Savoring the Delectable Delights of Hanukkah

Rebecca Sahn shares the joys of the Festival of Lights, which at her parents' house on Long Island means food, family and faith.

- Posted on Nov 16, 2014

Rebecca Sahn and her mom celebrate Hanukkah with jelly thumbprint cookies.

I sent a last-minute e-mail to a photographer, shut down my office computer and texted my brother Sam: “C U @ Penn in 15.”

I hurried to Penn Station on the west side of Manhattan, where we’d catch the 5:35 train to Mom and Dad’s out on Long Island.

It was the first night of Hanukkah and I couldn’t wait to get home. I’ve lived a crazy busy life in the city for seven years, but home will always be the house in the suburbs where I grew up with my older brothers, Sam and Ben.

There are bigger and more serious Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur, Passover and Rosh Hashanah that require fasting, long services at temple and solemn prayers. Hanukkah is different. Hanukkah is a family celebration. Hanukkah is fun.

The holiday has its origins in the second century BC, when the Jews defeated their oppressive rulers and rededicated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The occupiers had defiled the oil that was used to light the temple’s candelabra.

There was only enough pure olive oil to last a single day, yet the oil fueled the flame for eight days.

Today, Jews celebrate this miracle by placing and lighting one additional candle in the menorah every night for eight straight nights, which is why Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights.

We also eat...a lot, at least in my family, especially on the first night. That’s why I was in a hurry to get home.

My mom is an amazing cook and baker, and the whole train ride to Long Island, all I could think about was the feast she’d prepared for us.

Latkes, potato and onion pancakes. Beef brisket that she’d seasoned with garlic, pepper and bay leaves and roasted for hours until the meat was juicy and tender.

And the desserts! Apple crisp. Sorbet with chocolate shavings. Biscochos, Sephardic shortbread cookies. And my favorite, jelly thumbprint cookies. We call them that because it looks like someone stuck their thumb in the center to make room for the jelly.

Really, though, my mom’s trick, which she learned from my grandma, is to use the end of a wooden spoon.

It was hard to restrain myself from grabbing a cookie as we gathered in my parents’ kitchen. We stood in a semicircle around the menorah and recited the three traditional Hebrew prayers, concluding with the Shehecheyanu, only said on the first night of Hanukkah.

“Blessed are you, Lord, our God,” we prayed, “Sovereign of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and enabled us to reach this season. Amen.”

Mom lit the menorah. We sang Ma’oz Tzur, a Jewish liturgical poem, and found our places around the dining table.

Then the feast began. Naturally I had to have a taste of each dessert.

At the end of the night, Mom and Dad put us back on the train to Manhattan with hugs and Tupperware containers filled with goodies.

I curled up in my seat on the train, feeling incredibly content and grateful.

As much as I love my busy life in the city, I needed a night like this to remind me of the timeless blessings of food, family and faith that light my life.

Try Rebecca's mom's recipe for Jelly Thumbprint Cookies; they're a treat suited to any holiday!

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