All over the world, Jews celebrate Hanukkah with lighted candles and deep-fried foods. In Morocco, the fundamentals are no different, though, of course, the details are.
While it isn’t considered one of the major Jewish holidays, Hanukkah, which starts this year at sundown Sunday, is one of the most joyous celebrations on the Jewish calendar. Also called Feast of the Lights, the eight-day festival (corresponding to the Jewish calendar’s 25th of Kislev to the 2nd of Tevet) celebrates Judas Maccabaeus’ victory over King Antiochus IV of Syria more than 2,100 years ago.
The king had tried to force the Jews to adopt his form of pagan worship and set up a statue of Zeus in the temple at Jerusalem. Fierce battles ensued. Three years later, in 165 BC, the Jews finally reconquered the temple and set about restoring it.
During its subsequent rededication, the one-day supply of olive oil for the temple’s eternal flame (ner tamid) miraculously lasted until the Jews were able to secure a new source of oil eight days later. The use of oil during Hanukkah symbolizes the Jews’ determination to perpetuate their religious traditions.
In Fez, where the Jewish presence dates back almost a thousand years, Moroccan Sephardim, like Jews around the world, commemorate the event by lighting the hanukkiyah (menorah) on eight consecutive evenings. Originally, the hanukkiyah was an oil lamp with eight small receptacles, each holding a wick made of hemp. Today, the nine-branch candelabrum lit with the shamash , or service candle, is the most enduring symbol of Hannuakh.
Hanukkah celebrations in Morocco center mainly around children. Each night, as soon as the first stars are visible in the night sky, family and friends gather around the hanukkiyah for the lighting of the candles. Children are often entrusted with reciting the special Hanukkah prayers: the first blessing gives thanks to God for his command to kindle the Hanukkah lights. The second, recited as the candles are lighted, praises God for the miracle the candles symbolize. In some families, the custom for Hanukkah also entails offering small gifts or coins to the youngest members of the family.
In keeping with the spirit of the celebration, a number of fried foods grace Sephardic tables. The most ubiquitous are the Hanukkah doughnuts -- in French, beignets de hanoukah --traditionally eaten on the third night.
“For us, as children, Hanukkah meant we would be treated to our Tante Judith’s sugar-dusted beignets ,” says Danielle Mamane, a resident of Fez. “After we recited the Hanukkah prayers, my cousins and I would run into the dining room to attack the pyramid of doughnuts. We spent the remainder of the evening giggling at the sight of our white powdered sugar mustaches!”
Formerly, families who lived in the mellah (Jewish quarter) of Fez went from house to house to savor beignets with a steaming glass of mint tea, the Moroccan national drink. Many hosts seized the happy occasion to open a bottle of homemade mahiya , a fiery Kosher liqueur distilled from dried figs, dates or raisins.
Mamane says: “In Fez, the weather in December can be quite cold. My aunt’s house had high ceilings, and was difficult to heat. We all used to gather in the living room to stay warm, and the adults kept the chill at bay by sipping glasses of mahiya . My young cousins and I loved to listen to their stories late into the night. Often, we would simply give in to exhaustion, and we had to be carried home, fast asleep.”
Couscous, a staple of the Moroccan diet, also holds a prominent place on local menus. In Fez, Morocco’s culinary and cultural capital, Sephardic cooks prepare a couscous moistened with a rich fragrant broth delicately scented with orange blossom water on the first night of Hanukkah. They elaborately decorate the mound of steamed semolina with a dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon, sprinkle its peak with fried almonds, and surround the base with a glistening ring of meltingly tender caramelized onions.
That may be about as far from brisket as you can imagine, but the thought is the same.
Morse’s latest book is the author of nine cookbooks, including the just-released “The Scent of Orange Blossoms: Sephardic Cuisine From Morocco” (Ten Speed Press, $24.95).