After a stern talking-to from a top politician about (what else this time of year?) — fatty, artery-clogging oil — Israelis are readying to celebrate Chanukah. Nowadays it feels decidedly naughty going to buy holiday donuts.
In a speech that had him branded as a Grinch and a killjoy, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman declared war on that most iconic of Chanukah foods. He defended past attacks on unhealthy food and said, “If I had to say it today, I would say, out with donuts.”
Litzman said that there is “no need to feed our kids donuts that are incompatible with the values of health and nutrition.” The minister urged people to choose healthy alternatives to the standard high-fat sufganiyot, or enjoy them in moderation instead of eating a “mountain” of them.
Donut-eating machine Homer Simpson would have taken the news of a donut crackdown better than some of Israel’s bakers, who are preparing what they consider a national delicacy, and preparing to turn an end-of-year profit. Adina Tzur of the Berman Bakery, which distributes donuts nationwide, told me that Litzman is attacking tradition. She asked sarcastically, “It’ll be Purim and they’ll say don’t eat hamentashen, and before Shabbat will they say don’t eat cholent and kugel?”
Welcome to Israel. The country where everyone can question anyone about their salary, the size of their mortgage and who they voted for; the country where everybody tells you how to care for your baby or child because you’re clearly doing it wrong. But if the health minister tells people to go easy on the deep-fried dough, judging by the responses flying around media and social media, he has crossed a sacred line and endangered personal autonomy.
Yet as the nation asked who Litzman thinks he is and asked how he dares to make people feel guilty at the donut counter, my jelly-free, sugar-free hands were applauding him. Those donuts, I have thought for years, were getting above their station and needed bringing down a peg or two.
This may come as a shock in America, where potatoes are already being grated and onions peeled, where buckets of apple sauce are being prepared. But in Israel, donuts are turning latkes into an endangered species. The commercially produced donut has pushed away all competitors and become the Chanukah food. Latkes are being elbowed out of the picture.
It’s easy to see why. The average Israeli walks or drives past numerous bakeries every day, and all of them are selling donuts ready-to-serve. They offer the Chanukah spirit quick and easy, in a to-go box, with no effort, no greasy pans and no teary eyes from onion exposure.
The popularity of Chanukah jelly donuts goes back to pre-state Palestine. In the 1920s the trade union of Jewish workers in Mandate Palestine was concerned that Chanukah provided very few commercial opportunities, and decided to seize on donut traditions. And so the Zionist labor-generating donut, or sufganiya, was born, preserving the traditions of the Polish version, the ponchke, but marginalizing the Moroccan sfinj, which is considered home cooking and therefore doesn’t provide business opportunities.
Today, you can’t go anywhere — the bank, the country club, the school Chanukah party — without being given a donut. Therefore, people are not eating Chanukah food at home.
Latkes are home cooking, a joint endeavor between family members, and it takes time and effort to prepare them. Yes, they have a lot of calories, but they lack the mass of sugar. And they are eaten in moderation — they’re enjoyed in company, as they come out of the pan, and then they are cleared away. People are not nibbling away at latkes all day for eight days, as they are with donuts.
Litzman was right to target donuts — they aren’t just unhealthy, they are the typical fast food, sold everywhere and cheaply, often gulped down without the eater appreciating the experience. Plus, they have very little real taste. And they’re making my kids, and everyone else’s kids, crave fancy sugary Chanukah food, instead of latkes, which are beautiful for their simplicity.
The charm of the latke is that it uses foods that we eat all year round — potatoes and onions — and presents them in a special festive Chanukah configuration. The charm is that its appearance is unassuming, but its taste is soft and comforting. Its appeal is that it’s a warm treat in the middle of a cold winter, and that it is the taste of home cooking. Also, it is something the whole family can make together.
Ladies and gentlemen, if you have ever asked what the diaspora can teach Israel, consider this your call-up notice. Prepare to sacrifice your fingers to the ever-fierce grater, to get splashes of grease on your best clothers, and to clog your sink with potato peelings. Then, post pictures on the Facebook of every Israeli you know. Help keep the legacy of the latke alive.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.