Setting the Hanukkah Table

Brisket and potato latkes with chive sour cream and apple sauce, a traditional Hanukkah meal. Gavin Menu photo
Brisket and potato latkes with chive sour cream and apple sauce, a traditional Hanukkah meal. Gavin Menu photo

By Michelle Trauring

In all the joyful memories Rabbi Daniel Geffen has had of Hanukkah — lighting the menorah with his family, racking up chocolate gelt as he spun the dreidel, and ripping into countless presents — not one of them involves a festive meal.

The explanation is simple: There’s no such thing.

“I can’t tell you a single time where I remember sitting down to a formal Hanukkah meal,” he said during a telephone interview from his office at Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor. “That’s kind of unusual because, in Judaism, having a festive meal on a holiday is actually not just something that you do, it’s an expectation.

“Hanukkah bucks that trend,” he continued. “But the one unifying fact between all Hanukkah-related edible items is the idea of frying them in oil — specifically, olive oil — because that’s the one connection to the story of Hanukkah itself.”

As the tale goes, in the year 168 BC, the Greek tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes sent his soldiers into Jerusalem, where they desecrated the temple and abolished Judaism, forbidding observance in any way, at the cost of death.

The Lerman family children and their menorah.

A resistance movement formed, lead by Judah Maccabee, and against all odds, they defeated the enemy, reclaiming the temple by immediately relighting the ner tamid, or eternal light.

But they only had enough oil for one day, according to Rabbi Berel Lerman of Chabad North Haven.

“It would take eight days before they could travel to Modine, where they would usually press the oil and replenish their supply, and come back,” he said. “The miracle of Hanukkah was that the one jug kindled for eight nights.”

Because of that, Jews around the world celebrate Hanukkah by lighting one candle the first night, and another every subsequent night, until the whole menorah is aglow.

“In terms of Hanukkah, the meal is not the focus at all,” Geffen said. “Our focus is much more on the candles themselves, on the light, on the symbolism of the holiday and, ultimately, trying to find ways to remember this holiday as time goes on — and that, in the case of most world traditions, food plays an important role in that.”

The oil itself — symbolizing light over darkness, good over evil, and justice over injustice, according to Lerman — is the common denominator of traditional Hanukkah foods, from latkes, or potato pancakes, to sufganiyot, which are jelly doughnuts, both of which are fried in olive oil.

“Not the greatest for those on a diet, but once in a while, on a holiday, you’re allowed to have a little nosh,” Lerman said. “These holiday foods, the calories don’t count. So even those on a diet, I give them the poetic license to indulge in all these oily foods and I’m sure once they step on the scale after the holidays, they will see absolutely no difference.”

With that in mind, both rabbis already have their sights set on the latkes in their near future. Lerman prefers potato pancakes as plain as they come, while Geffen is an “onion guy, for sure” — and always picks sour cream over applesauce.

“I will tell you, it’s a bone of very serious contention between people, on personal levels, who make latkes,” he said. “Some insist that they have to have onions, some say not, some say sweet potatoes, some say regular potatoes, olive oil, not olive oil. You know, we’re Jews, so we have 10 answers to everything.”

Geffen steers clear of that debate altogether, he said, leaving the kitchen — and the kvetching — to the pros.

“I cannot even tell you if I can remember myself ever making a latke. And I would never even attempt to make a jelly doughnut, because why would anybody attempt to make a jelly doughnut?” Geffen deadpanned. “They can go buy a wonderful jelly doughnut somewhere, I’m sure. The reality is that I rely on other people who are more epicurious than I am and come up with more interesting stuff.”

Curiously, he had perfectly described Rabbi Josh Franklin, who used what he calls “Thanksgivukkah” — when Thanksgiving and Hanukkah fell on the same day four years ago — to get creative in the kitchen.

“Thanksgivukkah created a lot of culinary interest in, how do you merge the two holidays together because every Jewish holiday is centered around food,” the Jewish Center of the Hamptons rabbi said. “The big joke is, ‘They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.’ Hanukkah is no different.”

Though the phenomenon will not be repeated until year 79811, that hasn’t deterred Franklin from repeating what became an immediate family tradition: pumpkin sufganiyot filled with either cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie.

“It tastes like a bite of the best of Thanksgiving as a dessert — the cranberry sauce and the sweetness and the pumpkin flavors, but then at the same time, the soft breadiness of a fresh doughnut,” he said. “There’s really nothing quite like a cranberry sauce-filled pumpkin doughnut.”

While there are clearly exceptions, Geffen said that Hanukkah is a time to adhere to the basics when it comes to food, cooking the same tasty treats passed down for generations.

“You make the things that are comfort foods, you make the things that are going to remind you of your family’s existence and you’re not going to look at it as an opportunity to try new things and to experiment in wild ways,” he said. “Having said that, I’m sure there are lots of people who do the exact opposite of what I said and say, ‘Boy, let’s take this latke, slap some caviar on it and turn it into a blini.’

“If you asked someone in Israel, they would probably tell you — as in most cases with things in Israel these days — that they’re taking all the traditional stuff and exploding it in all sorts of interesting directions and trying to do new things from old concepts,” the rabbi continued. “That’s very much Judaism in a nutshell. We stick very close to tradition, but we’re not afraid to take traditional ideas and make them contemporary.”

Hanukkah Around the World

As delicious as latkes and sufganiyot can be, they are just a small part of Hanukkah’s food traditions on a world stage.

“We live in a world now where we expect everything is available at all times everywhere, but, obviously, not so long ago, that was certainly not the case, so you worked with what you ultimately had,” said Rabbi Daniel Geffen. “The one thing that ties everything together is frying things in oil. It’s a wonderful story of the history of the Jewish people to a large degree, and our experience living around the world is that we have these ties that bind — in this case, the oil and the story of Hanukkah itself — but that we ultimately adapted to wherever it is that we lived.”


Location: Morocco

A bit different than Eastern European sufganiyot, the North African yeast doughnut is similar to other ring-shaped doughnuts, but with a crispier outside and airier inside. During Hanukkah, Moroccan Jews serve them drizzled with simple syrup, or dipped in sugar.

Kibbet Yatkeen

Location: Syria

This twist on potato pancakes mixes bulgur and mashed cooked pumpkin with cumin, coriander and other spices before they’re fried like a traditional latke.

Frittelle de Riso Per Hanukkah

Location: Italy

Famously exceptional fryers, Italians use Hanukkah as an excuse to serve their frittelle de riso, or rice fritters, during the winter. To make the batter, mix cooked rice, eggs, raisins, pine nuts and lemon zest before dropping it in a tablespoon of olive oil. Sprinkle with sugar, and you have yourself a decadent treat — crunchy on the outside, and custardy within.

Bimuelos and Keftes de Prasa

Location: Sephardic countries, such as Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey

Imagine a doughnut hole gone haywire, and that is a bimuelo. It can refer to any number of small fried doughnuts, pancakes or fritters, and is a sweet Sephardic Hanukkah treat.

For a savory flavor, try keftes de prasa, or Sephardic leek fritters, which are traditionally served on Rosh Hashana and Passover, but have a place at the table during Hanukkah, as well.