In the weeks leading up to Hanukkah, young families dust off an heirloom menorah or proudly display a newly minted, often misshapen, preschool edition of the Hanukkiah. Aside from crafting a candleholder or finding a new book about the old story of the Maccabees, most local Jewish families turn to food to mark the holidays.
In that spirit, Los Altos Chabad has scheduled a family doughnut-making party 3-4:30 p.m. Sunday in Mountain View. Part of the Kids in the Kitchen series, the local Chabad center created the $10 classes (more information and registration at jewishlosaltos.com) to celebrate the foodways of holidays like Rosh Hashanah as well as more generic Jewish traditions, such as challah baking, according to Ezzy Schusterman, rabbi of Los Altos Chabad.
“There’s the famous line, ‘They fought against us, we won, let’s eat,’” he said of remembering history through cooking. “Pretty much every Jewish holiday has some kind of food, aside from Yom Kippur, and Yom Kippur has the break fast afterward.”
There is no specific custom or law around eating foods with oil at Hanukkah, but the informal traditions of celebratory food help a holiday feel engaging, particularly for young partici-pants, Schusterman said. Just as a Jewish family asks a ritual series of questions to their youngest members at Passover, they might tell the story of why fried foods make sense at Hanukkah.
“The whole idea is the miracle of the oil, and remembering the miracle of the oil through the latkes,” Schusterman said. “My guess is that it began with the latkes and then spilled out into doughnuts and anything oily and fried and tasty.”
If you are ready to branch out from potatoes but intimidated, Schusterman says: Don’t be.
“I happen to think that doughnuts are much easier to make than latkes,” he said. “Dough-nuts are as simple as, you make a dough and you heat up the oil.”
A month in waiting
The Hanukkah holiday, which is set by the Hebrew lunisolar calendar, can fall anytime from late November to late December. This year it begins Dec. 22, meaning Jewish families have many weeks of “holiday” saturation in American society before their own officially begins. A young family looking to build traditions for the ramp-up to Hanukkah doesn’t have an elaborate set of ecclesiastical materials akin to those of Advent in the Christian tradition. Schusterman said this period of comparatively simpler preparation can be a time to tell stories and build awareness.
“I have five children and we always talk about the holidays in the weeks coming up to it,” he said. “Reading stories about Hanukkah – what this holiday is all about, as it gets closer – doing activities that are preparing, but they’re not actually celebrating until it begins. If you make a menorah together, you can say, ‘In a week, we’ll look forward to actually lighting the menorah.’”
A menorah of one’s own
Making one’s first menorah is a crafting coming-of-age for young Jewish children, and though basic principles exist – nine candles, try to make eight of them all of one height in a line – beyond that, all aesthetic bets are off. The only requirement is endurance, night after night, of a light that grows rather than diminishing.
“Some people put them in the window, some in the doorway. For me, it was always one of those things – as a kid you’re driving down the street and everyone has their Christmas lights and there isn’t much Hanukkah stuff,” Schusterman said. “You put the light in the window so others can say, ‘Oh wow, they’re celebrating Hanukkah.’ So we can all be proud of who we are.”
Children in his family grew up receiving Hanukkah gelt – money – instead of gifts, which can then be used to buy something treasured or to perform a tzedakah, giving to an organization or person who can benefit from it. Shifting gifting to that approach, Schusterman said, allows a family “to teach that it shouldn’t all be taking, it should also be giving involved.”
In the story of Hanukkah, a community of Jews who had been forbidden to practice their religious traditions find freedom and, in the ruins of a temple, a trace of oil that sustains their ritual for a miraculous eight days.
“Finding the small jug of oil for me is the concept, additionally, that sometimes we have to dig deep; the oil wasn’t readily available and they had to search and find,” Schusterman said.
Want to keep the conversation going within your family? Linden Tree Books at 265 State St. in downtown Los Altos has put together a Hanukkah book display with a substantial culinary angle, including “The 100 Most Jewish Foods” by Alana Newhouse (Artisan, 2019), “Meet the Latkes” by Alan Silberberg (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2018), “The Little Book of Jewish Sweets” by Leah Koenig (Chronicle Books, 2019) and “Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas” by Pamela Ehrenberg (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017).