We know how good these Jewish donuts are, but where do they come from? What's their relationship to Chanukkah, Jewish tradition, and Israeli culture?
Chanukkah is one of those special holidays that activates the senses: the spinning of the dreidel (סביבון), flickering lights shining against the darkness, and the taste of pan-fried latkes (לביבות). In Israel, the sweet smell of jelly-filled donuts radiates from every street corner, and we know it's sufganiyah (סופגניה) season. About 80% of Israelis will eat at least one sufganiyah during the week of Chanukkah, with the average Israeli eating about four over the holiday.
Sufganiyah is a fun word to say, but what does it mean?
One Israeli folk tale suggests that G-d gave Adam and Eve sufganiyot to ease their sadness after they were banished from the Garden of Eden. If we break down the word into four parts, we see how this folktale may have come to be: סופ - גנ - י - ה. Reading right to left, סוף (sof) = end, גן (gan) = garden, and י (yud) and ה (hey) often connote G-d's name. Thus, it can be interpreted to mean: "The end of the Garden of the Lord."
A much more common understanding of the word is that it has Greek and Hebrew roots. In Greek, sufgan means "fried" and "spongy." In Hebrew, the word sofeg (סופג) translates to "absorb." Eating sufganiyot and other oily foods is symbolic of Chanukkah's miracle.
Similarly, another understanding of sufganiyah is that it's a food and symbol which has been absorbed into all of the cultures and people of Israel. See the next section for more about this...
Food is an amazing way to highlight the multitude of people and cultures that one finds throughout Israel. Exploring variations of the sufganiyah is a great example of this. Below are just a few types of sufganiyot that can be found throughout Israel on Chanukkah, accompanied by recipes and more about the cultures.
Papanash from Romania
Today, about 184,000 Romanian Jews live in Israel, many of whom fled during and after WWII. Papanash, a type of Romanian sufganiyah, are typically made with dough made from cheese, then fried or baked and topped with jam and cream. These donuts don't waste any dough – the centers are cut out and instead of being discarded, are placed on top to create a type of sandwich.
Sfinge from North Africa
Maghrebi Jews (maghrebi is Arabic for "western") in Israel often identify themselves as Mizrahi (מזרחי, lit. "eastern") because of a shared heritage coming from generations spent in Arabic speaking lands. Sfinge, from the Arabic word sfenj meaning "sponge," are soft sufganiyot, sometimes served with powdered sugar on top. Many people dip them in syrup before eating.
Zangola from Iraq
Iraq once had one of the largest Jewish populations in the Middle East. Between 1950 and 1952, about 75% of Jews in Iraq emigrated to Israel in Operation Ezra and Nehemia. Zangola, which came with Iraqi olim, are strips of dough deep fried in oil, carefully shaped into a spiral. Sometimes, they are served on bread, in sandwich form.
Churros from South America
Story goes that the churro was brought to Spain by Portuguese explorers who saw it on a voyage to China. From there, it spread to countries that Spain had colonized in South America. When Jews in South America began emigrating to Israel, they brought their favorite Channukah dessert with them. So, in many ways, the churro is a delicious microcosm of Israel's rich and complex cultural landscape. Shaped like a tube and covered in sugar, it's typically filled with melted chocolate, jam, or dulce de leche. Many also dip their churros in these sauces separately.
"Oofganiot" from Rehov SumSum, Israel's version of Sesame Street
"8 days of donut madness" from ISRAEL21c
- Picture yourself at the shuk, shopping for a big Chanukkah meal with your family and friends. What do you see, smell, hear, feel, taste, touch, etc.?
- What types of foods trigger certain Jewish stories and memories for you? Describe these moments in detail.
- What are some holiday traditions that are a part of your family? How are these traditions passed down from one generation to the next?
- If you could make a sufganiyah that exemplifies who you are, what would it be like? What flavors, toppings, designs, flavors, etc. would be a part of it?
- Treasured Chanukkah Menorot of Early Israel: A Resource Guide
- Let There Be Light: Resources for Chanukkah
- Sufganiyot recipe from "The Foods of Israel Today" by Joan Nathan
- "Donut guy raises $10,000 for charity by eating sufganiyot" from ISRAEL21c
- "The 8 Best sufganiyot in Israel" from Haaretz
- "Top 8 things to do in Israel on the eight nights of Hanukkah" from ISRAEL21c
- Hanukkah at Home - A Resource Guide by Jewish LearningWorks