I only started celebrating Hanukkah (or sort of celebrating it) in the late 1980s. Previously non-religious Jews like me and my family hadn’t celebrated anything. Hungarian society hadn’t yet dealt with the horrors of the Holocaust or faced its consequences, and Jews were still afraid of antisemitism. Celebrating Jewish holidays was not the most supported activity in a Communist country.
I’m a member of that special generation of Hungarians who became adults in the late 1980s / early 1990s just as Hungary was becoming independent from the Soviet Union. I had just turned 18 in 1989 and could now vote. Many older citizens had been voting their whole lives, but this was their first time voting in a free and democratic election. We could fully experience—and enjoy—the loosening of the ties of the Totalitarian system (and believe me, if a system like this gets loose, it will fall apart like a frayed piece of material). Almost 30 years later it’s easy to look back on that time. But when you’re living in it, you are not sure how much you dare to do or how much longer you have to wait for it to end.
The most basic interpretation of Hanukkah is that it is a tale of freedom. After the death of Alexander the Great, who had conquered Israel but left the Jewish religion in place, the Greeks wanted to eradicate Judaism and force the Jews to worship their pagan gods. They forbade certain religious practices. They defiled the Temple. So the Jews, under the leadership of Judah the Maccabee, rose up in rebellion, and won. On the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, they rededicated the Temple. They found only enough ritual oil to burn for one day, but by a miracle, it lasted for eight. Therefore, beginning on the 25th of Kislev, Jews light the menorah for eight nights.
So in these first Hanukkah celebrations in the late 1980s, celebrating the Festival of Lights was a way to celebrate freedom, which we didn’t have at that time, but were hoping would come sooner or later. These celebrations were nothing like what see in Hungary today. The first Hanukkah balls were organized by the Jewish Community and were held in a former Jewish school, which still serves as a community center, next to the Great Synagogue on Dohány utca (the biggest and most beautiful Jewish temple in Europe).
The balls were big social event with live music, famous Hungarian actors performing, and simple sandwiches. I wasn’t a drinker at that time, so I don’t even remember if alcohol was served. Food was not the focus of these parties. It was more about dressing up nicely, being surprised by finding out who else was Jewish, and seeing who had come with who. But this didn’t mean curiosity about new girlfriends or boyfriends, rather seeing who came with their parents or grandparents. For these people, this was a question of going back to pre-war times and trying to deal with painful memories.
The way that celebrating Hanukkah shifted from being a big social event to an intimate family gathering, as it is today, shows how Jews regained their religious consciousness. The importance of food and kosher wine shared with friends and family returned slowly, year by year, as more younger people started celebrating Hanukkah at home.
This is also how the revival of Jewish cuisine came about. Old recipes were brought out of long-supressed memories, and there came big balls of matzo ball soup, goose legs, latkes, and jelly doughnuts onto the Hanukkah dinner menus. Hanukkiahs were lit again to commemorate the miracle of the tiny amount of oil transcending expectations to light the holy menorah. And there was abundant food fried in oil to remind everyone of the miracle of the oil.
Jews of the Middle East and Africa have had their traditional fried dishes since the Middle Ages. One of the most popular was a pancake filled with ricotta. As they migrated to Central Europe they had less access to vegetable oil, so they switched to using animal fat (mainly goose and duck). In order to remain kosher, they left out dairy products, and this is probably how they came up with the sweet spongy dough which they filled with jam. Latkes (fried potato pancakes) were not always made of potatoes either. For many centuries buckwheat flour was the main ingredient in them, and Jews only started using potatoes (which were extremely popular by then) in the late 18th century.
Some of the most typical foods that came back to the Hanukkah menu were not rarities in Hungary even during the hard days of Communism. They had survived–just like many other Jewish dishes–because they had become a part of the Hungarian cuisine. Latkes, which have many variations both in Hungary and Central Europe, is one of these dishes (they are called berét or tócsni in Hungarian). And so are Sufganiyots (called fánk in Hungarian), which are the soft round doughnuts filled with jam or custard. They are a treat for any Hungarian, and are eaten throughout the winter season, particularly around farsang (carnival). According to the legend, when Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden by the Lord, he cheered them up by feeding them these doughnuts. I think this could be a good enough compensation for losing eternity!
Today Hungarian Jews often face the same problems as Jews from anywhere else. Food in fried oil is not healthy and should be avoided. There are dozens of alternative recipes: the latkes and doughnuts can be baked in the oven, potatoes can be substituted for zucchini or sweet potatoes, or traditional doughnuts can be turned into paleo and gluten-free versions. But Jews of the world have been eating foods fried in oil for 2,000 years, do we have a real reason to go healthy now? In other words, do we have the right to take the liberty of that? Sometimes maybe it is better to stick to the traditions, even if they are unhealthy. After all, we did not always have the freedom to celebrate these traditions.
These days in Budapest (and a few other parts of Hungary), Hanukkah is once again celebrated in many ways—from quiet celebrations at home to public candle lightings. In Budapest (which has the highest Jewish population in Eastern Europe, outside of the former Soviet Union), festivities abound—from festivals, parties, special events at restaurants, and even rock concerts.
Personally, I still don’t celebrate the holiday much. Though I now know all about its cultural and culinary traditions, I am always aware of the fact I am still missing a Jewish Holiday. Often it is the younger generation who is now more serious about keeping the holiday traditions. Unlike my generation, they were born into freedom and were brought up either religiously or with a desire to keep the traditions.