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Berger’s Burg: Hanukkah food contains deep, historical symbolism

The Jewish holiday of dedication, Hanukkah, is second only to Passover among American Jews. The eight-day holiday began Dec. 1 at sundown and will end on the eve of Dec. 8. Frenzied and delirious observers of the holiday are craving to consume the many luscious comestibles to be served in abundance.

As most Jews know, stuffing oneself has become a major pastime on Hanukkah, and many people are stomach-ready to seize these edible moments in earnest. Just yesterday I saw my neighbor, Morris, training for this grand event by feverishly performing sit-ups and girding his loins in anticipation of ingesting the plethora of foods, which will carry him for eight days beyond the final day of Hanukkah.

On the stoves of Jewish kitchens, the appetizing odor of crispy potato pancakes — latkes — sputtering in skillets, will waft through every room in the house. At the same time, the mouth-watering aroma of the pot roast, baking in the oven, awaits its turn to food-appreciative noses within sniffing distance.

(Gloria is anxious to share a popular, finger-lickin’ good, latke recipe for all who want a taste of a savory, Jewish potato pancake. So, go out and purchase the following ingredients: 1 pound Russet potatoes (peeled), 3/4 cup finely chopped onions, 2 1/4 cups canned drained garbanzo beans, 3 cloves garlic, 1 1/2 ground cumin, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 3 tablespoons matzoh meal, 3 small beaten eggs and frying olive oil.

(Cook potatoes in boiling, salted water until tender. Drain and refrigerate until cold. Mash potatoes coarsely into a bowl. Mix in onions. Next, in food processor blend garbanzo beans, garlic, cumin, salt, pepper, and baking powder until almost smooth. Stir into potato mixture. Mix in the matzoh meal and eggs. Shape 3 tablespoons of mixture into a ball and flatten into a 1/2-inch thick patty to form each latke. Repeat to make 24 latkes.

(Preheat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Fry latkes in batches, adding more oil as necessary, until each latke is browned and crust is crisp on each side, Drain on paper towels and keep warm).

Historically, eating fried foods, cheese-laced dishes and cheese-filled pastries has become a tradition during the annual celebration. You do not have to be Jewish to enjoy the above, hot, crisp potato pancakes topped with homemade applesauce and sour cream. And you do not have to be Jewish to dine on a warm, plump doughnut filled with jam and topped with powdered sugar or to serve delicate crepes — blintzes — filled with sweetened, creamed farmer’s cheese and fried in butter. In addition, I must not forget my main-meal favorites: beef brisket or chicken, followed by the jelly doughnut called “sufganiyot.”

But you might have to be Jewish to have a grasp of the deep, mystical symbolism of these indulgent treats. The prominent ingredient in latkes is not actually the potatoes, but the oil. And the important ingredient in the blintzes is not really the butter, but the cheese. Why? Let me explain:

• Oil: After years of Greek tyranny, around 165 B.C., a small band of men, led by the five Maccabee brothers, defied the Greek authorities. With the help of other freedom fighters, they managed not only to overcome domination, but also win back their sacred temple. But only a small vial of oil needed to light the menorah — candelabra — was found. Miraculously, it burned for eight days until a fresh supply was procured.

• Cheese: Despotic Greek Gen. Holofernes was depriving the Jews of necessary water. A courageous and beautiful heroine, Judith, had finagled an invite to a private dinner with the general. She then plied him with salty cheese washed down by great quantities of wine to slake his thirst. When he fell into a drunken stupor, she borrowed his sword and cut his head off. When his soldiers found Holofernes’ body, they fled in panic. The Jews were saved.

That First Festival of Lights commemoration rededicated the faith and survival of the Jewish people and their temple and it has been celebrated every year since.

Gloria and I would like to wish all my Jewish and would-be Jewish readers who partake in the Hanukkah feasting a stomach-fulfilling, acid-free, eight days of gluttony along with a bright and joyous Hanukkah.

Can’t wait for Christmas goodies.

Contact Alex Berger at timesledgernews@cnglocal.com.

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