For Nira Solomon and her family, the eight nights of Hanukkah are a time of lightheartedness and joy in her Overland Park home. The Festival of Lights, which begins at sundown on Dec. 24, celebrates the ancient victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians in reclaiming the temple in Jerusalem.
Raised in Israel, Solomon moved to the United States nearly 30 years ago after marrying her husband, Elie. Together, the couple have three grown children, but sharing her faith and traditions with Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy kindergarteners as a Jewish studies teacher also gives her great joy.
Q: Can you explain the “Miracle of the Oil”?
A: In the second century B.C.E., Judah the Maccabee led a band of Jews to reclaim the temple in Jerusalem from the Syrians. One of the first tasks of the Jews was to rededicate the temple. The Jews lit the holy menorah (lamp) but found only enough holy oil to last one day.
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The story goes that the flames of the menorah burned steadily for eight days, by which time purified oil was ready. The foods of Hanukkah reflect this miracle of oil with fried latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot, which are jelly doughnuts and commonly sold in Israeli shops during Hanukkah.
Q: How do Hanukkah celebrations in Israel differ from those in the States?
A: In Israel, the Hanukkah season is a happy time centered around children, with eight days of vacation from school and activities focused around entertainment, and no gift exchanges as you find here.
In both America and Israel, candles are lit each night on the hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah) while singing songs with accompanying prayers. The dreidel game is played, and children receive gold-covered chocolate coins, or real gelt (money). Hanukkah is not a high holy day, but a time of joy and light during the darkest time of the year.
Q: Your hanukkiah made of bread is a work of art. How did you learn to bake so beautifully?
A: Challah is the bread served every week for Shabbat, and this recipe comes from Israel and had to be translated from Hebrew to English. My family emigrated from Yemen — an Arab country south of Saudi Arabia on the peninsula — to Israel in 1970.
I am an artist, making Yemenite jewelry, but cooking can also be considered an art that delights all the senses you can share with others. My mother, Yonah Kehaty, was a very intuitive cook, with no measuring cups, just a pinch of this and my mother’s hand.
While I try to get back to Israel as much as I can to see my family, the teachers and children at Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy have become my extended family here.
Q: In Jewish traditions, how are faith and food interconnected?
A: We always say prayers at mealtime, which shows gratitude and an awareness of the foods eaten. Food shared just brings people together. Everyone has to eat, but when you pay attention to the details of food and how it is prepared, the simplest meal or loaf of bread becomes something special, because of the story that accompanies it.
I love cooking with these children. They are just exceptional. We made honey cakes to celebrate Rosh Hashanah for a sweet new year, and the children also made their own challah to share with their families. There are practical reading, science and mathematical lessons in cooking, but we also pass on Jewish traditions through food.
My credo is the Hebrew proverb, “Mikol melamdai hiskalti,” which means I find something to learn from all those with whom I interact. And I am constantly learning from these children.
Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. Email her at email@example.com to nominate a cook.
Makes 2 (10-inch) loaves, or 20 (1-inch) servings
2 cups warm water (105 to 110 degrees)
2 tablespoons active dry yeast
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
7 to 8 cups bread flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 beaten egg
White sesame seeds, optional
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk, mix water, yeast, sugar, eggs, egg yolk and vegetable oil together until well combined.
Affix the dough hook on the mixer, add 4 cups flour and mix until flour is incorporated into wet ingredients. Add salt to dough and mix for 3 minutes, or until batter is smooth.
Add remaining flour, 1 cup at a time, and mix well between each addition, at least 7 minutes. The finished dough should be soft and elastic — not sticky — so continue to add flour until it reaches this consistency. You may not use all 8 cups flour.
Transfer dough to a clean, lightly floured bowl and cover with a clean dishtowel. Allow dough to rise for about 2 hours in a warm, draft-free place or until doubled in size.
Punch down dough and divide into 6 equal parts. Roll out each section of dough to a “rope” about 12 inches in length. Set aside.
On an 11-by-15-inch baking sheet lined with parchment paper, braid 3 “ropes” of dough, tucking the ends under on each side of the loaf, so they will stay together and ends won’t burn. Repeat process for remaining 3 “ropes” of dough on a separate parchment-lined baking sheet.
Cover each with a towel and allow dough to rise again for about an hour. Preheat oven to 345 degrees and lightly brush the top of braided bread dough with beaten egg and sprinkle sesame seeds over all, if desired. Bake bread for 30 to 35 minutes or until it is golden brown. Allow bread to cool before cutting.
Per serving: 268 calories (25 percent from fat), 7 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 42 milligrams cholesterol, 43 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 492 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.