The history behind Hanukkah traditions like gelt

In a recent edition of her newsletter “The Sword and the Sandwich,” writer Talia Lavin (who is Jewish) writes about the history behind some Hanukkah traditions such as latkes and “gelt,” the chocolate coins that many children get:

“Take latkes, for example. Delicious, beloved latkes. As ancient as the practice of frying things in oil is, we all know potatoes didn’t arrive in Europe until after the Columbian interchange, and there are a suspicious number of Central and Eastern European analogues to the latke, like Ukrainian deruny or Czech bramborákyThe idea that a bunch of Jews sitting around playing dreidel for a stack of chocolate coins represents an unbroken line of tradition dating back to the Second Temple, when Maccabees slaughtered elephants on the streets of Jerusalem, is a bit of sweet twaddle, the sort of semi-harmless hokum I got served in huge helpings as an Orthodox kid.

It seems particularly apropos that gelt—the ubiquitous gold-foil-wrapped waxy chocolate coins doled out to children and snacked on furtively by adults at this time each year—has a very concrete, quite recent historical origin. Money is among the first things kids get lied to about, even when it isn’t real. Gelt, it turns out, isn’t a beautiful tradition of commemorating the first coins minted by the Hasmonean dynasty, an enduring symbol of their establishment of an independent Jewish kingdom that had shucked off the fetters of imperial rule.

According to scholars and historians , the giving of gelt—which is Yiddish for “money”—dates back no further than perhaps the sixteenth century, when it became traditional to give older yeshiva students, who struggled with penury like all grad students since time began, a little extra to make it through the depths of winter. By the seventeenth century, this evolved into a Chanukah practice of tipping the often-itinerant minor religious figures who helped Jewish communal life function. It took the advent of the nineteenth-century concept of childhood as a precious and vulnerable chapter of life for gelt to become something that one gave to one’s children—and a full-on collision with American consumerism for that money to transmute into chocolate and presents.”

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