Friday night at sundown marks the beginning of the festive Jewish holiday, Hanukkah. Its presence over an eight-day period, this year through Dec. 19, is celebrated joyfully, though somewhat more quietly than Christmas.
“After all, how can a menorah compete with Christmas trees or fat red-suited men driving reindeer? And, when is the last time you heard any Hanukkah songs amid the endless Christmas music blared over shopping mall loudspeakers,” asks Steven Raichlen, writing in “The Hadassah Jewish Holiday Cookbook,” edited by Joan Schwartz Michel (Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., $29.95).
Hanukkah is celebrated to mark the long-ago victory of a small band of Jewish patriots over a Syrian army two centuries before the common era. The Syrians occupied the Holy Land and outlawed the practice of Judaism. The “crowning insult,” he writes, was when the leader, Antiochus IV, converted the great Temple of Jerusalem to the pagan gods of the Greeks.
Angered by the persecution, a Hebrew priest and his five sons took the name Maccabee, meaning “hammer”, and defeated Antiochus.
“Then, the miracle of Hanukkah took place. The small supply of oil (meant to burn only one night) burned for eight straight days,” writes Raichlen.
Hence, as Jews celebrate this miracle, they light candles on a menorah each night of Hanukkah and eat foods cooked in oil. The foods around the world differ. Some make fritters or doughnuts, but in America the treat is potato pancakes served with applesauce and sour cream.
Jews and non-Jews alike look forward to eating latkes this time of year. The recipe for Crispy Traditional Potato Pancakes is pretty straightforward. But, says author Joan Nathan, in “Jewish Cooking in America,” look for lots of “designer” touches to latkes these days — latkes “laced with scallions, zucchini, carrots and apples, and sometimes topped with goat cheese …”
However you want to enjoy them, remember that the oil is of the most symbolic importance.