This issue’s recipe, in honor of Hanukah, is kindly provided by Ronit Treatman, who grew up in Israel and, as the daughter of an Israeli diplomat, also lived in Ethiopia and Venezuela before coming to Philadelphia, where she loves Congregation Mikveh Israel.
Thanks to genetic testing, she also discovered her Jewish lineage to Spain. Some of her ancestors escaped to Italy while others made their way to Brazil. Today, she advocates for crypto Jews who are only recently reconnecting with their heritage. You can learn more of her story and recipes here:
Hanukkah is a celebration of the victory the Maccabees over the Seleucids who were attempting to force the people of Israel to accept Greek culture. Hanukkah means “dedication”: The Second Temple in Jerusalem was purified and rededicated once the revolt was over.
However, it is acknowledged that the Maccabee victory would not have been possible without the support of the brave Jewish women. It is the tradition in parts of the Sephardic world that the seventh day of Hanukkah is reserved specially to celebrate the women and girls of the community, or chag habanot (festival of the daughters). On this night, women get exclusive use of the synagogues to study Torah, bless their daughters, and celebrate. The men take care of the children, and prepare dairy treats for the women.
It is customary to eat dairy foods because of the heroism of Judith. Judith was a beautiful young widow, who lived during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar (400 years before the time of the Maccabees). She caught the eye of General Holofernes, who had been dispatched to besiege the fictitious city of Bethulia (probably Jerusalem). When Holofernes tried to seduce her, she plied him with salty cheeses and wine. He became so inebriated that he fell into a deep sleep. Seizing this opportunity, Judith cut his head off with his own sword.
When she displayed the severed head to Holofernes’s soldiers, they were so terrified that they fled, ending the siege. Over time, Judith was believed to be an ancestor of the Maccabees, and this narrative was associated with Hanukkah.
Sephardic men pamper the women during chag habanot by preparing a special dish called Sambusak,a type of hand pie, which originated in Persia. It is made of pastry or yeast dough, filled with a combination of several types of cheese, some of them very sharp. These flavorful cheeses are a reminder of General Holoferne’s weakness, skillfully exploited by Judith. To save time, many cooks use frozen puff pastry.
Below is a recipe from the Jewish community of Baghdad, adapted from Mrs. Lamaan Heardoon.
For the dough:
3 1/3 cups of unbleached flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons quick-acting dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup warm water
In a bowl, place the water, yeast, and sugar. Mix well, then let rest for 15 minutes.
Add the rest of the ingredients, and knead the dough.
Cover the bowl with a clean towel, and place in warm spot. Allow the dough to rise for 3 hours.
For the filling:
1 cup grated feta, kashkaval, kasseri, or parmesan cheese
1/4 cup cottage cheese
ground white pepper to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl.
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Pull off a walnut-sized piece of dough. Roll it out with a rolling pin on a lightly floured surface.
Place a teaspoon of filling at the center of the rolled-out dough.
Fold the dough over into the shape of a half moon. Pinch the edges shut.
Place on a cookie sheet covered with a piece of parchment paper. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden-brown.