ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
This holiday season, we're tracking down the origins of some favorite holiday traditions. Today, we're talking Hanukkah and jelly donuts. In Hebrew, they're called sufganiyot. Why do Jews eat them on Hanukkah?
RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
Our producer went to the Washington Jewish Community Center's Hanukkah party to ask around.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Hebrew).
SUAREZ: And 10-year-old Nathan Szubin had this answer.
NATHAN SZUBIN: Just like latkes, they're deep fried in oil to remind us about the miracle - how the oil lasted for eight nights instead of one.
SUAREZ: After the Jews drove the Greeks out of Jerusalem, they wanted to purify, rededicate the temple. And that required lighting the menorah. But there was only sufficient oil for the lamp to burn for one day. It ended up lasting for eight. The Jews called it a miracle.
SHAPIRO: So pastries fried in oil - but why the jelly filling? At the Hanukkah party, even the adults were stumped.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Regular donuts 'cause fried, but why jelly?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I got nothing.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I don't know that there's any reason for the jelly. But I could be wrong.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: No idea - but we could Google it.
SUAREZ: We could have Googled it. But instead we called up food historian Emelyn Rude. She says the tradition was first mentioned in the writings of a 12th century Spanish rabbi.
EMELYN RUDE: And he said, one must not make light of the custom of eating fried fritters. It is a custom of the ancient ones.
SUAREZ: Yep. That's the local rabbi admonishing people for complaining about having to eat fried food on Hanukkah.
SHAPIRO: So that's the 12th century. The jelly comes in later during the 16th century, when sugar became cheap and Europe experienced a pastry revolution. That's when Polish Jews started adding jelly to the doughnuts that they ate on Hanukkah.
RUDE: So eating fried delicious things on Hanukkah has been a tradition for centuries.
SUAREZ: But it wasn't until the creation of modern Israel that the tradition really took off. That's according to Jewish cookbook author Joan Nathan. Jewish leaders were trying to form a national identity. They were trying to come up with foods and traditions that were distinctly Israeli. And Nathan imagines those guys sitting around and just spitballing new customs, like sufganiyot. It means sponge because doughnuts soak up oil.
JOAN NATHAN: You select a name - sufganiyot or whatever you want to call it - and we will have the significance of it.
SHAPIRO: And that plan worked.
NATHAN: I really like doughnuts. Not as much as latkes, but I eat them a lot.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: I've already eaten one this morning.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Pretty good.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: It tastes just kind of like sugar.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: They stink up your house forever. But that's part of what we do.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED COLEMAN BAND SONG, "IF WE TOOK THE TIME")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.