While Hanukkah is an important religious celebration that symbolizes historic events, it’s not considered one of the high holidays on the Jewish calendar like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. Still, Hanukkah is a meaningful celebration for Jewish families, made notable by specific traditions that differentiate it from other yuletide customs and create a meaningful celebration for Jewish families.
This year we consulted Jessica, a Rosetta Stone tutor who teachers English and also speaks French, Hebrew, and Italian. As an Orthodox Jew, Jessica holds a special place in her heart for Hanukkah (and the accompanying latkes and doughnuts). She shared some insights into these traditional Jewish foods that’ll give readers a taste of the holiday that symbolizes bringing hope for a more tolerant world.
What words do I need to know for Hanukkah celebrations?
If you don’t speak Hebrew or you’re feeling rusty, these Hanukkah specific phrases will help you pick up right where you left off:
- Maccabee (מכבי)= Maccabee
- Chinuch (חינוך) = education
- Shamash (שמש) = helper
- Nes gadol hayah sham (נס גדול היה שם = ): a great miracle happened there
- Mitzvah (מִצְוָה) = Commandment
- Chag sameach (חַג שָׂמֵחַ) = Happy holiday
Another symbol of Hanukkah that has been popularized besides the menorah is the dreidel, a traditional Jewish game that involves spinning a four-sided top inscribed with Hebrew letters. The letters are Nun, Gimel, Hey, and Shin. These are intended to be an acronym for the Hebrew holiday saying Nes Gadol Hayah Sham or “a great miracle happened there.”
Jessica says you’re likely to hear lots of singing around the table and traditional songs or blessings for the holiday. One you might hear is freilichen chanukkah, which is happy Hanukkah in Yiddish.
What are some traditional Hanukkah foods?
Many of the traditional foods enjoyed at Hanukkah, including latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) are fried in oil, which symbolizes the miracle of the oil used to light the menorah. Jessica says it’s also customary to eat cheese during Hanukkah to celebrate the ingenuity and bravery of a Jewish heroine.
“The custom of eating cheese is attributed to the actions of Judith, a Jew whose brave actions helped turn the tide of a battle between the Jews and the Seleucids. She seduced Holofernes, a general in the enemy army, and gave him salty cheese to make him thirsty so he would drink a lot of wine. When Holofernes passed out drunk, Judith cut off his head. Before latkes were made out of potatoes they had been commonly made from cheese. Today cheese or dairy in any form is customary.”
What are latkes?
Latkes are traditional potato pancakes and Jessica says if you’ve never made them before at home, take heart. They’re easy to whip up from just a few ingredients you likely already have on hand.
“Latkes are made by simply mixing grated potatoes with eggs and salt, shaping the mixture into patties, and then frying them in olive oil. Some people add onion or matzo meal. It is customary to serve them topped with applesauce or sour cream, to add a dairy element in honor of the story of Judith.”
Just be sure if you’re contributing to a Hanukkah feast that you’ve paid special attention to preparing food and using ingredients that are kosher. Kosher is a set of strict dietary laws specified in the Torah that Jewish communities follow when making food, especially during religious celebrations.
Easy Latkes Recipe
Cooking Time: 30 min
3 to 4 potatoes
1/2 medium yellow onion
2 large eggs
4 Tbsp. matzo meal or plain breadcrumbs
1 tsp. Kosher salt
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 cup olive or canola oil (for frying)
Applesauce and sour cream (for serving)
- Grate 3-4 potatoes and 1/2 medium yellow onion using the shredding disk of a food processor. Create a well in the center.
- Whisk 2 large eggs and pour into the potato/onion mixture. Mix with your fingers, making sure that the potato starch is evenly distributed. Add the 4 Tbsp. matzo meal, 1 tsp. Kosher salt, and 1/8 tsp. black pepper and continue mixing.
- Form into 1-inch thick latkes roughly the size of your palm. Heat vegetable oil over medium heat to 350 degrees. Submerge latkes in vegetable oil for frying, 4-5 minutes per side, until golden brown. Serve with applesauce and sour cream on the side.
What are sufganiyot?
A traditional treat for the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, this jelly doughnut comes with deep cultural and spiritual significance. It’s customary to eat fried foods on Hanukkah, and what makes this recipe different from your run-of-the-mill jelly doughnut is that it’s sandwiched with two circles surrounding a jelly filling as opposed to frying a ball of dough and injecting the filling.
Try your hand at these delectable little donuts in your home kitchen with this easy sufganiyot recipe.
Easy Sufganiyot Recipe
Cooking Time: 40 min
1 cup lukewarm water
1/2 cup of sugar
1 Tbsp. active dry yeast
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
3/4 tsp. Kosher salt
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
2 large egg yolks
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup jam or jelly
- Combine 1 cup lukewarm water to yeast in a small bowl and whisk until foamy. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine 3 cups flour, 1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, 3/4 tsp. Kosher salt, and 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg. Whisk to combine and set aside.
- Returning to the water/yeast mixture, add 2 large egg yolks, 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil, 1 tsp. vanilla extract, and whisk until combined.
- Make a well in your dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients. Use a rubber spatula to fold the dry ingredients from the wall into the well until a shaggy mass forms. Cover with plastic wrap and rest on the countertop until doubled in size (1-2 hours).
- Generously dust a clean countertop and your hands with flour. Roll the dough into a 1/4-inch thick circle, making sure the bottom doesn’t stick. Cut the dough into 2-inch circles. Add 2 tsp. Of jam or jelly in the center of the dough, brush the edge with egg wash and place a second dough circle on top. Crimp the edges by gently patting with your fingers.
- Heat oil for frying to a Dutch oven or heavy pot over medium heat to 350°F. Place dough pieces in the oil and fry until golden brown, about 3 minutes, flipping halfway through frying. Dust the doughnuts generously with confectioners’ sugar.
What is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah, sometimes referred to as the “Festival of Lights,” is an eight-day Jewish celebration that features menorah lighting and specially prepared foods fried in oil. Hanukkah is pronounced in Hebrew with the guttural “kh” sound so its pronunciation more closely resembles kha-nu-kah. It comes from the Hebrew word Chanukah which translates to “dedication.”
The origins of Hanukkah can be traced back to the second century BCE, when the Israelites in the Holy Land were ruled by the Seleucids and forced to accept Greek culture and beliefs. Legend has it that a small group of Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated an army, drove the Greeks from the land, and reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem. Hanukkah marks the celebration of that temple dedication.
The group of Jews led by Judah Maccabee wanted to relight the temple’s menorah, a seven-branched candelabra, but there was only a small pot of olive oil that could be ritually purified left. They lit the menorah with the remaining oil and it stayed alight for eight days, an event often described as a miracle that is symbolized through many of the Hanukkah traditions.
When is Hanukkah?
On the Jewish calendar, Chanukah begins on the eve of Kislev 25 and continues for eight days. Generally, this means Hanukkah celebrations take place in mid-December. Here are some examples:
- December 18 – 26, 2022
- December 7 – 15, 2023
- December 25 – January 2, 2024
- December 4 – 12, 2026
How is Hanukkah celebrated?
One of the traditional customs of Hanukkah is the nightly menorah lighting ceremony. The menorah has nine candles and while one is lit the first night, the others are kindled by the same candle. Each night, another candle is lit and often Jewish families will recite special blessings or melodies. The menorahs are often placed in windows or doorways.
During the Hanukkah season, traditional foods like latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) are enjoyed because they are fried in oil and represent the oil from the Hanukkah story. However, as is true with most holidays, coach Jessica reminds us that every family and community puts their own spin on tradition.
“The practices, traditions, and customs of Jews vary widely. There are subtle nuances in practice that vary from country to country, community to community, and across observance levels. Traditionally, Hanukkah is considered a minor holiday in Judaism, although its proximity to Christmas has made it more popular in the United States.”