“Anything with oil.”
That’s how Rabbi Matt Cutler responded when asked what foods his family and congregation enjoy during Hanukkah. “Donuts, latkes—fried foods.” It all hearkens back to the story of Hanukkah we’ve all come to know, he said, before explaining that the holiday itself is a minor one in the Jewish faith.
“There was a war, and the Maccabees defeated the Assyrian army. The temple, which was the center of Jewish life there had been under siege, and when the Maccabees finally recaptured it, there was only one vial of oil left to light the temple.”
They lit the oil anyway and according to the folklore, it lasted eight days. “The miracle is that that little bit of oil lasted much longer than it should have,” he said.
To honor that miracle, Rabbi Cutler said it’s now traditional to enjoy foods prepared with oil.
This includes Israeli donuts known as sufganiyah which are usually jelly-filled and dusted with powdered sugar, but can also be filled with custard or caramel. Rabbi Cutler likes to tell the tale of what happened when Dunkin’ Donuts opened locations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem a few decades ago.
“It was one of the most successful franchises in Dunkin’ Donuts history,” he said. “It was such a novelty in the ’80s, people would flock from everywhere to buy them.”
But you can’t forget about the other starchier Hanukkah staple—the latke, or potato pancake.
“If you want to create quite the controversy, ask whether someone takes their latkes with sour cream or apple sauce,” he said. Tangy or sweet is a constant debate which polarizes most families. Disclaimer: The Cutlers enjoy the sweeter variety when dining at home, but he’s quick to mention that he likes them both ways.
As far as the significance, Rabbi Cutler points to another great piece of folklore: “I don’t know if there’s any historical truth to it at all, but I love it.”
According to what he’s heard, the reason why potato pancakes became popular is that Jews in Eastern Europe were very poor, and wouldn’t let anything go to waste.
“The story goes that they would take the potato, put holes in it and a small wick and make a menorah out of it,” he said. Then once it went out, they chopped it up and fried it. Practical and delicious.
These days, Rabbi Cutler relies on Mona Golub, a member of his congregation at Congregation Gates of Heaven, to do the prep work. “We’ve been using Mona’s batter for the last couple of years,” he said. “She hand-grates hundreds of potatoes, and then sells the batter at our synagogue as a fundraiser. She is literally the latke lady of our community.”
“She’ll fill up the Congregation refrigerator and we’ll tell people to come on over and grab it before it’s gone.”
Lucky for him he gets to call first dibs.