December 5, 2021:
In the midst of the end-of-year holidays, I got to wondering how Rebecca would have celebrated Chanukah in the Thirteenth Century in the Kingdom of Sicily. In the contemporary American world, Chanukah, although religiously and historically a rather minor festival, has become much more important because of its proximity to that behemoth of holidays—Christmas. But even as a minor holiday, Jews in Thirteenth Century Sicily would certainly have celebrated it.
Chanukah commemorates the victory of Judah Maccabee who led a revolt against the Antiochus Epiphanies and the Hellenistic culture that threatened to engulf Jewish practice in Israel in the years 167-160 BCE. Despite great odds, the Maccabeans prevailed and rid their temple of Greek statues the Maccabeans had been commanded to pray to. But then came the even greater miracle—that consecrated oil sufficient to light the “eternal” lamp for only one day lasted for eight, providing enough time to consecrate more. And so we have the Festival of Lights. Because of the use of the lunar calendar, the eight days of Chanukah can begin any time in our solar calendar from late November (as in this year) to late December.
Central to the holiday has always been for every family to light in their homes an eight-branched candelabrum (called “chanukiah”) each night using a ninth candle called the “shamesh” (helper). These days chanukiot can also be electric and extremely eclectic in appearance, size, and material. The holiday is also celebrated with foods, wine, games and, at least for the kids, gifts. In the US, based on Jewish traditions from northern Europe, we tend to celebrate the holiday with potato pancakes (latkes) eaten with sour cream or applesauce. Israel is famed for sufganiyot, jelly doughnuts. The foods, like the lights, hark back to the original association with oil.
Rebecca, being a good and faithful Jewish woman, would have celebrated with family and friends. They’d have had the practice of lighting their chanukiot, with candles or with oil. According to Susan Weingarten of Tel Aviv University, in the Middle Ages, Chanukah was also associated with the Biblical story of Judith, who famously fed the enemy general Holofernes with salty cheese that caused him to drink enough wine to get very drunk, giving her the opportunity to cut off his head. This rather grim episode inspired the eating of cheese and drinking of wine to celebrate Chanukah!
Most of the other foods Rebecca and her friends would have enjoyed were associated with oil. Levirot, perhaps an ancestor of our latkes, were made of fine flour mixed with boiling water and fried in oil to produce a very large pancake. Isqaritin was a baked dough that would be dipped in sweet or honeyed wine and eaten hot. Sufganiyot were deep-fried dough filled with red jam and covered with sugar; the actual ancestor of this confection is more like the current beignet.
Were small gifts exchanged? Perhaps. What remains consistent from Rebecca’s time to ours is the centrality for celebration of food and lights.