History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

Ice Cream, The Original American Hanukkah Dessert


One thing I like about Hanukkah is that it lasts for eight days. It’s hard to miss. That’s nice if you want to explore the surprising dessert history of the holiday in the United States in a timely manner but don’t want to get caught up in the hoopla around this year’s Thanksgivukkah. (Future cultural historians, may I note, are going to have a field day dissecting the historic holiday hullabaloo.)

Now when you think about Hanukkah food, dessert probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. My bet, whether you’re Jewish or not, is that you would be most familiar with latkes — potato pancakes fried in oil and served with applesauce, sour cream, or, preferably, both. If, like the earliest American Jews, you or your friends have Sephardic ancestry – with forebears whose roots lay in Iberia or other parts of the Mediterranean world – you may think of other fried foods including the Italian Jewish dessert of sweet squash fritters dusted with powdered sugar. And doughnuts might also come to mind. You would not think of ice cream. Hanukkah celebrations feature fried foods and ice cream is not (usually) fried.

Why fried foods? The holiday marks the Jewish people’s re-dedication of their sacred temple in Jerusalem in 164 B.C.E. Enemies had taken and violated the temple and they had prohibited Jews from worshipping their God. After several years, a group of Jewish rebels, known as Maccabees, fought back and retook the temple. To purify and re-dedicate the temple, the Maccabees wanted to burn oil in a menorah – the temple candelabra – for eight days, but had only enough oil for one night. Miraculously, however, the oil lasted for the full eight days. Fried foods eaten during Hanukkah commemorate the miracle.

So where does ice cream come into the story? The answer has to do with how Hanukkah became a major American Jewish holiday. In religious terms, Hanukkah is a minor holiday, and in most Jewish communities around the world, it is not especially important. In the United States, however, it has become a big holiday, as historian Dianne Ashton explains in a new book, Hanukkah in America.

In the mid to late nineteenth century, a time when there were no rabbinical schools in the country, American Jews were concerned about the fate of Judaism in the United States. Some looked to the Maccabees as role models for Jewish leaders. Meanwhile, American Christians were increasingly celebrating Christmas (a holiday not widely observed in America before the mid-1800s – more on that in the next few weeks). Reform Jewish leaders in Cincinnati, a center of German Jewish life, pushed for American Jews to celebrate Hanukkah and to do so in a way that put children at the heart of the holiday. Like their Christian peers, Jewish children would have a special winter celebration and one, the rabbis hoped, that would help them feel good about their heritage in the face of the anti-Semitism they too often encountered.

And the ice cream? The Cincinnati rabbis proposed that Hanukkah festivals feature, not only songs and candles, but also oranges and ice cream. Now that is inspirational leadership in my book.

Folks, Hanukkah ends when evening falls later today. That means there’s still time, whatever your beliefs, to observe this Jewish, but also deeply American holiday of both cultural continuity and adaptation, with a scoop of cold creamy goodness.

Happy Hanukkah!

6 thoughts on “Ice Cream, The Original American Hanukkah Dessert

  1. Great blog. Every time I open your blog I think it can’t be quite as creative as the last and I’m always wrong. You don’t disappoint. Love your style! kl

    Sent from my iPad

    On Dec 5, 2013, at 11:25 AM, History’s Just Desserts wrot

  2. Pingback: Jacquel Rassenworth bets on Hanukkah | The Jacquel Rassenworth Blog

  3. Great post Amanda. The confluence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah gave me much food for thought as well 😉 Having Hanukkah on Thanksgiving made Thanksgiving more special to me this year. Despite its celebration as a secular holiday, Thanksgiving’s origins in American culture are Christian, of course. Some of my Jewish friends in Canada don’t even celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving, because of their feeing that it’s a gentile holiday. I’ve never been aware of feeling that way before, but I noticed that I did feel excited by the spirit of “Thanksgivukkah.” All ridiculous, since I’m both an atheist and an expatriate, and by reason shouldn’t feel compelled by either holiday. But rituals transcend reason in their ability to compel emotions, and I have to admit to a certain amount of glee when I lit my homemade menurkey. Thanksgiving felt like a special Jewish holiday this year, and I enjoyed it, despite reason.

    • Thanks a lot, Rachel. I do think that, for the reasons you suggest, future historians will look at the trajectory from the “invention” of Hanukkah in the U.S. to the celebration of Thanksgivukkah and tell a fascinating story about the growth of American Jewish cultural confidence and sense of belonging. Your Parisian neighbors must have been truly perplexed by the menurky!

  4. Pingback: Mincemeat Pie: “Idolatrie in a Crust” | History's Just Desserts

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