It is no secret that I am a self-described “foodie.” You may have seen a couple of my baking demonstrations on the Temple Beth Shalom Facebook page. I am also one of those millennials who takes pictures of the things I cook and posts them on social media. As we approach Chanukah, I thought that I would take the opportunity to learn more about my favorite fried Chanukah treat: not the latke, but the sufganiyah. Many people think of sufganiyot simply as jelly donuts, but they are so much more.
In Israel, starting at the beginning of the Jewish month of Kislev, bakeries begin selling sufganiyot. They do not just sell typical jelly-filled donuts covered in powdered sugar; they sell more flavors that you could possibly imagine. In any given bakery, you can find flavors such as espresso, dulce de leche, cookies and cream, black forest, lemon cream, and so many more. These are fancy pastries, the kind you might see on a Food Network competition. When I was living in Jerusalem, one of my classmates organized a “sufganiyot crawl.” For each of the eight nights of Chanukah, we would meet up in a different neighborhood and sample the sufganiyot from different bakeries. It was a delicious experience, to say the least. My favorite sufganyiot came from a bakery called Roladin, which was convenient because they had a store right near the HUC campus.
There is an Israeli folktale that goes like this: When Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, G-d tried to cheer them up by giving them sufganiyot. Of course, this did not actually happen; the sufganiyah is a melding of different fried dough traditions from Northern African and European Jewish cultures. The word sufganiyot can be traced back to the Greek word sufan, meaning “spongy” or “fried,” and Jews from Morocco and Northern Africa have been eating such fried balls of dough for centuries to commemorate Chanukah. The sufganiyah’s characteristic fillings came from Europe. As Europeans began to colonize the Caribbean in the 16th century, they brought back cheap sugar produced by enslaved people, which allowed them to make sweet fillings for their pastries. The first known recipe for the jelly donut can be found in a German cookbook in 1532. These pastries quickly spread throughout Europe, and European Jews began eating them on Chanukah to commemorate the miracle of the oil.
The North African and European traditions melded when Jews began making aliyah to Israel in the early 20th century in order to escape antisemitism. The national labor group Histradrut, established in 1920 in then British-mandated Palestine, was responsible for the proliferation of sufganiyot in Israel. Two of the aims of the Histadrut were full employment of those in the region and the integration of new Jewish immigrants. The Histadrut felt that they could work toward both of these goals by promoting a tasty Chanukah treat that is more easily made by professionals. Because of the Histadrut’s efforts, today, over 18 million sufganiyot are consumed each year in Israel.
Since returning from Israel, I have been on a quest to find the perfect Israeli-style sufganiyot in the United States. Fortunately, while living in New York City, I discovered Breads Bakery, an Israeli-owned bakery at Union Square that produces all sorts of interesting flavors of sufganiyot each year. Happily, I just discovered that they deliver some of their baked goods nationally! There are also other Israeli bakeries throughout the country where one can find Israeli-style sufganiyot. This year, as you consume your tasty Chanukah treats, I encourage you to think outside the jelly donut box when it comes to flavor.
Cantor Sara Kheel