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December 9, 2009 > Hanukkah is the festival of lights

Hanukkah is the festival of lights

By Miriam G. Mazliach
Photos By Miriam G. Mazliach

The delicious aroma of crispy potato latkes (pancakes) and fried sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) wafts through the air in most Jewish homes at this time of year. After all, it's Hanukkah (also spelled as Chanukah), the Festival of Lights and children and grown-ups alike clamor for these tasty treats.

This year, the first night of Hanukkah begins on the evening of Friday, December 11 with the last candle being lit on Friday, December 18.

But of greater significance than the tempting holiday foods and fun activities, Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. More than two thousand years ago, against all odds, a small band of Jews led by Judah Maccabee, defeated the mighty Greek army and reclaimed the temple and their land.

The temple was in complete disarray with many items destroyed or broken. In the process of re-lighting the great menorah (candelabrum), it was discovered that there was only enough uncontaminated oil to burn for one night. The Maccabees would need at least eight days to prepare the new oil according to religious specifications.

Amazingly, the oil in the menorah kept burning for eight nights until the new oil was ready. This miracle of the oil and faith is what this festive observance recognizes.

"Chanukah commemorates the first time in human history that people struggled for the right of religious expression," says Rabbi Avi Schulman of Temple Beth Torah. "The Maccabees fought for the freedom to believe and live as they pleased without bowing to the tyranny of the majority culture. Freedom of expression is fragile, even when enshrined in legal documents, a lesson all people should remember," adds Schulman.

In most homes, the holiday is celebrated by lighting candles on a special candelabrum, called a Hanukkiah, containing eight candleholders plus a ninth for the shamash, to light the others. A candle is lit each evening of the eight nights, in remembrance of the miracle that occurred so long ago.

For entertainment, children, parents, family and friends gather to play dreidel, a game with a four-sided spinning top. Inscribed on each side are the Hebrew letters, 'nun,' 'gimmel,' 'heh' and 'shin,' the acronym for the complete phrase, "A great miracle happened there." Usually pennies or candies are put in the center pot to play. When the top is spun, the letter landed on determines if someone wins nothing, half, all, or has to add to the pot.

Traditionally children are given small amounts of "gelt" (money) or sometimes a gift during Hanukkah. Adults are usually not recipients, although nowadays anything goes. As part of the enjoyment of the holiday meal, many fried foods, such as potato latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) are eaten, to commemorate the miracle of the oil. So much for diets!

Celebrate the human spirit, light your Hanukkiah and participate in the Festival of Lights!

Local Hanukkah observances:

Friday, December 11
6 p.m. Potluck Dinner
(Dairy food items only. Non-meat.). Bring a dairy dish to share as follows:
Last names A - F: Bring a salad or vegetable dish; G - R: Main dairy dish; S - Z: challah or beverages/juices. All are welcome.
7 p.m. Holiday Service with Religious school students and junior choir
Temple Beth Torah
42000 Paseo Padre Pkwy., Fremont
(510) 656-7141
Everyone is encouraged to bring their Hanukkiahs to light together during the service.
Also, please bring a new or gently used unwrapped toy for donation to Children, Family and Community Services (Head Start of So. Alameda County.)

Friday, December 11
6 p.m. Giant Hanukkiah lit on rooftop and throughout the week
6:30 p.m. Holiday Service: "Color Me in Prayer"
Dinner to follow service: $10 adults/$5 children over age of 3
Temple Beth Shalom
642 Dolores Avenue, San Leandro
RSVP for dinner: (510) 357-8505

This is an excellent Hanukkah recipe adapted from Joan Nathan's book, "The Jewish Holiday Baker."

'Sufganiyot' (Jelly Doughnuts) Recipe:
(Dough must rise overnight. Makes approximately 24 doughnuts)

1 (1 Tablespoon) package dry yeast
4 Tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup warm water or lukewarm milk
2 -1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 pinch salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or ground cinnamon
2 eggs, separated, to use yolks
2 Tablespoons margarine or butter, softened
1/2 cup apricot, strawberry or raspberry preserves
sugar for dipping
vegetable oil, for deep-frying


Sprinkle the yeast and 2 tablespoons of the sugar into the water or milk and stir to dissolve.

Place the flour on a work surface and make a well in the center. Add the yeast mixture, egg yolks, salt, cinnamon, and the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Knead well, about 5 minutes, working the butter or margarine into the dough and kneading until the dough is elastic. (You can also use a food processor fitted with the steel blade to do this, processing about 2 minutes.)

Put the dough in a greased bowl, cover with plastic, and let it rise overnight in the refrigerator.

Sprinkle flour on the work surface. Roll out the dough to a 1/8-inch thickness. Using a 2-inch cookie cutter or floured drinking glass, cut out circles. Let the dough circles rise 15 minutes or more.

With your hands, gently form the dough circles into balls.

Pour 2-inches of oil into a heavy pot and heat until very hot, about 375 degrees.

Slip the doughnuts into the oil, 4 or 5 at a time, using a slotted spoon. Turn them when brown, after a few minutes, to crisp on the other side. Drain on paper towels.

Using a pastry bag, an injector or a sharp stick, inject a teaspoon of jam into each doughnut. Then roll all of them in granulated sugar and serve immediately.

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