Chanukah is different than most Jewish holidays which revolve around food — on Rosh Hashana, Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot, traditional observance includes Thanksgiving-sized meals, and sometimes even specific foods. On Rosh Hashana, a widely practiced custom is to eat an apple dipped in honey. This symbolizes sweetness in the coming year. Many eat other symbolic foods like wheat, barley, pomegranate, olive, dates, figs, grapes, fish, squash, carrots, spinach, and beets. On Passover, rituals include eating unleavened bread (made without yeast) called “matzah,” bitter herbs like horseradish or romaine lettuce, and a nut-based dip called “charoset.” For Jews like me with food allergies, observing these time-honored traditions can be challenging, if not life-threatening, which means we’re often excluded from some of the holiday spirit.
But as I said before, Chanukah is different. There are so many fun Chanukah traditions that don’t involve food, and even the food-based customs are easier to accommodate for food allergies!
History of Chanukah
On Chanukah, Jews celebrate the triumph of a group called the Maccabees over the Greeks, who tried to outlaw Jewish practices — including getting rid of the olive oil used in the ritual of lighting the menorah, a multi-branched candelabra (a candlestick with spots for many candles). When the Maccabees won the battle and returned to the Temple, they found just enough oil to light the Menorah for one night — but a miracle made it last for eight.
Celebrations can take place without food
Unlike the other holidays that focus on celebrating through feasts, Chanukah invites us to celebrate with a re-enactment. Jews light replica menorahs on the eight nights of Chanukah, starting with one candle and adding another each night until all eight branches of the candelabra are filled. It’s customary to place the menorah near a windowsill to show the world that not only did the Greeks fail to get rid of Jewish practice back then, but we’re still hanging on to our identity now. Lighting the menorah is the primary tradition of Chanukah. Since there’s no food involved, people with food allergies can participate equally!
Playing games – Dreidel
Another tradition is the game Dreidel. A dreidel is a four-sided top with the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hei, shin. Players compete for a pot, and each letter indicates an action the player should take – skip a turn, collect all or half of the pot, or contribute to the pot. The winner is the player who takes it all at the end of the game! The best part? You can use anything for the pot. Some people use real coins, others use chocolate coins, but you can even use marbles or beads! The point of the game is to have fun with your family and friends, not to win big. If your economic background means you don’t want to use money, and your food allergies mean you don’t want to compete for food, you can use anything you like to build the pot!
Equal opportunities for traditional foods
Of course, there are traditional foods for the holiday. But Chanukah’s traditional foods are equal opportunity and allergy friendly! The most famous dish is “latkes,” or pancakes. Typically, these are potato patties fried in olive oil, but latkes can be made from almost anything and fried in any oil that’s safe for you! Almost any vegetable can be used — some of my favorites are sweet potato and zucchini. Broccoli, butternut squash, pumpkin, and carrots are also popular.
If you can eat dairy, cheese latkes are delicious, too! Many recipes call for eggs or flour, but you can substitute them or leave them out altogether. The purpose of eating latkes is to celebrate the oil used to fry them as a way to remember the oil-based miracle — anything fried is a Chanukah food.
Latkes happen to be the most well-known, but they’re also originally from Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish culture; Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews from Southern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia count other deep-fried goodies among their traditional eats, including fish, artichokes, spinach, leeks, and dough. Because there are so many options for “traditional” dishes, people with food allergies can get creative to participate without feeling excluded.
This December, when Chanukah rolls around, celebrate the Maccabees’ triumph and the holiday’s equal-opportunity festivities. Though the Maccabees ensured Jews wouldn’t lose our faith, heritage, and identity by assimilating (becoming absorbed) into Greek culture, people with food allergies can remember that AND blend in to the crowd while doing so. That’s another miracle to celebrate!
Rules for Playing Dreidel:
There are many variations of the dreidel game, and you can make up whatever house rules you want! But here are the basics to get you started.
Dreidel can be played with at least 2 players — there’s no limit to how many can join in a game. To begin, each player starts with a set of ten coins (or jelly beans, poker chips, marbles, beads…anything small). An additional ten coins are then placed in the center of the table to form a “pot.”
Choose a player to go first. On a player’s turn, they will spin the dreidel and perform an action based on the letter the dreidel lands on. After each player takes a turn, play continues clockwise.
The letters of the dreidel spell out the phrase “A Great Miracle Happened There [in ancient Israel]!”
The game can end in one of two ways: either when one player has taken everything (the entire pot plus everyone else’s stash) or after an agreed-upon number of rounds. (The winner is the person with the most coins left at the end of the rounds). In case of a tie, spin the dreidel one last time — whoever gets the higher value (gimmel, hei, nun, shin) wins. A second tie is friendly.