Hallmark movies, Santas on commercials, gift and cookie exchanges, and just about everything around us make it impossible to miss the arrival of Christmas. And most of us have been given some basic education of what the occasion is all about. But also for many of us, Hanukkah and its traditions are rather mysterious. We know that it's a Jewish holiday, Festival of Lights, and that there are customs and special occasion foods associated with it, but maybe not much else.
Amy Rosen, food writer, author of multiple cookbooks (most recently of Kosher Style) and mastermind behind Rosen's Cinnamon Buns is changing all that with her personal stories and fresh approach to Jewish cuisine. For Rosen and her family, Hanukkah is a time for bagel brunch, with homemade lox, veggie-laced cream cheese, and of course, latkes. We spoke with Rosen to learn more about the holiday, its significance, and its customs.
What is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah happens in December, usually close to Christmas, and it commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem, where in ancient times, Jews rose up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt. The temple was destroyed and had to be repaired in time for the Sabbath, yet there was only a small amount of oil to keep the lanterns burning—enough to last just one night. The miracle of Hanukkah—the Festival of Lights—is that the oil burned for eight days, which is why we eat things fried in oil during Hanukkah, like jelly-filled donuts and the holiday’s signature dish, potato latkes.
What is a Menorah?
It’s an eight-armed candelabrum that holds little colourful candles that are lit each night. On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, another candle is added to signify the eight days of the holiday, during which we sing prayers and songs, such as “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel”. We also nibble on treats such as rugelach.
What is a dreidel and how do you play?
It’s a little top that you spin while betting chocolate money. On each side of the dreidel is a Hebrew letter that signifies, a Great Miracle Happened There, the miracle being the oil that lasted for eight nights. Hanukkah isn’t the blowout holiday that Christmas is. We exchange small gifts and gather to nosh on sweets like chocolate babka. In terms of Jewish holidays, Hanukkah ranks low in importance but high on fun and food and togetherness.
I hear a lot about Jewish Christmas. What is that?
It’s a bit of a joke, based on reality.
Basically, during modern times, Jews would find themselves with no one to play with and nowhere to go during Christmas Eve and Christmas, as the world around them shut down. That is, the world around them except for Chinese restaurants and movie theatres! And so it is that Jews gather around lazy Susans full of one of their favourite cuisines—Chinese food—to eat and laugh before heading off to the latest holiday release. It’s a unique bond between Jewish people and Chinese food.
Whatever holiday you’re enjoying during the break, be it Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa or Festivus, eat well and be merry!