Why doughnuts are just too hard
LAST DECEMBER, at our local kosher supermarket, I went to the till with four bags of latkes, three boxes of Chanukah candles and two disposable chanukiot. “Getting ready for Chanukah?” asked the assistant, completely seriously.
I swallowed down a sarcastic reply, smiled, and said that yes I was.
Chanukah has a popularity totally out of proportion to its actual significance in the yearly cycle, and it’s easy to see why. First, there’s the obvious fact of its proximity to Christmas, meaning that we are able to tick the same cultural boxes as the rest of the country — gift-giving, family-gathering, eating delicious and unhealthy food.
I received a Chanukah card years ago from my friend Danny, with some unexpected text printed inside: “Happy Christmas”.
Danny was working at the time at Swiss Cottage Books (a lovely independent bookshop, now sadly defunct) and they’d received a consignment of Christmas and Chanukah cards that contained just one minor printing error. The ones featuring a menorah and a magen David on the front had a Christmas message, whereas the ones depicting Mary and the Baby Jesus on a donkey read, “Happy Chanukah”.
Danny sent me the version with the Christmas picture as well, so that between the two of them I would get the full Chanukah greeting.
A particular attraction of Chanukah is that there’s also nothing we’re not allowed to do. There are no days of Yom Tov, and hence none of the associated halachic restrictions. What’s more, we don’t have to fast (in fact, it’s explicitly forbidden), or eat bitter herbs, or sit frozen in wooden huts, or repent for our sins. We don’t even have to go to shul! I mean seriously, what’s not to like?
I decided I was going to make my own doughnuts a couple of years ago. How much nicer, I thought, to have homemade ones than just getting the shopbought variety (particularly as the doughnuts from the north London kosher bakeries are likely to bankrupt you before the eight days are up).
I spent an afternoon wallowing in sugar and flour, eggs and yeast and oil — so much oil — mixing and rolling and then deep frying, making diligent use of a sugar thermometer to ensure the doughnuts were cooked at precisely the right temperature. And I ended up with a plate full of blackened, oil-saturated rounds of dough. Not only were they completely inedible, but there was oil on every surface of the kitchen. I felt like oil had seeped into my very soul.
I’m pretty bloody minded when it comes to learning how to cook things, and if it doesn’t work the first time I tend to ask for advice and then try again the next day, and the next, until I get it right. Not this time — the experience had been just too traumatic. I vowed to buy ready-made doughnuts from that day on, even if we had to remortgate our house in order to do so.
Fortunately, we don’t spend an excessive amount on presents. My husband and I sometimes discover we’ve bought each other exactly the same small gift. One year, it was a DVD of Modern Family. No one needs two identical DVDs of anything, but as it turned out, even one DVD of Modern Family was too much for us — we watched half an episode and both hated it.
Another year, we each gave the other a Terry’s Chocolate Orange. “A whole chocolate orange?” said my friend Matt when I told him about it. “Please stop flaunting your wealth and privilege”.
But of course Chanukah, more than any other festival (except possibly Purim), is above all focused towards children. My kids love getting presents, of course — but I think they also like the Chanukah story, and the singing, and the lights that increase so satisfyingly day by day.
The Houses of Shammai and of Hillel — two ancient schools of Jewish thought — had contrasting ideas about how the Chanukah miracle should be represented. The House of Shammai thought that you should start with eight candles and remove one each day, to show how many days of the miracle remained.
The House of Hillel thought the opposite, and the fact that it won is a sign that it had greater psychological insight. It’s much more compelling to have the lights build day by day, than to start with them at their brightest and have them dwindle into nothing.
Two years ago, Chanukah coincided with Limmud and a special tent was set up for candle lighting. Everyone brought their own chanukiot, and each day the space was flooded with ever more flickering lights. The strains of Maoz Tzur sung simultaneously but in different keys and starting at slightly different times, echoed across the nearby lake.
It was beautiful — my children talk about it still, and I suspect it will be the childhood Chanukah they remember most.
The oil had seeped into my very soul