is simply used to light the others.

Modern menorahs come in all shapes and sizes, from traditional silver and gold candleholders with a solid base to versions made of colorful ceramic, metal, clay or other materials. They can be fashioned to resemble anything imaginable, from a silvery tree bough to playful flowers or kid-friendly crayons. In Columbia, there is only one store that offers items such as menorahs: the gift shop at Congregation Beth Shalom.

Many families purchase or make at least one menorah for each family member, as Flacks-Narrol did when she was young. Once all of the menorahs were lit on the first night, she says, “We’d bet which candle would go out first and which candle would go out last. It got pretty complicated with five menorahs, but it was good fun.”

Flacks-Narrol and her oldest son make a new clay menorah each year. “We have at least six,” she says. “The candles part is nice.”

Traditional Eats

During Hanukkah, it is customary to prepare foods fried in oil in honor of the miracle of the lasting oil at the Temple. Beloved traditional fare includes potato pancakes, commonly known by their Yiddish name latkes, and jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot.

Latkes are crispy, golden brown grated potatoes hand-formed into a shape resembling pancakes. They are served piping hot and are often dipped in something cool and refreshing, such as applesauce, or less frequently, sour cream. Congregation Beth Shalom member Barb Haines says she has eaten the traditional food during Hanukkah for as long as she can remember, and continues the tradition with her own family.

Latkes can be spiced up with a tiny bit of grated apple or carrot mixed into the batter, both of which add a hint of sweetness and crunch to the dish. They are usually served crispy on the outside and softer on the inside, but the texture and doneness of the pancakes depends more upon personal preference than tradition.

The jelly doughnuts prepared for Hanukkah are deep-fried and then dusted with confectioner’s sugar for that delicately sweet flavor. They are typically filled with a red jam such as raspberry or strawberry, rather than grape or apricot, and the jam is enveloped in the dough either before frying or carefully piped into the center after cooking.

Some celebrants put their own twist on an Eastern European salad garnished with radishes, turnips, olives and onions, all of which were popular ingredients during the Maccabean period.

Another treat often found in Jewish homes during the holiday is Hanukkah gelt, gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins. Gelt is given to children to remind them to be charitable at all times, especially during the holidays. It is also used in the dreidel game.

Fun & Games

When the Greeks ruled Israel, non-Hellenistic religious practices such as studying the Torah — the Jewish Bible made up of the five books of Moses — were prohibited. In order to carry on with their religious education without attracting attention, Jewish children sometimes read the Torah in secret, pretending to play a game with a spinning top when the guards were near. Children still play a game with a four-sided spinning top called a dreidel in honor of their ancestors who held onto their beliefs even when it was dangerous.

On each side of the dreidel appears a letter from the Hebrew alphabet, which together form an acronym for the Hebrew saying, “Nes gadol hayah sham,” or “A great miracle happened there [in Israel].” The letters nun (נ), gimmel (ג), hey (ה) and shin (ש) also stand for the Yiddish words for “nothing,” “whole,” “half” and “give,” respectively.

To play dreidel, children sit in a circle with a flat surface between them and divide Hanukkah gelt or other treats evenly between them. After deciding who will go first, children spin the dreidel one by one to see which side of the top will land face-up. If it lands on nun, the child has not won or lost any gelt. Landing on shin requires him or her to donate a piece of gelt to the collective “pot” in the middle. Gimmel means the child has won everything in the jackpot; while hey means he or she may take half the pot.

The game continues until the children tire of it and decide they’ve lost enough of their chocolate coins.

Some families also read Hanukkah books or play other games during the holiday, such as scavenger hunts.

Flacks-Narrol says her parents’ hunts were eagerly anticipated throughout the year. They arranged one around the house for all eight Hanukkah mornings.

“We’d wake up in the morning and there’d be a note that said ‘Look under the beds.’ We’d all look under the beds until we found the next note. There were 20 or 30 notes, and my parents would lay in bed listening to us go up and down, up and down the stairs. We just had the most amazing time with it,” she says.

A gift for each child awaited the Flacks children at the end of the scavenger hunt.

“It was often something small,” she says. “The joy of it was more the hunt.”

Many parents give their children a gift on each night of Hanukkah after lighting the candles of the menorah. Others, like the Haines family, give gifts on only one night of the festival.

“We have one night together when we open presents and have dinner,” Haines says. Before the party, they deck the house with Hanukkah regalia, including “a huge collection of musical snow globes that sing Hanukkah songs.”

“Basically, it’s a family celebration,” she says.

Potato Latkes

Makes 12–16 latkes

  • 4 large potatoes (starchy potatoes make the crispiest latkes)
  • 1 medium onion (optional)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon white pepper (black pepper may be substituted)
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • Vegetable oil for frying

Peel and coarsely grate potatoes and onion. Soak in cold water for 1–2 minutes. Transfer to colander and then pat with a kitchen towel to remove excess liquid that can cause the latkes to brown excessively.

In a large bowl, combine egg, salt, pepper and flour. Add grated potato and onions; mix thoroughly.

Heat oil in a deep, heavy skillet until hot but not smoking. Reduce heat to medium. Drop about 2 tablespoons of potato mixture per pancake into the skillet; flatten with spatula or spoon so that each pancake is 2½ to 3 inches in diameter. Take care to stir the potato mixture in the bowl between batches to prevent settling.

Fry latkes for 4–5 minutes per side or until golden brown and crispy, flipping carefully with a spatula. Place fried latkes on paper towels to drain. If latkes lose heat, warm them in the oven at 250 degrees on a wire rack resting in a shallow baking pan.

Serve latkes hot with applesauce, sour cream or sugar.

Variations: Add a bit of grated apple or carrot to the mixture before frying for variety and a hint of subtle sweetness.

Jelly Doughnuts

Makes 3 dozen doughnuts

  • 2 packages active dry yeast (about 1½ tablespoons)
  • 2 cups warm milk
  • 1 cup plus 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • Dash of salt
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup butter, softened
  • ¾ cup jam for filling (raspberry or strawberry)
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Confectioner’s sugar for dusting

Mix the yeast with ½ cup warm milk and two teaspoons sugar. Set aside for 7–10 minutes.

Mix flour, salt and remaining sugar together in a large bowl. Make a well in the center; pour in yeast mixture, then stir until thoroughly incorporated. Cover the bowl with a towel and let stand for 15–20 minutes.

Add the yolks, vanilla and butter. Knead into a soft dough with as much of the remaining milk as needed. Re-cover with the towel and let rise for 2½ hours in a warm, draft-free place.

Roll out dough a half-inch thick. Use a cookie cutter or cut freehand into circles with a 3-inch diameter and allow circles to rise for an hour.

Heat oil that is 3 to 3½ inches deep in a skillet until a candy thermometer registers 360 degrees. Deep-fry dough circles for 1½ to 3 minutes per side until golden brown and puffed. If doughnuts bob in oil, hold them down half-submerged with a slotted spoon to brown evenly. Remove from oil and drain on paper towel.

When cool enough to handle, make a small cut on the side or top of the doughnut and spoon or pipe in one teaspoon of jam.

Sift confectioner’s sugar over the doughnuts and serve warm.

Find Out More

Check out the following Web sites for holiday explanations and more tasty dishes:

  • www.JewishVirtualLibrary.org
  • www.Chabad.org
  • www.Aish.org
  • www.JewishRecipeTrader.com

And if you haven’t tried matzah ball soup before, run — don’t walk — to the nearest computer for a recipe of the delicious entrée.