Monday, May 27, 2024

Why Do We Eat Gelt for Hanukkah, Even If It’s Bad?

The first thing to know about chocolate Hanukkah gelt is that it’s not very good. The second thing to know is that it’s not supposed to be.

Gelt, like Hanukkah itself, is for children, small humans whose palates have yet to develop beyond an inborn preference for sweetness. When I was a child, I looked forward to gelt almost as much as I looked forward to Hanukkah gifts themselves. I loved opening the little net baggie that held the coins, and the ritual of peeling the gold or silver or blue foil off each piece. The flavor was more or less beside the point: It was sweet and tasted enough like Hershey’s, the end.

Sometimes my sister and I employed our gelt in games of dreidel, a wooden-top-based form of gambling in which both gelt and family harmony are won and lost with precipitous speed. But mostly we just ate it by the fistful because we could, reveling in our ignorance. As far as we knew, gelt was as old as Hanukkah itself, stocked at the Second Temple right alongside the miracle oil that burned for eight days. We — and frankly most people — had no idea that while there are varying theories about the origins of gelt, which is Yiddish for “money,” the chocolate coins themselves were first introduced in the 1920s.

This was part of the gradual reinvention of Hanukkah, a holiday that was more or less dismissed as irrelevant until the latter half of the 19th century, when a couple of Cincinnati rabbis began hosting a Hanukkah celebration to foster a stronger connection between children and the synagogue. This was a time of significant social and economic change in the U.S., and Christmas was also being refashioned as a major family-centric holiday. Hanukkah became something for Jews to do in December while other people were celebrating Christmas — and became, in the process, a way for them to feel more American. In 1880, a new wave of Eastern European Jewish immigrants began to arrive, and the holiday gained steam. By the 1920s, with more than 2 million Jews newly in the country, American candy companies saw an opportunity to capitalize. A new market for uncomplicated childhood pleasure was born.

One of the annoying things about growing up is its tendency to render those previously uncomplicated pleasures unacceptable, or at least sorely lacking, and so it went with me and gelt. What I had once viewed as a yearly delicacy now bore a not-insignificant resemblance to plastic in both texture and flavor. The craft chocolate boom of the aughts magnified this unfortunate similarity: As soon as I tasted my first 70 percent Askinosie bar, there was no going back.

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My mother, however, does not care about craft chocolate, or really anything else that might stand in the way of her adherence to this particular tradition. Each year, I tell her she doesn’t have to send me those little mesh baggies of gelt, and each year, she does it anyway. Every single one of the long-term boyfriends I’ve brought home as an adult has also received gelt from my mother, regardless of whether they happen to be Jewish. Acceptance in my family means a bag of gelt, and being prodded into the annual family photo where everyone always looks like they’ve just been caught stealing.

All of this gelt has wound up in the same place: a shelf in my pantry to accumulate and wizen. A year or so ago I decided to chop up the entire stockpile and mix it into cookie dough. Even embedded in the forgiving depths of a freshly baked cookie, it remained underwhelming.

There are, it should be said, higher-brow alternatives to the industrial-grade gelt I grew up eating. A decade or so ago, the artisanal food movement came for gelt, just as it did for other Jewish holiday foods like gefilte fish and matzo, and I was among those to celebrate its “lovingly handcrafted” makeover. I still have no issue with those who seek to make gelt a less waxy endeavor: Go forth and winnow those responsibly sourced cocoa beans. But also, don’t kill yourselves over it.

Because gelt’s resistance to improvement, no matter its delivery vehicle, is, in its own small way, comforting. You can do whatever you want to it, but it maintains its consistency, something that cannot be said about much of anything in life. As surely as the sun rises and sets, gelt will vaguely disappoint you.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about that last point as I attempt to articulate my feelings about gelt, a topic that doesn’t readily invite deep reflection. I had intended this to be a jokey essay about candy, which is not exactly a chore. But finding what to say, and how to say it, has taken much longer than I wanted or expected it to. Food is not written about in a vacuum; most often, it’s written about on a computer that also functions somewhat inconveniently as a 24-hour fire hose of news, opinions, and, of late, daily reminders that a lot of people do not like Jews. It is not lost on me that something as innocuous as gelt can be twisted into confirmation bias for those who enjoy nurturing stereotypes about Jews and finance: Look, even their holiday candy is money.

In this context, writing about gelt has assumed an unaccustomed weight. I still believe that gelt is not very good. But I also feel the need to protect it and, by extension, us. It’s a bit like making fun of a sibling: fine within the confines of family, not so fine when it’s coming from those outside of it.

So maybe the point is this: Gelt may not be very good, but it is ours, and in times when things have gotten dicey for the Jews, many of us have found strength and comfort in tradition and its accoutrements, even the ones that exist only because some candy companies saw a good opportunity a hundred years ago. Hanukkah is known as the Festival of Lights, and this designation will always make it relevant for me, particularly when the world feels impossibly dark. There is the literal light that comes from burning candles for eight consecutive December nights, yes. But I’ve also come to believe that there is light to be found in candy, and the sight of children happily gobbling it, and the insistence of parents on sending gelt to their ungrateful adult offspring, and in opening an envelope stuffed with little mesh baggies whose presence means that someone far away cares about you. And when you look at it this way, maybe gelt isn’t so bad after all.

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Tilda Rose is a Finnish American artist and illustrator working in editorial and children’s books.
Copy edited by CB Owens

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