Happy Hanukkah (or is it Chanukah?)

It’s that time of year again, Folks. Time to take the Menorah off the bookshelf and the electric frying pan out of the closet. It’s Hanukkah!

Or is it Chanukah? I never know which spelling to use. But I do know the story of Hanukkah.

Many years ago, it is said, in the land of Judea, there was an evil Syrian king named Antiochus IV who set out to destroy the Jews and their religion. Some say Antiochus may have been taking advantage of an ongoing struggle between orthodox Jews and their reformed Hellenic counterparts, who were seeking to assimilate into the Greek culture that had come to dominate the land after the time of Alexander the Great. Under Antiochus, Jews were persecuted and brutalized by the Greeks, and their temples taken over by Hellenic priests.

Finally, the Jews, led by a man they named Judah the Macabee (“The Hammer”), rose up against Antiochus, in a war whose inciting event was the killing of a Hellenic Jewish sympathizer by a more traditional Jew. The war lasted 25 years, and ultimately, the Macabees were victorious over Antiochus’ forces.

After one of the decisive final battles of the war, the Macabees returned to Jerusalem and set about to rededicate their temple. The Macabees built a new candlabra (menorah) and lit it. While there was only a day’s worth of holy oil for it, the lamp stayed lit for a full 8 days until a new supply of oil could be gotten. And that is the miracle of Hanukkah.

Today, Jews, Orthodox and reformed alike, celebrate Hanukah by lighting the menorah – one candle each night for 8 nights, each candle lit by the central candle called the Shamash. To remember the miracle of the oil, one eats foods cooked in oil. Hence, the venerable fried potato pancake, or Latke. (Also donuts.)

The Irony of Chanukah

I love Chanukah, probably mostly because I love lighting our Menorah. (We got it the year our oldest daughter was born.) And even more than lighting candles, I love latkes. And getting together with friends and their children for parties.

But it saddens me to think that our family traditions are really based on the outcome of a religious war fought centuries ago between the Greeks and the Jews, possibly even between factions of the Jews themselves. That a bloody war can give us such wonderful family traditions is testimony to what centuries of light, songs and good food can do to eradicate the memory of war and adversity.

Someday perhaps we will have a food we serve to celebrate the time when man stopped waging war against his fellow man in the name of religion. What kind of food would it be, do you think?

It would need to be a food that melds the culinary traditions of all the world’s religions and peoples. A wonderful stew, perhaps, that marries the warmth of the potato with the meat of the sacrificial lamb and wine, along with the olives of Greece and the spices and fruits of Africa and the Middle East, served from a communal bowl and eaten with a flat, soft unleavened bread. We would invite our friends from every religion we knew to share it with us, sitting around a table lit by candles, perhaps on a cold night near the winter solstice. The more different religions represented at our table, the more we would all be blessed.

I can only hope to see that meal, and that world, in my lifetime.

Until then, at least there will be Latkes. (Here’s our recipe.)

11 Responses to Happy Hanukkah (or is it Chanukah?)

    • Hmmmm .so many great holiday rcpiees. One I just finished making the other day is going into rotation from now on, it takes wonderful, the presentation is so pretty that it is great for guests and the leftovers, if any, taste even better the 2nd day:Flank Steak Roulade:Ingredients2 red bell peppers, stemmed, halved lengthwise and seeded3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil1 leek, white and light-green parts only, finely chopped2 cloves garlic, minced1 cup chopped fresh parsleyKosher salt and freshly ground pepper1 2 1/4-to-2 1/2-pound flank steak, trimmed1/2 pound sliced provolone cheese (about 8 slices)For the Crust:3/4 cup breadcrumbs3 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley3 tablespoons drained horseradish3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushingKosher salt and freshly ground pepperPrepare the stuffing for the steak: Preheat the broiler and place the peppers cut-side down on a foil-lined broiler pan. Broil until the skin is charred, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl, cover with a plate and set aside until cool enough to handle. Peel the peppers with your fingers or a paring knife. If necessary, lightly rinse to remove any remaining skin and pat dry.Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the leek and garlic and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the parsley and season with salt and pepper. Let cool.Gently pound the steak with the flat side of a mallet or heavy skillet until 1/4 inch thick. Lay out on a cutting board with the long side facing you and season with salt and pepper. Place the roasted peppers evenly over the meat, leaving a 1-inch border all around. Top with the cheese slices, then the leek mixture. Roll the meat away from you into a tight cylinder, tucking in the filling as you roll.Make the crust: Mix the breadcrumbs, rosemary, parsley, horseradish, olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste in a medium bowl until moistened. Brush the steak roll with a bit of olive oil and press the breadcrumb mixture over the top and sides. Tie the roll with twine in three or four places, making sure it’s not too tight (you want the crust to stay intact).Place the steak roll on a rack in a roasting pan and roast until the crust is golden and a thermometer inserted into the center registers 130 degrees for medium-rare, about 45 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and let rest 15 minutes. Carefully cut off the twine, then slice the roll crosswise into 1-inch pieces.

  1. Ah yes, it’s all about Syrian oil. You know, doughnuts also fulfill the duty to eat eat eat oily foods while lighting a light. Rabbis in the middle ages decreed Krspy Kreme the most heavenly. I have it on good authority. Best to you from the beach on the gulf of mexico, enjoy your snow, you Manhattan Blog.

  2. Happy Holidays, whatever you call it. If you don’t mind giving your mailing address to a stranger that you only know on the internet, will you send it to me at kalynskitchen AT comcast DOT net. I want to send you something.

  3. My kids are awesomely lucky…even though I’m now an agnostic, I was raised Christian, and I still do all of the “regular” Christmas rituals which are still meaningful to me and my family. My husband (my children’s much-loved stepfather), was raised as an Orthodox Jew (he’s no longer observant but still very much culturally Jewish), so now we do Hanukkah as well (yes, I don’t know how to spell it either).

    We live in a pretty non-Jewish part of Ontario (which was a huge shock to my Manhattan raised husband), so the first year that he lived up here his mother sent us a lovely menorah with gorgeous candles…which was great until we realized that it was electric, and had tiny bulbs that you just tighten a bit to light the lights. We all (including my mother in law) kind of made fun of it a bit (what’s the point of an electric menorah to celebrate the Festival of Lights), until we realized that inadvertently she’d given us the perfect gift. My kids are all autistic, and having lit candles around for 8 days would have only resulted in our having a burnt-out house for one week every year.

    Now my husband proudly (and very lovingly) says the prayer every night as he turns the “light” on, while one of my autistic daughters screams with laughter in the background because to her ears, Hebrew is the most delightful sounding language on earth. Many nights during Hanukkah we have friends who bring their children by just to see the light turned on, to hear the story, and to experience something different than they are used to in their own seasonal celebration. I think that in the four Hanukkah seasons that we’ve been blessed to have my husband here, we’ve had families and friends from almost every religion (or none at all) come to take part in that short but very, very special ceremony every night. I don’t know whether it’s a part of the ritual or not, but after the light is lit, we all hug and kiss each other and say Happy Hanukkah!

    I think that most religious traditions are built on a legacy of blood and pain- I can’t think of too many that aren’t. It seems to me that what is important now is that we look at them now as not only a time of sad remembrance and celebration of survival, but as a time when hopefully we can find a way to make family and religious traditions applicable not only to our family, but to the people around them. A festival of lights (in our Canadian winter) is never a bad thing.

    And speaking as a shiksa, latkes totally kick ass. It always pains my husband when I (and all of our non-Jewish friends) swear to GOD that we would have tried to convert years ago if we’d known about latkes earlier. You’d be amazed at the number of elementary school kids there are in Guelph, Ontario now running around telling their friends about the wonders of latkes.

    Gefilte fish seem to be more of an acquired taste 🙂

    I hope that you have a wonderful holiday season.

  4. Jen – Thank you so much for sharing this with us, your post brightened up a very busy morning for me.

    Andy – Missing you giys this season..Happy, happy to all.

    Merry Christmas and can’t wiat to learn how to make those grape leaves.

    Kalyn – thanks! Happy holidays!

    RL- Hope yours is happy and healthy.

  5. Joyeux Noel from up north. This might be my favorite of your posts. What a lovely idea, a food tradition steeped in love and friendship!

  6. Happy Holidays!

    I can’t much think of a holiday that isn’t built as a memorial to blood and tears (or, if it’s not, it should be to some extent, eg Thanksgiving).

    Hope yours are wonderful 🙂

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