You have to love a holiday whose customs actually encourage you to enjoy oily, gooey foods. And when that holiday lasts not one day, but eight, that means eight times the pleasure.
Hanukkah, the festival of lights, begins Wednesday, Dec. 5 – technically, all Jewish holidays get under way at sunset the night before, so make that this Tuesday night – and runs through nightfall Dec. 12.
The dates are fixed in the lunar Jewish calendar, with Hanukkah always starting on the 25th day of the month of Kislev. That places Hanukkah’s week-plus anywhere from late November to early January, but a solidly December holiday, as happens this year, is the usual case.
The celebration grew out of the victory by the Jewish Maccabean army over Greek occupiers in 165 B.C. A subsequent rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem became necessary following its desecration by the invaders. Only a day’s worth of clean oil was available to light the temple candelabra, the menorah, for the consecration, but, miraculously, it burned for eight days.
“For that reason, it is the custom to eat things fried in oil this time of year,” says Ofelia Taitelbaum, National Liberation Party (PLN) legislator from San José.
“This is not Passover,” Rabbi Hersch Spalter of the west-side Chabad Lubavitch congregation explains, differentiating Hanukkah from the well-known springtime celebration and its many dietary restrictions enshrined in Jewish law.
The foods eaten this time of year have grown out of custom to commemorate the miracle of the oil rather than any commandments, Spalter says.
“These probably don’t sound too healthy in this day and age,” he says with a smile.
At one time, it was possible to identify a family’s Hanukkah foods strictly by their country of origin, says Baruch Schechter of the west-side Kosher Center Deli and Grill.
Costa Rica’s original Jewish community had its roots in Eastern Europe nearly a century ago, he explains. Newer additions from elsewhere in Europe, North America and most recently from Colombia and Venezuela have added to the blend of customs seen here.
“The traditions are all mixed together now,” says Schechter, a native of Israel.
Number one on the list of Hanukkah treats are the traditional jelly doughnuts known by their Hebrew name sufganiyot –that’s pronounced soof-gah-nee-YOHT – a variation on the word for “sponge.”
Strawberry jelly is the traditional filling in Israel, says Pnina Aharoni of the Pita Rica deli in the western suburb of Escazú. The contents are injected after the balls of dough are fried.
“These days, we use chocolate, cream and peanut butter, too,” Aharoni, also from Israel, says.“Many things work as a filling.”
That filling was always an issue for Israeli Ambassador to Costa Rica Ehud Eitam.
“I couldn’t stand jam when I was young,” Eitam explains. “My mother had to make special sufganiyot without it just for me.”
(Eitam says his mother also had to leave the raisins out of the batter of the crepe-like blintzes she made for him as a child.)
For that reason, the ambassador has always been partial to latkes, traditional potato pancakes, also fried in oil, and Hanukkah’s other signature food, frequently served with applesauce.
“Hanukkah falls during winter in Israel,” he remembers. “Latkes are hot, and we’d stand around the kitchen eating them fresh out of the frying pan.”
As a university student, Eitam would fry the pancakes for friends in his dormitory as Hanukkah approached, taking care to use two different gratings of potatoes, thin and coarse, which could be molded together.
“Latkes have a lot of good memories for me,” Eitam says. “They give me a warm feeling.”
“Probably a lot of cholesterol, too,” he says, laughing.
Check out Pita Rica (Plaza Los Laureles, Escazú, 228-9775) and KosherCenter (diagonal from La Artística, in the western district of Pavas, 232-2991) for all manner of goodies for Hanukkah celebrations.
Light the Menorah
Jewish households around the world and here in Costa Rica will light the eight-candled menorah, the holiday’s most recognizable symbol, to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah.
The country’s largest menorah stands at the entrance to western San José’s La Sabana Park (Calle 42, Paseo Colón), behind the statue of former President León Cortés, courtesy of the Chabad Lubavitch congregation, and will be lit each night of Hanukkah. Sunday’s program sees the largest attendance.
Menorah lightings will take place Dec. 4-6 at 6 p.m., Dec. 7 at 4:15 p.m., Dec. 8 at 6:30 p.m., Dec. 9 at 5:30 p.m. (with a family program at 4:30 p.m.) and Dec. 10-11 at 6 p.m.