Not long after sundown on Dec. 24, Kat Romanow and her boyfriend will light the first candle on the Hanukkah menorah to mark the start of the eight-day Jewish festival.
After that, they’ll head over to her parents’ home for a Christmas Eve dinner of baccala, or salt cod, baked with potatoes and onions thinly sliced. They’ll be back there the next day for a Christmas lunch of pasta.
Romanow, 32, grew up celebrating Christmas: Before her mother’s, there was her grandmother’s baccala on the 24th and there was sheet pizza for breakfast on Christmas morning from Corona, the Italian bakery her great-grandfather had opened.
Her maternal grandparents would come down from upstairs and other family would cross the street to come over. There would be pasta or turkey for the big Christmas Day meal, served at lunchtime.
“It was really special to have everyone over,” she recalled.
Today Romanow, a food historian and director of food programming at the Museum of Jewish Montreal, is in the final stages of converting to Judaism. She identifies as Jewish and considers herself part of the Jewish community. “But I still celebrate Christmas with my parents and I will continue to do that,” she said.
“For me, it is about the family and keeping up these traditions that I have grown up with and that are important to me.”
In some ways, then, Romanow has a foot in the camp of both holidays. And unusually, Hanukkah and Christmas overlap this year, with the first night of Hanukkah falling on Christmas Eve.
Candles are lit on the eighth and final night of Hanukkah in Jerusalem on Dec. 13, 2015.
Like other Jewish festivals, Hanukkah is constant on the Hebrew calendar, which is lunar: It starts at sundown on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, which usually falls in November or December.
There are those who think of Hanukkah as a kind of Jewish Christmas. It’s not. There are parallels — both are celebrated in winter, for one; both are connected to historical events; for believers, each is associated with a miracle, and light plays a role in both Christmas and Hanukkah — but the two holidays are fundamentally different.
Christmas celebrates the birth of Christianity. Hanukkah, which recalls one of the earliest recorded instances of people fighting for freedom from religious tyranny, celebrates Jewish monotheism and identity, explained Julien Bauer, professor of political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.
In a bid to destroy the Jews by destroying their religion, the Greek-Syrian leader Antiochus prohibited them from practising the basic customs and laws of Judaism; this led to a revolt by a small band of Jewish rebels known as the Maccabees.
A fully lit menorah is seen in Yemin Moshe, a historic neighbourhood of Jerusalem.
Although they were few against many, they were victorious. When they retook the Temple, which had been defiled, to clean it and prepare it for its re-dedication, they discovered only enough sanctified ritual oil to burn for a single day. But it burned for eight — the time for new oil to be pressed and prepared. To believers, that was a miracle.
With Christmas, the miracle is the virgin birth — and that birth signifies the miracle of the deity becoming human, said Patricia Kirkpatrick, associate dean of graduate studies at McGill University and associate professor of Hebrew Bible in the department of religious studies.
“What more of a miracle than everything that contradicts secular ideas could you think of?” she asked.
There is nothing historically to situate the miracle of the virgin birth on Dec. 25 — based on stories in the New Testament, it is more likely to have been in September or October — but Dec. 25 was considered a popular date because of its proximity to the winter solstice on Dec. 21, said Kirkpatrick.
Because Eastern Orthodox churches base their liturgical calendar on the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian, they celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7. As for Hanukkah, because it is determined according to the Hebrew calendar, it can fall any time between November and even early January.
Hanukkah is not as central to Judaism as Christmas is to Christianity, said Kirkpatrick. It is not spoken of in the Tanach, the Hebrew biblical texts.
“You can take Hanukkah away from Judaism,” she said, “but you cannot take the birth narrative away from Christianity.”
As for holiday symbols, pretty as Christmas lights are, the Christmas tree has no religious significance.
“It is not a symbol of the Christ event,” Kirkpatrick said. “What is is the manger scene.”
Christian pilgrims pray at the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, in the West Bank biblical town of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve 2013.
Christmas lights are a relatively recent development, but they do have a purpose.
“The light of the Christmas tree is not to keep at bay the darkness but, rather, to announce the light of the world coming into the world. It is for the world,” she said, “and likewise with the menorah. It gazes outward.”
Some make a connection between Christmas and Hanukkah and the winter solstice on Dec. 21, the day the least light is available, although others dispute it. Still, light is important in both holidays, as it is in two other seasonal holidays.
Kwanzaa was established in 1966 as a secular celebration observed between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1, primarily in North America, to honour the traditional roots of African-Americans. Seven candles are kindled, representing principles based on the African beliefs of community and cooperation.
The five-day Hindu festival of Diwali, which begins on the 15th day of the month of Kartika on the Hindu calendar, which was Oct. 28 this year, celebrates the victory of good over evil and light over darkness.
Four candles are lit on the Sundays of the Advent season leading up to Christmas and, during Hanukkah, there are the lights of the Hanukkah menorah.
Naftali Cohn, associate professor in the Department of Religions and Cultures at Concordia University, says of the Hanukkah menorah: “You are bringing light into darkness as a sign of hope.”
“You are bringing light into darkness as a sign of hope,” said Naftali Cohn, associate professor in the Department of Religions and Cultures at Concordia University.
The Hanukkah menorah “is a connection to the Temple, to the idea of a Jewish temple as a historical place,” he said. “You are connecting to the past; you are affirming your identification in that way.”
The Temple plays a role in Christmas as well as Hanukkah — if in a different way, said Dr. Robert Di Pede, director of the Newman Centre at McGill.
When Jews light the menorah, they are thinking of God’s word and of the Temple. “A prayer is said, mentioning the miracles, the wonders and saving acts of God,” he said.
“Christians take it a step further — and say the Temple is God.”
Jesus, during his public ministry, would refer to himself as the son of God and light of the world, Di Pede explained. Asked by rabbis on whose authority he was acting, he said he would give them a sign. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” he said.
Said Di Pede: “The gospel concludes that Jesus was referring to the temple of his own body — and that he was making an explicit reference to his crucifixion and resurrection.”
Marlene Grossman, a professor of psychology at Vanier College, notes that Hanukkah and Christmas can be a dark time for those who are isolated.
Both Hanukkah and Christmas have to do with family coming together to celebrate and to exchange good cheer and gifts. But for those who are isolated, whether socially or financially, it is a dark time, said Marlene Grossman, a professor of psychology at Vanier College, where she specializes in the psychology of health and happiness.
Their isolation seems even more profound than at other times, she said — and any sense of festival is absent.
At Hanukkah, it is customary to eat foods fried in oil — savoury latkes or doughnuts known as sufganiyot — to recall the miracle of the oil.
Romanow said she plans to make latkes during Hanukkah and probably sufganiyot — filled with eggnog custard in a nod to this year’s proximity of Hanukkah and Christmas.
In another nod, she created special desserts that were served last week at Fletcher’s, the café space at the Jewish Museum of Montreal: gingerbread-spiced rugelach — cookies made with cream-cheese dough rolled around a filling of nuts, poppy seed paste, chocolate or jam — and chocolate candy-cane gelt, with the chocolate coins flavoured with crushed candy canes.
Some suggest that Hanukkah has become more popular among Jews because of Christmas, which is so widely observed. But the widespread gift-giving and the commercialization of both holidays is more an expression of our consumer culture than anything, Cohn said.
“I don’t think that is the essence of either holiday.”
Just as the idea of Christmas lights is relatively new, so is the idea of giving gifts to children at Christmas, said Bauer of UQAM. Christian children used to receive gifts for the feast day of Saint Nicholas, which falls earlier in December.
Religiously, Christmas and Hanukkah have nothing to do each other, he said, “but we live in a society which is heavily Christian — and there is a real tendency to copy one another. ‘If you give gifts to your children, then I will give gifts to mine.’
“It is not every day that the night of Christmas and first night of Hanukkah overlap. It is interesting, but does it make it the same holiday? No.”
The power of food to connect
Brooklyn-based cookbook author Leah Koenig snips chives over her lemony smoked-trout crostini at Fletcher’s café at the Museum of Jewish Montreal.
There were addictively crunchy and delicious fried olives with labneh and harissa to nibble on, grated beet and carrot latkes — fritters, thin fried pancakes — with goat cheese and chives that disappeared in a flash, lemony smoked-trout crostini, divine chocolate-dipped figs sprinkled with flaky sea salt, and more.
The occasion was a Hanukkah cocktail party at the Museum of Jewish Montreal and the food was set out along the bar/counter of the museum’s café space, Fletcher’s.
The menu was drawn mainly from Leah Koenig’s Modern Jewish Cooking (Chronicle Books, 2015) — and the Brooklyn-based cookbook author and freelance writer herself was on hand.
She demonstrated the preparation of lemony smoked-trout crostini from an upcoming cookbook, answered questions and described her take on cooking, food, and its power to connect.
“I have always had a very expansive view of Jewish culture and Jewish cuisine,” she said in an interview.
Leah Koenig is the author of Modern Jewish Cuisine (Chronicle Books, 2015). “I really wanted to create a book that captured the tradition and beauty of what Jewish cuisine has to offer but also felt broad and open enough for people, regardless of their background.”
That’s clear from Modern Jewish Cooking, which features flavourful recipes from all over the globe. It’s an excellent book for anyone, Jewish or not, interested in food and flavour.
“I really wanted to create a book that captured the tradition and beauty of what Jewish cuisine has to offer but also felt broad and open enough for people, regardless of their background.
“I think that is happening in the world of nouveau Jewish cuisine.”
Hof Kelsten, a happening café and bakery on St-Laurent Blvd. just north of Mount Royal Ave., is a good example. Included in its fare is schnitzel sandwiches, rugelach and chocolate babka.
Owner Jeffrey Finkelstein, “like I do, really believes that Jewish food really has something to offer beyond the holidays and the more insular Jewish table,” said Koenig, 34.
“I also really wanted to expand people’s understanding of what Jewish food is.”
Ariane Morin, right, was among the attendees at a recent food demonstration by Leah Koenig at the Museum of Jewish Montreal.
Although many people think Jewish food is limited to such Ashkenazi fare as brisket and kugel, chopped liver and chicken soup, “going into a Jewish kitchen can mean stepping into the kitchen in almost any country,” Koenig said.
“I wanted to capture the global nature of Jewish food. … Jewish cooks throughout history have found ways to make traditions work for their kitchens.”
The majority of what is considered Jewish cooking “is derivative of where Jews were living at the time,” she said.
Only a few foods are uniquely Jewish, she said: matzo, cholent, a Shabbat stew, and perhaps charoset, the paste of fruit and nuts eaten at the Passover seder to evoke the mortar used by the Jews when they were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.
The others had predecessors. “Jews were part of the larger world,” said Koenig.
Cheryl Everett Rajchgot, left, chats with cookbook author Leah Koenig at the Museum of Jewish Montreal.
Challah, for instance, the braided bread eaten on Shabbat and festivals, is based on a solstice bread eaten in the dead of winter in the 15th and 16th centuries. And the idea of grating a root vegetable and frying it into a fritter predates Hanukkah, she said.
“People put a lot of stock in Jewish tradition: They assume that Jewish food has been the same since time immemorial — but every cook works with what is in his or her kitchen, she said, and works with the seasons.
What defined Jewish cuisine were the tweaks Jews made to make things kosher, she said.
In Hungary, for instance, everybody eats goulash and chicken paprikash. The non-Jewish versions have sour cream. Because Jews who observe Jewish dietary laws do not mix meat and dairy, the Jewish versions do not.
Recipes for Hanukkah or anytime
Some of the dishes prepared by Leah Koenig at a recent Hanukkah cocktail party at the Museum of Jewish Montreal.
One could serve the following dishes as appetizers at a Hanukkah cocktail party or, for that matter, any cocktail party at any time. All the following recipes are from Leah Koenig’s Modern Jewish Cooking (Chronicle Books, 2015).
Fried Green Olives
Serves 6 as an appetizer
This crunchy, briny snack is inspired by the fried-olive appetizer at the New York City restaurant Balaboosta, where Israeli-born chef Einat Admony serves the olives over a thick pool of labneh, a Middle Eastern yogurt, sprinkled with spicy harissa.
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon smoked or sweet paprika
1 egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup panko bread crumbs
40 pitted green olives, drained and patted dry
vegetable oil for frying
The cover of Modern Jewish Cooking, by Leah Koenig.
Stir together the flour and paprika in a small bowl. Place the egg in a second small bowl and the bread crumbs in a third small bowl. Dredge olives in flour, shake off excess and dip in the egg wash, then dredge in the bread crumbs, turning to coat.
Over medium heat, heat one-quarter inch vegetable oil in a medium frying pan until shimmering; meanwhile, line a large plate with two layers of paper towels. Working in batches, fry the olives, turning once, until crisp and golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes total. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the olives to the paper towel-lined plate to drain. Serve hot.
Beet Latkes with Chive Goat Cheese
Home cooks have got creative with their Hanukkah latkes, writes Koenig, and gone beyond the traditional fried potato pancakes. She tops these beet latkes, which have a lovely earthy flavour, with a mix of goat cheese and sour cream stirred with chives.
For the chive goat cheese
4 ounces fresh goat cheese, room temperature
1/3 cup sour cream
1/4 cup snipped fresh chives
For the latkes
1 large beet, peeled
3 medium carrots, peeled
1/2 yellow onion, quartered
1 garlic clove, minced or pushed through a press
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
vegetable oil for frying
snipped fresh hives, for serving
To make the chive goat cheese: Stir together the goat cheese, sour cream, and chives in a medium bowl until fully combined. Set aside at room temperature until ready to serve.
To make the latkes: Using a food processor fitted with the shredding disc, shred the beet, carrots, and onion. Working in batches, wrap the grated vegetables in a dish towel or several layers of paper towels and squeeze out as much liquid as possible.
Place the shredded, squeezed vegetables in a large bowl. Add the garlic, flour, baking powder, egg, salt, and pepper and mix with a wooden spoon until ingredients are fully incorporated.
Over medium heat, heat one-quarter inch vegetable oil in a large pan until shimmering but not smoking, and line a large rimmed baking sheet with two layers of paper towels. Working in batches of four or five, drop heaping tablespoons of batter into the pan and gently flatten with a spatula. Fry, turning once, until crisp on both sides and cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes total.
Continue frying latkes with the remaining batter, adding oil to the pan if necessary and adjusting heat if the latkes are browning too quickly or not quickly enough.
With a slotted spoon, transfer the latkes to the paper towel–lined baking sheet to drain.
Serve hot, topped with the goat cheese mixture and a sprinkle of chives. Or let the latkes cool and store in the refrigerator or freezer. When ready to serve, arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet and reheat in the oven at 400 F.
Leah Koenig prepares her lemony smoked-trout crostini as Kat Romanow, director of food programming at the Museum of Jewish Montreal, looks on.
Stuffing Latkes with Cranberry Sauce
Makes 8 latkes
Latkes are traditional Hanukkah fare, but these also provide a wink and a nod to Christmas. They were dreamed up by Jewish food historian Kat Romanow, director of food programming at the new Museum of Jewish Montreal.
1 small onion
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
1-1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh sage
1-1/4 teaspoons fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt
a few grinds freshly ground pepper
1 large potato, russet or Yukon gold
1/4 cup flour
1 large egg, lightly beaten
vegetable or canola oil for frying
Grate the onion on the coarse side of box grater, then put it in a medium bowl along with the herbs, salt and pepper. Peel and grate the potato, also with the coarse box grater or the medium shedding attachment on a food processor; place in cheesecloth and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Mix into the onion mixture. Add the flour and egg and mix so they’re completely coated.
In a medium-sized frying pan, heat one-quarter inch of oil until shimmery. Drop 1/4 cup of the latke mixture into the pan and flatten with the back of a spoon. Fry about 5 minutes, until edges are crispy and golden, flip and cook another minute and a half or so. Place on a paper towel to drain. Repeat with remaining batter.
Cranberry sauce for latkes
12 ounces fresh cranberries
1 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
Place all ingredients in a small pot, bring to a boil and let simmer until it has reduced and thickened, about 30 to 45 minutes. Mash the cranberries every so often. Top latkes with cranberry sauce and, if desired, sour cream, and serve.
Potato latkes with apple-date chutney and cinnamon sour cream.
To traditionalists, Hanukkah wouldn’t be Hanukkah without potato latkes. But jazz them up with apple-date chutney in place of the more traditional applesauce — and maybe spice the sour cream with some cinnamon.
Potato Latkes with Apple-Date Chutney and Cinnamon Sour Cream
For the chutney
1 pound crisp, tart apples, peeled, quartered, cored and cut into half-inch chunks
1/3 cup finely chopped dates
1/3 cup finely chopped yellow onion
One two-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons honey
zest of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
For the cinnamon sour cream:
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon pure maple syrup
For the latkes:
2 pounds Russet potatoes, scrubbed and unpeeled
1 medium yellow onion
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
vegetable oil for frying
Make the chutney: Stir together the apples, dates, onion, ginger, red wine vinegar, cider vinegar, brown sugar, honey, lemon zest, and allspice in a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat to low, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the apples are very tender, about 30 minutes. Uncover, raise the heat to medium, and simmer, stirring often, until the liquid reduces to a syrup, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool completely. (Store for up to 1 day, covered, in the refrigerator, but bring to room temperature before topping the latkes.)
To traditionalists, Hanukkah wouldn’t be Hanukkah without potato latkes.
Make the cinnamon sour cream: Stir together the sour cream, cinnamon, and maple syrup in a small bowl. (Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day.)
Make the latkes: Grate the potatoes and onion on the large holes of a box grater, or cut them into quarters and shred in a food processor fitted with the shredding blade. Working in batches, wrap the grated potatoes and onion in a dish towel or several layers of paper towels and squeeze as much liquid as possible out of them.
Place the shredded, squeezed potatoes and onion in a large bowl. Add the eggs, flour, salt, and pepper and mix with a wooden spoon until ingredients are fully incorporated.
Heat one-quarter inch of vegetable oil in a large, high-sided frying pan set over medium-high heat until shimmering but not smoking, and line a large rimmed baking sheet with two layers of paper towels. Working in batches of three or four, drop the batter by the quarter-cup into the pan and gently press with a spatula to flatten. Fry, turning once, until browned on both sides and cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes total. Continue frying latkes with the remaining batter, adding additional oil to the pan if necessary and adjusting the heat if the latkes are browning too quickly or not quickly enough. With a slotted spoon, transfer the latkes to the paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain.
Serve hot, topped with apple-date chutney and cinnamon sour cream. Or, let the latkes cool and store in the refrigerator or freezer. When ready to serve, arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet and reheat in a 400 F oven.
Chocolate-dipped figs with a sprinkling of sea salt.
This is a magical dish, writes Koenig, and a ridiculously simple one to prepare. The sprinkle of sea salt brings everything together. If you can’t find dried Calimyrna figs, substitute lack Mission figs — or your favourite variety.
2 ounces bittersweet baking chocolate, roughly chopped
12 dried Calimyrna figs
Flaky sea salt for dusting
Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler set over simmering water or in the microwave, in a microwave-safe bowl, at 30-second intervals, stirring between each interval.
Use your fingers to reshape any figs that were flattened in their package. Dip the rounded bottom half of each fig in the melted chocolate and lay on the figs on their sides on the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle each fig bottom with a little sea salt. Refrigerate figs until chocolate sets, about 15 minutes. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Kabocha squash and chocolate-chip cake served during a Hanukkah cocktail party at the Museum of Jewish Montreal.
Kabocha Squash Chocolate Chip Cake
Kabocha is an Asian variety of winter squash becoming increasingly popular at farmers’ markets: It looks like a small, slightly flattened, dark green pumpkin and its orange flesh is creamy and dense. Depending on the temperature in your home, the coconut oil will be liquid or solid: best to measure it in its liquid state, so stick it in a pot of warm water until it melts.
1 medium kabocha squash (or butternut, if you can’t find kabocha)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup pecans, roughly chopped
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/3 cup melted unrefined coconut oil
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 400 F and line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Use a sharp knife to poke several deep slits in the squash and place on the baking sheet. Bake until flesh pierces easily with a fork, 45 to 60 minutes. Remove from oven and gently cut squash in half, then allow to cool to the touch. Scoop out and discard the seeds, then scoop out packed 1-1/4 cups of flesh and mash with a potato masher until smooth. Set aside, reserving the remaining squash for another use. (Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.)
Lower oven temperature to 350 F. Grease and lightly flour a 9-inch round springform pan. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a medium bowl. Stir in the pecans and chocolate chips.
Whisk together the coconut oil, brown sugar, and maple syrup in a large bowl until smooth and combined, about 1 minute. Add the eggs, one at a time, followed by the squash and vanilla, whisking until incorporated. Add the flour mixture in three stages, stirring with a wooden spoon until just combined after each addition, and scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth with a spatula. Bake until a tester inserted into the centre comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes. Transfer cake to a wire rack and let cool for at least 30 minutes before removing from pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.
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