Anchorage’s local Hanukkah gatherings shine light on tradition and food

A man lights the candles on a menorah
A man in Star Trek pajamas lights a candle on a menorah. The lighting tradition is a callback to the lighting of the holy temple’s menorah, which stayed lit for eight days on a single day’s supply of oil. The pajamas are a newer twist. (Young Kim/Alaska Public Media)

Carrying boxes and trays of food, Anchorage families shuffled out of the snow and into the synagogue Friday night to gather for the second night of Hanukkah. Many members of the Congregation Beth Sholom wore pajamas or Hanukkah themed sweaters, adding an extra layer of coziness to the Festival of Lights.

“You can see it’s a pretty good turn out here,” said Stacey Saunders, president of the congregation’s board of trustees, who’s originally from Ohio and has lived in Alaska for nearly 40 years. “It’s geared toward the children, there’s always games and things like that, but people use it as an opportunity to get together and eat.”

Jewish people across the city have been celebrating Hanukkah this week by lighting candles on their menorahs, playing dreidel, drinking wine and frying food. New and old food traditions bring family and friends together and build connections in the small and diverse Anchorage Jewish community.

And food has always been a major part of Jewish holidays, going back centuries, through dark times and light, Rabbi Abram Goodstein said. 

“We have this saying, it’s like, ‘They tried to kill us. They didn’t succeed. Let’s eat,’” Goodstein said.

A group of people fill plates with food from a long table
Celebrating with food is central to many Jewish holidays. Members of Congregation Beth Sholom line up for a potluck buffet after the Hanukkah service. (Young Kim/Alaska Public Media)

Hanukkah means “dedication” in Hebrew, and the holiday commemorates the rededication of the holy temple in Jerusalem, which happened in the second century BC. Lighting the menorah nightly, either individually or as a household, is at the center of the holiday. It’s a callback to the holy temple’s menorah, which stayed lit for eight days during the rededication on a single day’s supply of oil. Today, many people light small candles that fit inside their menorah’s eight branches instead of using oil.

The use of oil still plays an important role in celebrating the holiday and is expressed by frying foods. Two of the most popular foods at Hanukkah gatherings are latkes – crispy, fried potato pancakes – and sufganiyot, pillowy jelly- or custard-filled donuts. Frying foods in oil symbolizes the miracle of a day’s worth of oil lasting eight days.

This year, the second night of Hanukkah also took place on Shabbat – the weekly Jewish day of rest, which also begins at sundown on Friday and lasts through sundown on Saturday.

But in the Far North, the position of the sun in the sky can vary greatly over the year.

“In Alaska that’s a moving target,” Rabbi Goodstein said. “I would say different Jews do different things with that. Being in Alaska, we decided to just have service start at 6 p.m. no matter what, whether it’s summer or winter, it’s just our choice.”

At the Friday night Hanukkah gathering at Congregation Beth Sholom, the oldest and biggest congregation of Reform Judaism in Alaska, the sun dipped beneath the horizon hours ago, but the celebration was only beginning, as Rabbi Goodstein led the group in reciting special blessings and singing traditional songs.

People gathered at Congregation Beth Sholom
Members of Congregation Beth Sholom meet Friday, Dec. 8, 2023 for a service on the second night of Hannukah. (Young Kim/Alaska Public Media)

Goodstein grew up in Anchorage, and for the last six years he’s been a rabbi at Beth Sholom.

“There’s not a lot of Jews in Alaska,” he said. “We’re a minority community here, but I feel like in Anchorage, which is full of minorities, it feels like home.”

On Sunday afternoon, the fourth day of Hanukkah, Chava Schapira was grating golf ball-sized butterball potatoes that they grew with their partner in an Anchorage Community Garden plot. Schapira also grew up in Anchorage and remembers being the only Jewish family on the street with a menorah shining brightly in the window during the dark winter nights of Hanukkah.

“I feel connected to every Jew who has been alone,” Schapira said. “I feel present with every generation of Jews who were persecuted. And in that feeling, I feel solidarity with oppressed peoples in the present. As Jews, we know what it means to be hurt by institutions of power, and as a Jew, I have to stand with oppressed people fighting for their liberation. Being here, in Alaska, in a place where we are very much in the minority, it’s easier to remember that.”

In many ways, Hanukkah is a time of remembrance for Schapira, who enjoys making latkes the way their great grandmother taught them. The family recipe, which has been closely guarded, follows similar classic latke recipes that include grated potato and onions, with eggs and flour to help bind it all together.

“I think about the best parts of my maternal line when I make these latkes, the strength,” Schapira said. “I sometimes forget to call my grandmother, and it’s usually while making these that I remember.”

As Schapira scooped the potato mixture into a pan full of hot oil, they waited a couple of minutes to allow one side to get crispy before flipping it. Once the latkes were perfectly golden brown on both sides, they went directly into a paper towel-lined container and into the freezer, where Schapira said they can maintain peak crispiness.

Schapira’s latkes are made in large batches, with dozens being made ahead of time. They reheat them in a 400-degree oven for the duration of the holiday.

“There are so many traditions where you need to be making and sharing food,” they said. “These are recipes for a village.”

In the last few years, inspired by their partner’s family, Schapira has enjoyed using latkes to make eggs benedict with sour cream, lox, green onions, capers and a runny egg.

“It is the most luxurious food you could imagine,” they said.

Saunders, the congregation’s board of trustees president, said she also likes to experiment with different recipes, like a potato, sage and pear version of a latke, served with sour cream or a bright citrus-forward fritter.

“I made an Italian version, which is a donut fritter called lemon ricotta fritter,” she said. “It’s lightly sweet, you sprinkle it with powdered sugar, and you can dunk it in jelly or honey or something like that. So I’ve been researching different foods, you know, different traditions.”

After the Friday night Hanukkah service, Rabbi Goodstein invited everyone into the synagogue’s small cafeteria, where, at the entrance, two members invited attendees to vote on their favorite latke condiment: sour cream or applesauce.

“There’s a big argument about which one is better,” Goodstein said. “Jews love to argue, of course, so no one can agree on that one.”

Everyone gathered around a handful of long tables filled with trays and boxes of food while the rabbi blessed wine and challah bread. After the blessing, a long line quickly formed as people grabbed plates and forks and served themselves latkes with their favorite condiments. On another table, people picked from a variety of donut options, which included frosted donut holes and jelly-filled, sugar-dusted malasadas from local Hawaiian bakery Wiki-Licious. 

“I like it all,” Goodstein said. “I like latkes. I like sufganiyot, but I’m not going to tell you applesauce or sour cream. It’s probably not a good idea.”

A table holds numerous menorahs with lighted candles
Many families brought small menorahs from home to light together with other members of Congregation Beth Sholom. (Young Kim/Alaska Public Media)

Editor’s note: This reporting is supported in part by a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum and the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this report do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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