Archive for Hanukkah

Hanukkah Traditions

What is Hanukkah About?

Hanukkah is about way more than giving Jewish holiday gifts and eating delicious treats like potato latkes. It’s easy to lose track of the real meaning behind the holidays when so many new holiday traditions are always being created. But let’s take a moment and remember what Hanukkah is all about: it’s a Jewish holiday celebrating the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greeks, who were trying to wipe out the practice of Judaism.

The Greeks had taken over the Jewish temple and dedicated it to the worship of Zeus and other gods for several years. The temple had even had pigs sacrificed in its midst, obviously a particularly painful slight for the Jews who had worshiped there.

In 167 B.C.E. Antiochus, the Syrian-Greek emperor, made observing Judaism a crime. It was punishable by death! He ordered the Jews to worship his Greek gods, and had his soldiers approach Jewish townspeople to get them to bow down to an idol, and then eat the flesh of a pig. As you can well imagine, this outraged the Jews, of course. One of their High Priests, Mattathias, refused to bow down. He and his five sons began attacking the soldiers, setting off a large battle.

When eventually they won this battle, the Maccabees (as they came to be called) rededicated the holy Temple in Jerusalem.  It had to be purified with ritual oil burned in the temple’s menorah. There was only enough oil to last one day as the Eternal Flame, but it miraculously burned for eight days. Thus, the 8 days of Hanukkah!

Do you know what the word “Hanukkah” actually means? This Hebrew word means “dedication,” since this Jewish holiday commemorates the re-dedication of the holy Temple. One of the funny things about this holiday is its many spellings. Is it Hanukkah? Chanukkah? Or Hannukkah? Since it’s transliterated, it really doesn’t matter! But however you spell it, this is one Jewish holiday everyone loves to celebrate.  Because Hanukkah is all about the miracle of the oil, we use oil in our cooking. The delicious fried foods we make to celebrate include donuts, “sufganiyot,” and potato latkes.

So this year, follow our recipe for delicious potato latkes and while they’re crackling in the pan, take a moment to reflect on the real meaning of Hanukkah: the re-dedication of the temple, and the miracle of the survival of Judaism!

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Whew!

Hanukkah ended last Saturday, December 19th, and what a Hanukkah it was! For those of my friends who celebrated Hanukkah, I hope you enjoy the respite between the Eight Nights and New Year’s Eve. For those of my friends who celebrate Christmas, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! For my friends who celebrate both holidays, which we have fondly dubbed “Chrismukkah,” do check out our Traditions in a Box that honor interfaith families. We even have Red and White Cookie Tin

It seemed that this holiday shopping season started earlier than the year before, and only picked up steam as we got closer to Hanukkah. And once we were into the actual holiday…forget about it! The phone was ringing off the hook! I was glad to see that Challah Connection was up to the challenge of providing terrific gifts to our legions of fans. I’d sooner go out of business than ship a package that I myself wouldn’t be thrilled to receive, and I’m proud to say that despite the excitement of high demand we never sacrificed on the best ingredients.

I was struck by the incredible fact that, despite our country’s recession, people still enjoy observing traditions. Maybe these are what helps us through the hard times. Whether it is a funny T-shirt or a gourmet, deluxe-sized gift basket, our customers came out in full force to bestow tokens of love and good wishes on friends and family. (Thanks to the many of you who emailed–we’ll include these in a future posting.)

As wonderful as Hanukkah was for me personally, celebrations can’t go on forever. It’s now time to clean the wax off our menorahs (anyone have any good tips? please send them in) wrap up the dreidels, and polish off the remaining gelt. Time to enjoy the people we love.

Best,

Jane

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Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jig

NPR reported that holiday traffic deaths are down from last year. Yes, that’s good news. But any sentence with holiday and death together gives me the heebie-jeebies. You see, I am the parent of a college-aged kid. And every parent of a college-aged kid has what I call the “nervous wreck” days.

The nervous wreck day is when you are going about your business–doing down dogs in yoga, getting to the office, checking your email, etc.–but all the while you have one, all-consuming thought. That bedeviling, anxiety-provoking thought:

“____(fill in the blank with your child’s name) is _____(driving home, flying home, taking the bus/train home) today, just in time for ____(Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas). I hope (he, she) will have a safe trip!

You get used to your child being hundreds or thousands of miles away, going to college, and you try not to think too hard about how you spent some of your college days (me: sound asleep and drooling on my Biology textbook during a 7:30 a.m. lecture).

What I think you don’t get used to are the travel days.

Take my son, Sam, for example. Sometimes he flies. That’s okay, although I breathe a sigh of relief when I know he’s on the ground again. Sometimes he drives with a friend. It’s an eight hour drive from his liberal arts college in western Pennsylvania. During that entire 8 hour journey, I’m not exactly throwing up with anxiety, but I’m not relaxed.

What I’m warming up to saying is this: Sam came home last night for the fifth night of Hanukkah. Every hour leading up to his bursting through the door, dragging a duffel bag full of dirty laundry, I thought of him and sent out a Mom’s heartfelt wish for his safe return.

Enough oil to light a lamp for eight days–it’s a wonderful miracle.

But I’ll take the ordinary miracles, too. Sam’s grinning face as I sling him a blue and white cookie, as he peels back the gold foil on the gelt, and, alas, as the doorbell rings–it’s his high school friends come a calling. There they go, driving off into the night.

Soon after that, my son Harry is standing before me, jingling the car keys.  He has just gotten his night-driving permit.  Great.  “You’ll be home by eleven, right?  You’ll drive carefully, right?”

Harry smiles; he nods.  Then he, too, is gone.

On this sixth night of Hanukkah, I wish you all ordinary and extraordinary miracles and many happy homecomings.

Best,

Jane

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Jewish Christmas Treats…wait, let me explain!

Jewish Christmas Treats.  Yes, you heard right.   You purists out there…allow me to explain.

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My friend Grace grew up in Idaho* and returns home there most Christmases.  In tow are her Jewish husband and children.  This family travels to the mill town of Lewiston with a menorah, dreidel, and other holiday items when Chanukah and Christmas overlap.

Grace’s family–dyed-in-the-wool Lutherans who live on the banks of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers–look forward each year to Grace’s homecoming not only because they miss her, but also because she brings loads of Challah Connection Jewish treats with her…the kind of treats, like babkas, rugelach, black and white cookies, savory treats, chocolates, and other fun goodies–that they were first introduced to when my friend married her husband.  The older relatives love to eat cinnamon babka warmed (and with margarine, my friend tells me!) while the young kids love gelt.   No offense to the good people who run commerce in Lewiston, Idaho, but it’s just not the kind of thing my friend’s relatives are likely to find in the local stores.

It turns out that Jews are not the only ones who welcome and enjoy “Jewish” baked goods at this time of year.  With small towns becoming increasingly international, it’s a welcome change of pace for noshers to receive something tasty, outside their usual comfort zone

I find it thrilling…another example of a world where we are allowed exquisite freedom to share in each other’s rituals, each other’s customs, each other’s foods, each other’s sweet holiday delights.  It makes for a far more delicious world! 

Happy noshing, Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas!

Jane

*fun fact: Idaho’s Moses Alexander was the first Jewish governor in the United States

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Ordinary Miracles

treelifemensmTonight is the first night of Hanukkah and, to be honest, I’m pretty exhausted. When my kids asked me at dinner the other night what I wanted, I was at a loss: new exercise clothes? More yoga classes? I must work so much that I don’t even know what’s out there to want!

But it is good work, and for that I am grateful. Here at Challah Connection, we have been working hard for the last few weeks to create and ship our best Hanukkah and holiday gifts yet! I’m so proud of our growth and accomplishment and thank all of you for this gift you have given to us.

But when I think about what the first night means to me, my first reaction is: it’s here AGAIN? The time is just going so fast!  I can remember when I had three young sons, each with his own particular interests, but all pretty much “male.”  I can remember wrapping dump trucks (in brightly colored pillowcases—I inherited Mom’s eco-friendly approach even before it was fashionable) and giant boxes of Legos.

Now, with the boys ranging from teenage to young adult, the gifts are more subtle, not so easy to stuff into a pillowcase.  One wants to donate funds to help inner city kids.  Another wants to go on a trip.  The youngest still wants tangible things, but they’re smaller and come with a computer chip.

But they’re still my boys.  That hasn’t changed.

Hanukkah is not a religious holiday. It’s a commemoration of a fantastic miracle and that’s the part that I plan to dwell on. I am thinking about all of the miracles and blessings I have in my life: my wonderful and supportive husband, my 3 beautiful children, my healthy parents and mother -in-law, my friends and my fun and growing business. These are my miracles.

Tonight when we eat latkes and light the menorah for the first time this year, I will be looking across the table at 3 faces that I love; Josh, Harry and Mike (Sam will still be at school) and I will feel so blessed that I have them to share these events—and my life—with. What are your miracles?

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Happy Hanukkah–The Best Latkes are Your Very Own

A few years ago my friend Shari and I decided to pool our latke-making skills and begin what has become our neighborhood tradition of “Shari and Jane’s Latke Party.” All our friends look forward to this. Having been taught by “the master” (my mom) I thought my latkes were pretty good—potato taste with just the right amount of crisp. What I didn’t expect was that there was an aspect to what made a great latke: it’s even edges.

Shari and Jane Making Latkes

When Shari (in white shirt) came to my house our first year, with her pans of latkes to stick in my large freezer, I was kind of amazed and perplexed. Her latkes definitely were much prettier then mine! I had prided myself on the funky, jagged edges of mine (maybe how I see myself with my funky curly hair? But her hair is even curlier then mine!). Whatever the reason, I took on the challenge to see if I could “clean up” my latkes and see if I could make them prettier. I have succeeded to some extent. Shari taught me that the key is to compress them onto a large spoon and glide them off the spoon into the oil then press them gently. It has definitely made a difference.

But the interesting thing about this is that I realized that we all cook our latkes differently—loose, tight, with sour cream on the side, without, with onion, without, etc. But in the end they are all yummy and do the job. To me, the most important part is that we are making them ourselves, from scratch.

Sherry and her girls

Sherry and her girls; Newly Minted Latke Mavens

Just before Thanksgiving, Sherry (Challah Connection Director of Customer Service) came to work looking forlorn. Her mother in law was visiting and had asked Sherry if she had any jobs for her while Sherry was at work. Sherry asked her if she would make 4 dozen latkes—“No” was the answer (actually—it was a tall order). When I asked Sherry why she was so upset by that, she confessed to me that she had never made latkes and was actually a bit intimidated by the process. I was fairly surprised since she and her daughters are great cooks who make lots of ambitious recipes. I offered my extra large pan and gave her a pep talk: I knew she could do it. Sure enough, Monday after Thanksgiving she came to work with a new confidence about her—her aura was different. She had conquered her latke fear and made 4 dozen perfect latkes!

Harry

Harry--His cooking specialites are eggs and latkes

Tomorrow night, we will be going to my parents’ house for a pre-Hanukkah party while my brother and his 4 kids who live in Israel will be visiting. My 17-year old, Harry, will be manning the latke pan while the rest of us admire his work and pop them in our greedy mouths. Whatever shape your latkes are, I know they will be great and you’ll be so proud that you made them yourself!
Happy frying and here is Shari’s recipe. By the way, we have a perfect apron for the occasion: our chic latke apron.

Latke Apron

Grandma Anne’s Latkes
Simple, but the best traditional latkes. She always threw in a little of this and a little of that, but when pushed for exact quantities, here’s what I got-and they are delicious!
For a crowd-serves about 12
15 big white potatoes of your choice
3 large or 4 medium brown or yellow onions
6 large eggs
1 cup flour or matzo meal
3 tbl salt
1 ½ tbl white pepper
-Peel potatoes and place in cold water to retain color
-Grate onions and potatoes in batches, squeezing out and draining excess water as you go, but don’t take out the water from the last batch
-Add the eggs and mix
-Add flour, salt and pepper and mix well
-To cook the latkes, drop large spoonfuls into a pan of ¼ inch of very hot oil. Using the spoon, quickly and gently press the potato mixture to form a flat oval shape, then loosen from the bottom if it sticks slightly. Turn once, cooking until each side is golden brown. Remove to drain on a baking sheet covered in paper towels
-Serve immediately or keep warm in a 200 degree oven
-To make ahead, freeze latkes in a single layer, then place frozen pancakes in a plastic freezer bag. To reheat, place on a cookie sheet in a single layer and heat for 7 minutes at 375 degrees

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Just Do It… Yourself Basket

balsmmendocinosmyidmugsmHave you ever had that dream?  You know, the one where you’re a kid in a candy store and you’re  filling up a huge bag full of your favorite candies?  Hmm, maybe it was just my post-Willy Wonka dream.  I think it was the inspiration behind  Challah Connection’s  Do it Yourself Basket .  With this basket, you get to choose what you want to put in it.  It’s all the same kosher yumminess you’ve come to know from our gift baskets, but you’re the design team.  You know Aunt Rachel dies for blue and white cookies but rugelach…not so much?  Pile on the blue and white!  Or that Mom is a chocoholic but could take or leave raisins? Chocolate, we’ve got.  Lots and lots of chocolate.

Not to pat myself on the back, but it’s really a brilliant idea.  It’s not as crass as sending cash and a lot more tangible than a gift card.   Recently I saw the Do it Yourself Basket really go to work for an interfaith couple friend.  George recently called me, in a bit of a dither.  George is not Jewish but his wife Leah is, and this year, after 17 years of marriage, George wanted to surprise her with a plethora of Jewish treats.  Sad to say (correction: George was sad to say), he didn’t really know which ones were her favorites, and he wanted it to be exactly perfect.

“George,” I said. “My advice is to give the woman what everyone woman wants.”

“Jane,” he said. “I think you should just forget about Johnny Depp and stick to kosher gift baskets.”

“No, no,” I corrected him. “I mean, give Leah something to drool over…that fits in a basket.”

“That’s why I called,” he whined. “She loves it all.  Chocolate babkas, cinnamon raisin rugelach, blue and white cookies.  Also, last year I broke her great-aunt’s menorah.  I don’t think you make a basket that big.”

“First of all, we can do whatever you want, but why not let Leah make her own basket?

“She could do that?”

“Yes, George! Just tell her to follow our “6 Easy Steps to Create the Perfect DIY Basket.

George realized he was onto something.  While on the phone, he instructed me to put together a gift basket for his six-year-old nephew, his mother-in-law, and his boss.  All customized, all do it yourself.  George was very pleased with himself.

Now, if only there was a Do It Yourself Basket at Neiman Marcus…

Happy Shopping,

Jane

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Spinning The Dreidel

The four sides of the dreidel, from right: nun, gimmel, hey, and shin. Click for playing instructions and the meaning of these letters.

Around my house, we take dreidel spinning seriously. My sons, my husband and I crowd around the table with a notepad and pencil, spinning the dreidel and making a note of the score on a yellow legal pad. It’s known as The Dreidel Book and it resembles an ancient text…sort of. On some of the patches, you’ll see a spatter of grease, on others a smear of chocolate.

Here are some fun facts about the humble dreidel:

1. There have been college mathematics seminars on the probability of winning a game of dreidel, the expected number of spins in a game of dreidel and whether the first player has a statistical advantage over the other players.

2. U.S. astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman brought a menorah and a dreidel on his Space Shuttle mission in 1993.

3. The Yiddish version of “The Dreidel Song” is  Ikh Bin A Kleyner Dreydl, Yiddish:  איך בין אַ קלײנער דרײדל Ich Bin Ein Kleine Dreidel (I am a little dreidel).  In the Yiddish version, the dreidel is made out of “blay,” Yiddish for lead.

4. The game of dreidel is based on a European gambling game that used a spinning top.  The Yiddish word “dreidel” come from the German word “drehen” which means “to spin.”

5. Dreidels are also known in Yiddish as:  fargls, a “varfl” [= something thrown], “shtel ein” [= put in], and “gor, gorin” [= all].

6.”Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel was sung by Kyle in the first South Park Christmas special.

At Challah Connection, you can find not only our award winning kosher baked goods but also exquisite and unusual Judaica, including a beautiful selection of dreidels including the very popular No-Limit Texas Dreidel Game.  An elderly relative collects dreidels and I look forward to her joyful phone call after she has opened her

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Chanukah gift.  She knows, and I know, that it will be a dreidel, but she claims that each new dreidel is more beautiful than the next.  Wouldn’t she be surprised to see my family dreidel?  After countless spins, the paint has worn off here and there, and Sophie (our dog) got a hold of it once, leaving her mark until I pried it from her mouth.

Still, when I unearth it every year, it reminds me of how much fun my family and I have sharing a simple game.

GRarrowD25lgHappy spinning,

Jane

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Jewish Dogs

Sophie, knowing she looks gorgeous in her Chanukah collar

Sophie, knowing she looks gorgeous in her Chanukah collar

No family is complete without a dog.   A dogless family lacks a heart.  That family can never truly be a family without a dog.

These were the arguments presented to Josh and me  by our suddenly articulate 3 sons over dinner one evening 4 years ago.  It was, I recall, one of those warm summer evenings where everything–anything–seems possible.  I’d had a glass of wine, a warm breeze floated through the open sliding glass door, and the 3 boys stared eagerly into my face.  Maybe a dog would be a nice addition to the family.  I leaned back in my chair, picturing the boys outside throwing a frisbee to our dog and having the dog jump happily into the air and grab it.

“What do you think, Josh?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Alot of work.  The boys would have to commit to walking the dog, feeding the dog, picking up the dog doo.”

“I’ll walk it!” Sam said quickly.

“I’ll feed it!” Harry chimed in.

“I’ll…hey! No fair,” Mike, the youngest, said.

“All right, all right,” I said.  “I can see that you’re all eager to help out with this hypothetical dog.”

We agreed to be open to the possibility of getting a dog.  In other words…yes!

By a stroke of serendipity, I heard from a friend that a litter of puppies had been dropped off at the Humane Society.  Mike was available so we zipped on down there.  When we got there, we learned that all the puppies, save one, had been adopted.  We saw the little bundle of white fluff, her eyes a beautiful deep brown, in the arms of a Humane Society employee who didn’t seem to want to give her up.  Fortunately, Mike–a budding thespian–said in his best wheedle, “Can I hold her for a minute?”  The employee reluctantly handed Mike the bundle of fluff, and it was instant love.  After filling out the necessary paperwork, we were allowed to bring Sophie home.

Sophie became the spoiled youngest child–the only daughter–of the family.  We slipped her chicken and enough bones to build a model of T-Rex,  and the boys competed for her attention.  Sure enough, they played with her in the backyard and even took her for walks.  Being the darling of the family, it was only natural that we would want Sophie to celebrate the holidays with us.  But on Sophie’s first Chanukah, we were in for a disappointment.  None of the chain pet stores seemed to have any Chanukah finery for the Jewish dog.

Well, that wouldn’t do.  I couldn’t have Sophie trot through the holidays unadorned while her Christmas-celebrating counterparts got to jingle their way through the dog park in festive tartan and reindeer ears.

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I searched high and low for festive Jewish items, until finally I found a Jewish dog collar, a lovely “Kosher bone” and a Jewish dog dish, which I’m happy to say we now offer you at Challah Connection.

Now Sophie and all her Jewish friends (Maisy and Sugar, two Jewish Golden Retrievers) are decked out in the finest holiday wear.  If one of your family members is a Jewish dog, check out our selection of great gifts for the holidays!

Best,

Jane

p.s. Arf from Sophie

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Eight Stress Free Nights of Hanukkah

My friend Erica was babbling into the phone.  Something about evil and December and a plot to drive people crazy.

“Erica,” I said. “How many cups of coffee have you had today?”

“Four, but that’s not the point.”

“Okay…well, why did you just say that you loathe the month of December?”

“Because…between my family, and my in-laws, and my office, and my husband’s office, and my kids’ and their friends, and my friends…I just got out a calculator and realized that I have to purchase 64 gifts for Hanukkah this year.”

“Wow.  Well, you don’t have to get really expensive stuff.”

“That’s only one issue.  It’s the combing of websites, it’s the clicking through order forms.  And then I finally order it, and the company wraps it in Christmas paper.  That’s why I’m calling you.  I thought, well, maybe I’ll just ask Challah Connection to send out 64 chocolate babkas.  Or 64 blue and white cookies.”

“Erica, we could do 64 babkas, 64 Hanukkah Candy Platters, whatever you want,” I said. “But don’t you want your gifts to be…you know…unique as the people you’re giving them to?”

“That’s too much to hope for.  Isn’t it?”

“What if I told you that I could send 8 nights of wrapped Chanukah gifts to one address for you and you’d only pay one shipping charge?”
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“You have such a service?”

“Yes!”

“It’s a Chanukah miracle.”

“It’s just something Sherry and I thought of to help busy people–like us.”

“But I really only need to do 3 nights for my sister’s kids.”

“No problem.”


“You mean, I don’t have to run out and buy tape and wrapping paper and Hanukkah gelt and a menorah and something nice for my Aunt Betsy like maybe…oh, God, what can I get Aunt Betsy?”

“How about “A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking” wrapped and shipped for the first night?”Jewish Holiday Baking

“She’ll love that.”

It was music to my ears.

Here’s to a stress-free Hanukkah!

Best,

Jane

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