Categories: Reflections and opinions

Sarah Newman talks about the history and traditions of the Jewish festival of light

Words: Sarah Newman

Chanukah, the Jewish ‘festival of lights’, will be celebrated this year for eight days. It begins on the evening of the 25th of Kislev, the ninth month of the Jewish calendar. While it is not a major Jewish holiday, it is widely celebrated among Jews of all backgrounds.

Chanukah celebrates two miracles. The first miracle is the victory of a small group of Jews known as the Maccabees over the ruling Greeks, who had suppressed their religious practices. After the Maccabees victory, they rededicated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem by lighting its menorah, a seven-branched candelabra. The second miracle is the menorah’s oil, which was intended to last only one day, lasting eight days.

Each night of Chanukah, Jews light the menorah (also called chanukiah). The menorah comprises a row of eight candles, plus one candle placed slightly above the rest known as the shamash, which is used to light the others. First you light the shamash before giving blessings, and continuing to light the number of candles equivalent to the night of the holiday: e.g. if it were the fourth night, you’d light four candles plus the shamash.

Chocolate coins and gifts
There are lots of festivities associated with Chanukah besides lighting the menorah. People often host Chanukah parties for friends and families, where children play a game with a four-sided wooden top called a dreidel, sing holiday songs and gifts are exchanged. Traditionally gelt (money) was given to poor people who couldn’t afford candles. While people still donate money to others, it has become popular to give children gelt in the form of chocolate coins and gifts. 

Oil plays a significant role in the foods eaten during Chanukah. The two main dishes are jelly doughnuts (sufganiyot in Hebrew), and latkes in Yiddish or levivot in Hebrew. Both are cooked in oil, preferably olive.

Traditionally, latkes are made with shredded potatoes, flour and egg. They’re fried, served hot from the skillet and topped with dollops of apple sauce and sour cream. They’re greasy and delicious! Nowadays you can find a wide variety of latke recipes including sweet potato, beetroot, parsnips and toppings such as feta, yoghurt or fried egg.

Read Sarah’s recipe for traditional potato latkes