Hanukkah (more traditionally written as Chanukah or Chanuka), otherwise known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish festival that celebrates the recovery of Jerusalem from the Greeks and the subsequent rededication of the Second Temple, which took place in the second century BCE. After the Maccabean victory in Jerusalem, the desecration of the Second Temple during the war left only enough oil to keep the menorah in the Temple lit for one day—miraculously, this oil supply lasted eight days.
Every year, Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of Kislev, the ninth month of the Hebrew Calendar, a lunisolar calendar that differs from the solar Gregorian calendar that is typically used in Australia. As such, the dates of Hanukkah change every year. This year, Hanukkah will take place across December 7–15.
Over the course of the eight-day festival that makes up Hanukkah, a variety of different celebrations take place. The Festival of Lights is a joyous time that celebrates themes of liberation from oppression, courage, religious freedom, and the miracle of the oil. As part of the celebrations, Jews light the menorah and play the game of dreidel.
The lighting of the menorah (a nine-branched candelabrum) takes place each day of Hanukkah, and involves lighting one candle each day for every day of the festival. The middle candle, on the ninth branch, holds the shamash candle, which is used to light all of the other candles.
Another part of the celebration is the different baked goods and treats that are made to celebrate the miracle of the oil that brought about the festival.
The typical traditional baked items that are made during Hanukkah are sufganiyot, which are a type of doughnut, and latkes, which are fritters typically made out of potato. These are both fried in oil, as are other treats made during the Hanukkah period, as part of the celebration of the miracle of the oil.
Maaryasha Werdiger owns and runs Zelda Bakery, which is based in Melbourne, Victoria. The bakery is certified by Kosher Australia and produces Kosher baked goods; Maaryasha herself is Jewish and saw a need for a Kosher bakery on the Australian market when she began Zelda. It was important for her to incorporate parts of herself, her culture, and her heritage into the bakery when it first started.
“Baking is an expression of my culture and heritage. It is how I can connect to past traditions and share them with other people,” she says.
Hanukkah baking is one of the ways that Maaryasha connects with this heritage and with many memories of growing up around Hanukkah baking and baked goods, and this is something that she brings to the baked goods sold by Zelda Bakery around this time.
“My grandmother traditionally made crispy latkes, which are fried potato cakes,” she says.
“Every year, my grandmother used to host a Chanukah party where we had latkes and got Chanukah gelt [money given as a gift during the festival or chocolate or cookies in the shape of this money].
“I kind of remember my mother cursing over the frying pan, and I have vague memories of eating lots of undercooked doughnuts at other people’s houses. I also have memories of some years where we would buy doughnuts from every bakery and compare and discuss them. My favourite memories are standing around the frying pan with my cousins and eating the hot latkes straight out of the pan.”
Now, Maaryasha offers some of the same sweet treats at Zelda during the festive period—sufganiyot in particular.
“Sufganiyot is Hebrew for doughnuts. We celebrate the miracle of oil by eating foods fried in oil and doughnuts have become the main food to celebrate the festival with. Our bakery does naturally leavened brioche doughnuts,” says Maaryasha.
“But there are many types of doughnuts Jewish people eat around the world including sfenj, a Moroccan doughnut, beignets, bomboloni, and any style of doughnut really, depending on where they live and their heritage.”
Something that is completely unique to the Australian experience of Hanukkah, Maaryasha says, comes from the heat that we experience here around the end of the year. Australian Hanukkah experiences also take on the quintessentially Aussie nature of any celebration Down Under.
“As Chanukah falls in the summer in Australia, our Chanukah parties are usually summer barbecues outdoors, which is unique to Australian Jews really,” says Maaryasha.
Although the form of the parties can take on a different, more Australian, form, the baked treats served at them retain their traditional qualities for the most part. However, there are certain Australian elements that creep in, such as one that appears on the menu at Zelda.
“At the bakery we like to make a latke toastie with sourdough bread, latkes, pickles, and cheese,” says Maaryasha.
“We also make dreidel gingerbread cookies, which is a playful nod to Christmas, which is often celebrated around the same time.”
For the most part, however, Maaryasha says that, in the lead up to Hanukkah, traditional doughnuts are the most sought-after item among Zelda’s customers.
“We have found that people just want doughnuts, and they want many different flavours of doughnuts. Over Chanukah, we basically scrap our entire pastry section and just make many hundreds of doughnuts, which come fresh out of the fryer during the morning,” she says.
At least now, Maaryasha reflects, things are a little bit easier for the bakery, which started as a passion project that Maaryasha worked out of her home in Victoria and has since expanded to a bricks-and-mortar store with much more advanced equipment and technology.
She says, “In the early days, we used to fry hundreds of doughnuts, eight at a time, in two pots; however, we now have two small fryers which makes it much easier.”