The rich history of Hanukkah dates back to ancient times when Antiochus, King of the Hellenist Syrians, outlawed Jewish rituals and commanded the Jews to worship Greek gods. In 168 B.C.E. the holy Temple of the Jews was seized by the Greeks who then dedicated it to the worship of their supreme god Zeus. The Jewish people were angered by this, and began fighting against the Greeks.
The rebellion started in the village of Modi’in, where Mattathias, a Jewish High Priest, refused a Greek officer’s orders to perform certain activities that were forbidden to Jews. Mattathias, his five sons, and other villagers attacked and killed several Greek soldiers. The family then fled to the mountains where they waged a continuous fight over a three-year period. Mattathias died just one year into this rebellion, but not before putting his son Judah Maccabee in charge of the army.
In 165 B.C.E. the Jews finally defeated the army of the Hellenist Syrians. When Judah Maccabee and his soldiers reclaimed the holy Temple from Antiochus, they found destruction everywhere. Upon completing the cleaning and reparations in the Temple, the Maccabees decided to have a ceremony to rededicate the Temple for their use. One part of the ceremony involved the lighting of their sacred menorah, but they were only able to find enough oil to keep the menorah lit for one day. According to tradition, the oil lasted a miraculous eight days, which allowed them time to locate more oil for keeping the menorah lit.
Today, Jews celebrate their remembrance of this miracle by lighting a candle in a menorah every night over an eight-day period, starting on the 25th of the Hebrew calendar’s Kislev, which is the November-December timeframe on the Gregorian calendar. During Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukkah), children receive gelt, or money, to commemorate the coins of the new Maccabee kingdom. They play games such as spinning a dreidel, which is a four-sided top. Gift-giving on each of the eight days of Hanukkah is a relatively recent change in tradition, as is the exchange of gifts other than money. Meals that are symbolic of the events being celebrated are prepared and consumed. Foods fried in oil represent the oil that lasted eight days. Traditional Hannukah foods also include cheese, deep-fried puffs dipped in honey or sugar, “sufganiyot” (jelly-filled doughnuts) and latkes (potato pancakes).
The custom of consuming dairy dishes such as cheesecake and blintzes during Hanukkah became popular in the Middle Ages as a result of the story of Judith. As legend has it, Judith saved her village from the Babylonians by enticing enemy General Holofernes with both her beauty and also a basket full of cheese and wine. Upon indulging copiously, the Babylonian general eventually passed out. Judith took advantage of the opportunity and slayed Holofernes, thus saving her people. In honor of Judith’s bravery, eating dairy foods at Hanukkah became tradition.
An easy way to bring the Hanukkah celebration to life is to serve cheesecake as part of a traditional meal. Whether original or fruit-topped, friends and family will delight upon seeing cheesecake delivered right to their door at any time during this holiday. With its eight days and nights of celebration, there are multiple opportunities to give a gift and to partake in what is one of the most traditional foods of Hanukkah—cheesecake in a variety of flavors.