How Labor Zionists Turned Central European Jelly Doughnuts into Israeli Hanukkah Fare

December 15, 2020 | Gil Marks
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While for American Jews the latke (potato pancake) is the dish most associated with Hanukkah, in Israel it is the sufganiyah, or jelly doughnut. But—contrary to popular belief—the latter as much of the former has its origins in Ashkenazi cuisine. Jam-filled pastries, writes the great Jewish food writer Gil Marks first originated in Germany, whence they spread eastward (2010):

Poles named jelly doughnuts pączki (flower buds). Polish Jews fried these doughnuts in schmaltz or oil instead of lard and called them ponchiks. In certain areas of Poland, they became the favorite Hanukkah dessert. . . . Polish-Jewish immigrants brought ponchiks to Israel, along with the custom of eating them on Hanukkah. In Israel, however, ponchiks soon took the name sufganiyah (plural, sufganiyot), from a “spongy dough” mentioned in the Talmud, [called] sofgan or sfogga.

In the late 1920s, the Histadrut, the Zionist labor federation, decided to champion the less widespread jelly doughnut as a Hanukkah treat rather than l’vivot (latkes), because latkes were relatively easy and homemade, while sufganiyot were rather difficult for most home cooks, thereby providing work (preparing, transporting, and selling the doughnuts) for its members. Companies began turning out the doughnuts days or even weeks before Hanukkah, stretching both the amount of work and the period of enjoyment for eating them, although there are those who insist on waiting to eat one until after lighting the first candle. Sufganiyot subsequently emerged as by far the most popular Israeli Hanukkah food.

In 2009, about 18 million sufganiyot were consumed in the weeks before and during the holiday, or about three doughnuts per Israeli, with the with the Israeli Defense Force alone purchasing around a half million that year.

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