Chanukah: Pleading Guilty on the Gelt

Source: World Market

Today marks the first night of Chanukah. Or Hanukah if you wish, I myself am not fussy about the spelling or pronunciation. Jews tend to complicate certain words, such as those starting with “CH” by saying them in a hard, guttural sound from the Hebrew or Yiddish translations. “Challah” and “chutzpah” are good examples, with most non-Jews preferring to pronounce them with an “H” sound rather than the crude, throat-clearing (but more authentic) hard “CH” sound.

However you choose to spell or say it, Chanukah is an important holiday. Stripped down to its essence, it commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, its menorah lit with a tiny bit of oil that miraculously lasted eight days after the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian-Greek Empire. And with that miracle, we celebrate this “Festival of Lights” each December by lighting our own menorahs.

We also eat potato latkes. Lots of potato latkes. So many latkes in fact that by the end of Chanukah, everyone is so completely sick of them that they swear them off forever. Until that is by the next visit to a Jewish deli, where in addition to french fries being offered, they also list latkes on the menu. When this happens your brain actually screams, “Hey, they have latkes!!,” even though it’s been perhaps two weeks since Chanukah ended. Jews love latkes.

Moral of the story? Never believe a Jew when she says she doesn’t want latkes. Just order them anyway because she’ll get incredibly excited when they’re brought to the table.

And speaking of latkes, I don’t want to waste too much time on this ridiculous argument waged in certain quarters about what’s more correct to put on top of latkes, sour cream or apple sauce? The answer is simple: Both are correct. But just one per latke, not both at the same time. Anyone who puts sour cream and apple sauce on a latke needs to have his head examined.

Source: Food and Wine

One thing Chanukah isn’t is Christmas. Christmas is a really important holiday to Christians, it being about the birth of baby Jesus and all. It’s basically a celebration of a Jewish battle victory. But because Hallmark, Amazon, Walmart, Target, Apple, et. al., absolutely thrive on making the distinction between the two holidays as narrow as possible, Chanukah is treated as an equal to Christmas in the eyes of retailers everywhere.

Growing up, my family always celebrated with presents on the first night only. My dad ran the shoe department at Sears, and the one cool thing he did in the weeks prior to Chanukah was to pull aside the best looking slippers when they arrived for the holiday season. So for many years my siblings and I received really cool slippers. And we also each got a present or two. These are good memories.

Somewhere along the way, however, and I believe it started at some point in the eighties, a new tradition began where kids celebrated Chanukah with a gift for each day of the holiday. A present every night!! I had never heard of anything like that. Even though it’s now apparently quite common, I still find it to be an aberration and gratuitously over the top. Humbug.

More than the latkes, more than the slippers, or even the spinning dreidels, what I loved most as a kid was the Chanukah gelt. Gelt is symbolic of money that the ancient rabbis approved of as gifts in celebration of the sacred oil miraculously burning for those eight nights. In 1958, the Israeli government issued commemorative coins for use as Chanukah gelt, which also displayed an image of the same menorah of the original Maccabean coins. The gelt we received as kids were chocolate coins but still had that same Maccabean menorah imprinted on it.

I could never get enough gelt. I even stole my sisters’ stash in order to get more. We had no “naughty and nice” provisions to worry about, after all.

Over the years Chanukah gelt has changed a bit. It’s now offered in major grocery stores, sometimes marketed as “Coins of the World” or something similar. Oh, okay, fine. I’m not exactly a purist in my own life, so I won’t quibble with yet another business changing things up for the sake of a profit. But on a recent visit to the Publix grocery store here in Florida, I had to laugh at the sack of gelt they were selling. Only three coins? Are you KIDDING me? I feel really sorry for the kid that gets that one. Save it for the naughty one?

Gorgeous was born in a household which blended rich Armenian, Hungarian, and Catholic traditions. But she’s embraced Chanukah on my behalf and brought out all the regular traditions that I enjoyed as a kid. She even bought me slippers this week. One cannot go wrong with new slippers.

So, tonight is the first lighting of the menorah, and there will be latkes made from scratch. There will also be the ceremonial Chanukah martini consumed after the menorah prayers are chanted. If they can come up with new traditions such as a present every night, I can make up my own too.

Happy Chanukah but please keep your mitts off my gelt.

And to everyone later this week, I wish you a very merry Christmas.

Until next time…

32 thoughts on “Chanukah: Pleading Guilty on the Gelt

  1. Any holiday that is celebrated with chocolate and martinis is OK with me… chocolate martinis, maybe even better! I imagine the gifts every night started because Jewish kids were envious of the over-the-top presentpalooza happening in many of their Christian friends’ homes. That, and of course, the retailers realizing that there was a whole untapped market out there. I was at a craft fair recently where I saw a whole bunch of wonderfully creative menorahs: Star Wars-themed, trains, ultra-modern, etc. I now realize that I should have bought one… I’d love to drink my chocolate martini by candlelight!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What a great new tradition, Janis: Chocolate gelt and chocolate martinis! I’ll give you total credit and authorship for anyone who ever asks. 🙂 I suppose you’re right on the origins of the gift every night. Envy is a powerful emotion; and in some cases I suspect it may have come from the parents themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “So for many years my siblings and I received really cool slippers. We also each got a present or two. These are good memories.”

    For some reason, this jumped off the page for me. I mean, what kid gets excited enough about slippers that he recalls the gift-giving decades later? This memory must be filled with such an incredible emotion.

    I loved this post.

    And tomorrow, since spuds were on sale and we bought 15 pounds, I will request latkes – and we will have to run about looking for sour cream. Apple sauce, we have, but not the sour cream.

    Season’s greetings, Marty!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sue Bowers

    See’s chocolate balls! Now that’s something everyone can believe in! Forget the latkes, it’s See’s that makes the season. Where did you find those in Florida? Every year, Toni’s most treasured Christmas present from me is 5,000 lbs of See’s, and when I’m planning on a trip to visit her any other time of the year, she tells me don’t even bother getting on the plane without it. Was the gelt from See’s too? Someone has good taste. Oh yeah and btw, Happy Chanukah.

    Like

  4. I didn’t know martinis were part of Hanukah! My (very Catholic) parent drank Mogen David wine for Christmas (bleah!). I love latkes. I’ve only made them once. I ate too many. They are like potato chips you can’t eat just one or ten! Have a great holiday season and here’s wishing you lot of martinis all week long!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, man. Mogen David wine is only for the faint of heart. Or interestingly as a great additive when you’re roasting a brisket, I kid you not. But definitely not recommended as a drinking wine. Yes absolutely, latkes are exactly like Lay’s potato chips in their addictiveness. You swear them off only to go right back. Careful!

      Merry Christmas, Kate!!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Elisabeth

    Hey Marty,

    Thank you for this lovely post.

    Got me thinking: maybe I need to go back to some traditions that I am over-analyzing until nothing is really left…Some but not all

    Sint Nicolaas (Sinterklaas) with zwarte piet (Saint Nicholas & Black Pete)…This tradition I left behind…
    We did get “Geld” in our shoes…;).

    What is jeopardizing “old holiday fun” however, these days, is being mindful of how certain traditions are being perceived as not OK anymore, e.g. I am very aware of the vegan family members and friends, those who take waste reduction extremely serious, the people who (rightly so) watch alcohol intake, calorie intake, those with allergies, sensitivities,…and of course the inequality in the world which makes buying presents even harder!

    sigh!

    Happy Chanukah!

    Elisabeth

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Elisabeth. Yes, we thankfully need to consider everyone’s individual comforts now, which I recall wasn’t exactly a priority back when I was younger. In this respect I’m fortunate this time of year because Chanukah is generally speaking for the kids and not the grownups. 😉

      Merry Christmas!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I wanna know who has the biggest pile of gelt!!!
    Happy Chanuka and ditch the Mogan David (never tasted anything so vile in my whole life, but then I was raised Italian Catholic so had early exposure to vastly different quality of basic table wine growing up..)
    😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s all one pile… and it’s MINE, all MINE! 😉

      Yeah, Mogen David I assume is pretty close to Catholic sacrament wine. I haven’t had any for years fortunately. But as I mentioned to Kate, its one redeeming value — at least back when I cooked — is that it can be added to brisket pan while baking. It does give the meat this nice taste along with the rest of the juices. But as straight wine? Yech!

      Merry Christmas, Laura!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. happy Hanukkah to you. We are not Jewish, but I love Hanukkah and celebrate every year. It’s something about the candles and the story of perseverance. Anyway, We do some gifts every night. It might just be a lottery ticket or a $5.00 bill. Just something symbolic. The first night we always have latkes with applesauce and sour cream. I just put the applesauce to the side. I have a NYT recipe I use but if you have one you like I’ like to know.

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    1. Happy Chanukah, Chris! Sounds like you celebrate the holiday in a wonderful way. Put me on your list next year for a lottery ticket. 😉

      I checked with my wife, and she said she uses the recipe for latkes from King Arthur. She said she substitutes the flour with Matzo Meal. I suppose King Arthur would have an opinion on that, but they probably don’t read my blog! Many thanks for your reading, though.

      Like

  8. Hmm. I’m thinking I might need to start celebrating Hanukkah if it involves martini’s and chocolate. Not sure about making latke’s from scratch though! I am technically 50% jewish …my mom didn’t convert to Catholic until I was 5 years old. Yes, I was raised by a Catholic Jew… want to talk about guilt trips? Anyway, a very Happy Hanukkah to you! And wishing you all the best in 2020.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I grew up with a mother who was an awfully good cook when she put her mind to it, but even she used the Manischewitz box mix to make latkes. Gorgeous, however, find any box mix to be offensive to her senses.

      Ah-ha, I closeted member of the tribe! Your 50% counts. Good G-d, no, I cannot imagine the guilt you must have suffered from with that combination in your genes.

      Merry Christmas, Pat!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I have always loved potato cakes. We always called them potato pancakes. I don’t know about the sour cream and or/apple sauce.
    I just smother them with ketchup. (Is that wrong?)
    And the bag of “chocolate money?” I always put those in my children’s stocking. LOL
    I always had a menorah for my Jewish friends and a six pointed candle holder representing the Star of David.
    Haven’t found a Chinese restaurant yet but there’s a Korean one close. Will that work?
    Happy happy to you and yours! ✡️🕎

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah-ha! Another ketchup on everything person, eh? Caught you! 🙂 Whatever your little heart desires, Laurel. It’s your stomach! But do try the apple sauce someday; I bet you’ll like it. I know Germans and Poles call them potato pancakes. We used to go to German and Polish restaurants when we were a kid, and that’s how they worded it on the menus. They were exactly the same as latkes.

      I think a Korean restaurant definitely will work on Christmas… just make sure you watch a movie too for a pure “Jewish Christmas.” 🙂

      Happy Holidays to you also!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I only eat ketchup on potatoes. If you could get me to eat a hotdog…which is highly doubtful…it would have mustard, sweet relish, and sour kraut.
        I didn’t realize that this was Christmas Eve…(I thought Christmas was Thursday.) I ventured out and bought a box of doughnuts.
        Tomorrow…I’ll be watching A Christmas Story and Going In Style…while I eat two of my goodies and enjoy being an honorary Jew! 🍩🍩
        Have a wonderful holiday, Marty!

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Happy New Year, Marty, I am catching up on my reading. I think I saw a glimpse of how you are on a blogging hiatus. Fine. I still want to read a witty, smart, fun post and I know you do not disappoint. Pressure is on. Although, you are not reading or blogging, for now. So, no pressure.

    So this post is all about latkes. Fine. I love anything potatoes. German background and my family made potato pancakes. Likely, same thing as latkes.

    Entertaining, yet thought-provoking post, Marty. Traditions, Gelt, Martinis? I am all about the latkes. Hope you and Gorgeous had a festive season!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Can’t run away from you, Erica! 🙂 Yep, I’m taking a bit of a break from blogging (writing and reading it would appear). But I am grateful for the pop-up notification I got on my phone earlier this morning with your comments here. No pressure indeed!

      Yep, latkes are indeed no different from German potato pancakes. We used to visit so many European restaurants when I was growing up outside of Detroit, from German to Polish to Hungarian. Every one of them had potato pancakes on the menu, and my parents always ordered them for the table. My mother unfortunately only “made” them from a box, which I never understood since she was a good cook. She had her limits, I guess. Glad you too are all about the latkes. Hope your holidays were good too.

      I’ll start getting back into blogging before long hopefully!

      Liked by 1 person

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